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Group Exhibition
119 N. Peoria #2C, Chicago, IL 60607
October 28, 2011 - December 10, 2011

When the Wall Fell
by Steve Ruiz

Threewalls is no stranger to openness, social discourse, and politicial proposals. The exhibition space and organization behind it is founded on the first principle (there is no fourth wall), practices the second (as a non-profit organization with a democratic curatorial position), and ends up with the third, showing exhibitions such as "Voices from the Center," a narrative history of life under socialist government. However, as threewalls and other galleries and museums take the self-reflexive step of using discourse as discourse, and dive into the mirrored spiral of encouraging political discourse by curating exhibitions about political discourse featuring artists engaging in political discourse about political discourse, the escape is always into realism. As the story goes, the world rests on the back of a turtle. What does that turtle stand on? Another turtle. And if it really is turtles all the way down, tell me a story about one of the turtles.

The gesture of social recursion into reality isn’t unique to discussions of art, either. As we get better tools for communication and better ways to use them, all that technology and all those tools are doing a quicker and better job of enabling children, young adults and older adults to accept mutual espionage, to put down our binoculars, and come together in open discourse. Son, we need to talk about your interest in guns - I sold my .33 in '82 and have wanted a reason to get back to the range ever since. Dad, I do not judge you on your taste in pornography - but will you raise my allowance if I teach you to get it for free?

But to unpack the matryoshka dolls from the start: if we can agree that we're talking, then we’re having social discourse, and if we’re in a democracy then we're having political discourse, and if we're talking social-political discourse then now we're talking social politics - and at this point, please, when we get to talking about socialism and what that means, hold my hand and speak slowly: when the Berlin Wall came down, I was in Chicago and three years old.


Installation view of "Voices from the Center" at threewalls. Image courtesy of threewalls. Photo by Claire Britt. 


Now I'm in Chicago and twenty-five years old and am part of something new: the overt politics of discourse, both on the street and in the museums and in the galleries, and a lack of political subtlety  seems radical only because of what came before it. The pop-cultural doublespeak of American media is losing its refuge to implicit analysis: if you want to Lie to Me, you're going to have to Talk to Me, and you're going to have to risk the chance that I'll understand what you're saying. So why be subtle? If you're being ignored, show up and don't leave and admit your new job as an unemployed person is to help people deal with your existence. If you're a social media analyst, just admit you're helping people talk to each other. If you're an open source collaboration start-up entrepreneur, just admit you're helping people work together. If you're an artist trying to make a mirror to society, then fuck it - build a big curvy mirror and admit you're helping people find their place in society. And if you're a patron or corporation giving money to an artist, then please share the shrug, join the circle and admit you're helping people help you find your place in society.

When the Wall fell I was three years old, when I was nine I played with radios and when I was ten we got the internet. I never knew what it meant to be ten years old and be unable to talk to people three times my age about whatever I wanted, or to read fascist literature and communist literature casually and at the same time, or if I wanted, watch people being born or having sex or committing suicide or beheading each other. I would see every side of every contemporary policy debate passionately defended. I would argue from a position of obvious ignorance because I grew up thinking that my view, however far from center, would work to center the debate; no matter the topic or community, I knew I'd do the most harm by keeping quiet. Not only was there no Wall, I wasn't even aware of what that Wall meant. For another six years I wasn't even aware of the possibility of walls, and only now am I starting to learn what walls do to art.


Installation view of "Voices from the Center" at threewalls. Image courtesy of threewalls. Photo by Claire Britt. 


My roommate’s name is Michael and he left a book here on the table and the title is Marxism: For and Against. Its dedication reads "For my colleagues and students," which I suppose brings me back to the problem of anti-social discourse and why exhibitions like “Voices from the Center” are only a tentative step in the right direction.

While critical to understanding the social implications of social politics, and especially the inversion of safety in numbers, these exhibitions still suffer (however minimally) from the safety of isolation: in America, we were pure in isolation, safe in private, vulnerable in public, productive when the rules and roles have been clearly agreed upon, and effective against a common enemy. Now we seem to view isolation as pejorative, embrace the safety of crowds, thrill at the knowledge of the commons, work best with strangers on the internet in the company of other strangers at cafes; but we still recoil at any suspicion of privacy or remediation of content or common ownership of ideas. We resist interpretation and cling to modernist notions of individuality, expertise, esotericism, and private excellence; we reject socialization but insist on society. The structures of Europe's socialist past give me few perfect examples, and its history gives me even fewer heroes, but the stories of the people on the other side, such as those brought together by Janeil Engelstad, are different.

The stories are not familiar because we’re doing things differently this time. However, through these subjective narratives, as here appreciably presented under the glass-is-half-full umbrella of contemporary art, we are given a comparative lens through which to view our own subjective experiences, examine our own contemporary history, and get some idea of what we're doing and where we’re going.


Steve Ruiz, ArtSlant Staff Writer

Posted by Steve Ruiz on 11/28/11 | tags: discourse Political

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