History, it is said, is written by the victors. But consider who they were and the probability that the annals of human experience have been accurately recorded becomes mired in doubt. Maniacal emperors, murderous zealots, and despotic psychopaths have connived their way to power for millennia. Even those rulers who were moderate or beloved were not immune to vaingloriously tilting the scales of perpetuity in favor of their accomplishments, or those of their favorites, for that is human nature.
And what of the vanquished? What of their stories: those who were present, who contributed, but were suppressed: the talented but disconnected, the brilliant but bypassed? For every Telford, Hume, or Watt inscribed for eternity as the discoverer of this or the inventor of that, how many more will we never know, who were just as close, no less visionary, but lacked the glint of timing, the benefactors, or the fateful stroke of fortune?
And so it is in the field of art where we are prescribed by those in power, the proletariat’s tidy cultural diet of laws, from which we mustn’t err for fear of being thought the ignorant carriers of aesthetic pestilence. In a perverse and reverse alchemy, art history is written around the golden careers of certain artists who are promoted as shorthand motifs for various styles, eras, or movements, with all others edited out or retained as footnotes, orbiting dust in the dark peripheral clouds of obscurity.
...at some point someone would have dripped and poured their way to renown in place of Pollock...
Imagine that Picasso, Pollock, Rauschenberg, Stella, or Rothko had not lived. Were they the only ones doing what they did with paint? Geniuses? A ludicrous assertion; they and all others of canonical repute were simply…there. Noted by a gallerist, hinted at in a review, or assisted by a supporter. Picasso and Braque were not included in the first exhibition of Cubist work at the 1911 Salon des Indépendants, but they are considered the founders of the style. Sometimes politics, nepotism, race, sexism, or geography are factors, so that for every Jacques Louis David there are many more unknown Gabrielle Capets; for every Andy Warhol, there is a Carol Rama and dozens like her whom we may never know, as the painter Annie Kevansexplores in her work.
The most famous artists known to us are so because the public has been deluded into believing that they were unique, by the unrelenting process of mythologization which roils around them, furiously maintained by collectors, auctions, retrospectives, museums, and critics. Art history may have had different players, alternative firsts, but at some point someone would have dripped and poured their way to renown in place of Pollock—it was hardly nuclear fusion—as every artist we are aware of today would have had their replacements. The names don’t matter; it’s the sociopathic recording of so few of them for easy posterity, and for commerce, that does.
That process continues unabated as art world influencers promote the arrant nonsense that star artists are uniquely important, not because they are—no artist is, or ever was—but because too much has been invested in them to permit any other reading. The art world’s Stasi mustn't allow its house of cards to collapse.
Such critical fascism is dangerous because it denies the true representationof what is actually happening in any given period, and prevents more reasoned and fuller discussion of a greater number of artists. It also petrifies contemporary art discourse within either the carcasses of a few artists who are long dead—whether literally or creatively—or the rising suns of younger, often, mediocre artists, swaddled in the invisible new clothes of their galleries’ press machines.
One of 12 pieces from Richard Serra's Sequence arriving at SFMOMA. Photo: Aaron Muszalski
Of the former, such oxygen thievery is exemplified by Richard Serra and the ubiquity of his titanic manufacturing conglomerate. Nary does this McDonald’s of the art world miss an opportunity to dictatorially stomp his jurassic footprint across the globe on the grounds of any museum that will house one of his insufferable metal tantrums. Concurrently the slobbering industry around him—headed by Zwirner and Gagosian—proceeds with a napalming program of international exhibitions and unnecessary retrospectives that do little more than highlight the utter bankruptcy and irrelevance of his work in 2016, while frantically beating the expired horse into one more hopeful critical shiver. The staggering arrogance and incomprehensible expense of his output beggars belief, but no doubt the money involved in the Serra industry will ensure that it survives. Imagine the vast spaces—literal and critical—that would yawn open to interesting, lesser or unknown artists if he were consigned to history’s scrapyard. No amount of scouring could produce anything of note to write or discuss about him that hasn’t been said, other than this suggestion. And business is brisk: the new San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has predictably calcified itself with a 214-ton Serra colossus, touted only by its measurements and stats. With Serra’s output accompanied by fawning press releases in the New York Times declaring him “certainly today’s greatest living sculptor of Minimalist abstraction,” is anyone even considering alternatives?
Felix Gonzales-Torres, Installation view of Specific Objects without Specific Form, Wiels, Brussels, February 2010. Photo: Marc Wathieu
Felix Gonzales-Torres is an example of how one person’s disproportionate presence as a go-to motif for a particular moment suffocates the reputations of equally deserving artists. As the Princess Diana of art he will never grow old, his work will not decline, his oeuvre redacted to perfection. Given what the art press, and the gatekeepers of his legacy have decreed of his talent one might be forgiven for thinking that artists stopped living with HIV, or reflecting upon its influence, immediately after his death in 1992, such is the dearth of coverage on the subject since. Gonzales-Torres’ cultish disciples have successfully positioned him as a one-man industry with a monopoly on deathly sympathies, trauma and romantic loss. From his feathered position at the De La Cruz Foundation to his crass, corrupt selection as the United States posthumous representative at Venice in 2007, his reputation has been burnished and distorted beyond all reason. How did anyone living know how he would have wanted his work represented at Venice? He was a fine artist, but not more deserving than many others working in a similar vein, or of lesser privilege. His works were simply better connected. How many are as familiar with the work of John Wilcox, who lived long after his diagnosis, until 2012? How interesting to know where the story went for artist chroniclers like him who survived beyond the holocaust of eighties New York. But perhaps survival isn’t tragic or melancholy enough? Similarly, Robert Blanchon’s work is as elegiac, heartbreaking and potent as Gonzalez Torres’. Both Wilcox and Blanchon were contemporaries of at least commensurate perception yet they remain woefully under known. And today, who is aware of the vital intergenerational resource that is Visual AIDS, where younger artists living with today’s HIV-related challenges are forging new ideas?
Jeff Koons, Tulips, 1995–2004. Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao. Photo: Andrea Alessi
And on it goes; tired relics retain bloated art world real estate, from column inches to floorspace. If you like words, Barbara Kruger or Jenny Holzer are still obscenely, the textual standard, despite all these new artists; see those Faberge Follies Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst for outdated ostentation and pointless pop trinkets that no other artists producers could afford to make. For a refutation of such opulence note the gesture of British artist K Yoland who walked out of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas with half a million dollars, impressive and useless, shredded as they were.
Note Marina Abramovic for media saturation and Jersey Shore-style star-gazing antics in performance art. If all performance artists were required by law to see Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, the discipline would be less populated and better for it. Richard Prince’s primary auction activity comes in the form of desperate bids for attention through stealing from younger artists; Rachel Whiteread still casts space emptier than her ideas. Last year at Luring Augustine, the gallery was “pleased”—not excited—to present her show Looking In. We might look to Rob Mulholland’s Cloud Catcher, or “Lana Newstrom,” for some fresh thought, especially considering that the latter artist herself was cast in empty space. See Cindy Sherman if you are James Franco, Pace Gallery, or you like masked portraiture rendered obsolete by every enhanced selfie on the internet.
Ai Wei Wei garners continued accolades as the art world’s biggest victim—despite stiff competition from Tania Bruguera, who at least is aware of her privilege. Is it brave of her to protest in Cuba as politics and normalizing relations with the west overtake her? Meanwhile, lesser funded, more vulnerable artists attempt to fight government abuses unheralded, and often die for it with Pyotr Pavlensky, Kais al-Hilali, Nour Hatem Zahra, and Voina among them. In their seriousness and anguish such activists do rather expose Banksy’s artistic wardrobe as all fur coat and no knickers.
Still other artists are promoted as stand ins for their race or cultural background at the expense of critical rigor. After the precision, wit, and social surgery of David Hammons and William Pope.L, today the hackneyed use of racialized sexual clichés by Kehinde Wiley and Kara Walker are still overly revered, as well as the art world’s slavish adoration of the latter and hypersensitivity on her behalf. Of the newer generation, it is to be hoped that interesting artists such as Sam Vernon and Allison Janae Hamilton will have careers as illustrious as Jacolby Satterwhite’s.
A reason for younger artists being whipped up by the maelstrom even though the work lacks, is that they are perceived as embodying rebelliousness, or social cache, or prodding controversy—the vacuous Terence Koh, or Dash Snow and their ilk for example, mere flecks in comparison to the substantive William Mortensen, or even Wolfgang Tillmans. Galleries are always looking for the new, the next rising sun, and quality is secondary. Here, Dan Colen is of note. His career with Gagosian Gallery began in the toilets there, where he first showed his work. The only pity is that it found a way out. His current exhibition at Dallas Contemporary is a rueful example of how effective a big name gallery can be in presenting visual gibberish as worthwhile art. Colen offers three groups of totally unrelated paintings: the first made with gum; the second consists—without apparent irony—of garbage; and the third is a group of paintings derived from Disney’s Fantasia. This schizophrenic display seems to be made by three separate artists, and intrigues as to how many painterly personalities Colen needs? As one guest at the opening commented, “how can he be trusted?” And yet, the stage magician-ship of press and promotion is how people gain traction, market value, and a veneer of legitimacy that sets them on the road to historical resonance. If he is aware of such smoke and mirrors Colen’s usurping of Disney’s fantasy is quite smart. Currently Dallas Contemporary’s series of exhibitions—including one by a fashion designer—constitutes nothing more than a billionaire’s showroom, as the bewildered institution stumbles ahead in its process of artistic falsification. It is an appalling and financially motivated debacle that the board should be ashamed of, not least for the traitorous disloyalty they show to Dallas artists, in presenting such a cynical set of exhibitions as culturally valuable.
Luhring Augustine describes Josh Smith as being “distinguished” by his “mastery of multiple mediums.” Upon viewing, Smith’s drooling mark-making and painterly drivel exposes this online biographical marketing tool for the outrageous lie that it is. What arrogance is it that imagines such literary lunacy to be effective in the face of stubborn evidence to the contrary? And yet, seemingly, it is working. Smith has a career that most artists won’t know. It is to be marveled at whether gallery or artist have even a twinge of discomfort at peddling such Trumpian fraudulence. So many are the superior alternatives for those whose work ought to get such exposure that it is meaningless to mull over, but the English painter Jo Wilmot’s complex union of bold yet nuanced color, seen in works of knowing, tropical decadence, and faded glitz are a solitary example of the general style.
The totalitarian propagandizing of art history to the benefit of so few leaves out, and behind, too many more.
This cavalcade of examples whether well-known names of yesteryear constantly rammed down the throat of the collective viewership as being unquestionably vital to understanding art, or newer artists churned out and disproportionately promoted beyond their talent, the totalitarian propagandizing of art history to the benefit of so few leaves out, and behind, too many more. Of course there will never be room for all those deserving of exposure. Taste is mercurial as to defining who they are, and occasionally artists who enhance social dialogue do find their way to attention among the fray of powerbrokers’ agendas. But otherwise it is time to switch off the life support of exhausted careers, to render established names arrested and to engage in expansive research of as many practitioners as possible who are working today, so that in the future a more honest bathymetry of what artists are doing, and saying, in the early twenty-first century might be recorded.
Sam Rolfes makes work that feels like it appeared through a wormhole from another dimension. He reveals a parallel universe that is both unnervingly familiar and utterly alien. Recognizable, organic shapes and textures morph, mutate, and melt into living, breathing organisms born of flesh and technology. Rolfes is one of the few artists working with 3D software to use it in a way that is genuinely unique. He firmly rejects all of the sculptural tropes and clichés that are usually associated with the form. There is an uncommon painterly beauty to his work that gives it an unexpectedly emotional and unsettling resonance.
I spoke to Rolfes about recent projects as well as the origins of, and influences on, his unique aesthetic.
Christian Petersen: How did you first become interesting in using a computer to make art?
Sam Rofles: As I'd imagine with most people, it was mostly just a matter of the computer being the most available thing at hand when I was young. My mother was and is a designer/developer so we had Macromedia Flash and Corel Photo-Paint laying around on the big tower PC we had in her office, and out of boredom when I was something like 8 or 9 I started teaching myself to use those programs to kludge together logos, comics, violent stick figure animations, etc. and began experimenting with Blender for a short amount of time until I gave up on wireframe meshes being too inexpressive and boring to bother sticking with. I still kinda feel that way.
CP: Were there specific formative influences?
SR: Dirtstyle Skratch dj records with xeroxed graff writer scrawl margins; climbing into burnt-out grain silos and semi collapsed houses in Texan ghost towns to paint ugly characters on the walls with my friends; pining after a faded Dallas hip hop scene at graffiti jams in suburban parks; Jet Set Radio; burlesque figure drawing classes (haha). I got submerged past my nose in those scenes, and after seeing many of them buckle and collapse, I’ve been running away from my direct influences for years to attempt to cultivate something more nuanced and individual than just being the logical progression from all that. I'm probably deluding myself through.
CP: Your work has a living, organic quality. Is it a challenge to create that digitally?
SR: It’s only a challenge in searching out the tools that accomplish the vision I’m trying to execute—there’s a very particular set of goals I’ve been obsessed with when it comes to making imagery: performative, figurative, sensual, upsetting, responsive things that only a few platforms can kind of do properly. Lately, the challenge is becoming actually figuring out how to stitch all the tech and logistics together, somehow learn it all and pay for it by the deadline and under the budget. It's more crucial that the essence of the platform fits those principles than it, like, does shiny renders really well or something.
CP: Why is it important to you to achieve that?
SR: It’s mostly a function of viscerality—if you’ve ever been to an intense music show and had the shit beaten out of you and felt like your insides were torn to shreds (figuratively), and come out the other end born again, it’s a deeply affecting thing that I’m trying to approximate. The obsession with skin and organic forms partially stemmed from my background as a portrait painter that used a wide range of oil media, solvents, and other liquids to approximate the depth and ruddy complex beauty of the substance wrapped around us. That, and a religious upbringing that challenged the reality of the body left me, I think, with an unusual fixation on it.
It’s also just a relatable touch point for an audience to grab onto—something that deals with the body in a very physical and tangible way. Plus, for whatever reason, people go completely mouth frothy over pink gooey things, to a point that kinda annoys me honestly. If I had the stomach to just make hollow gooey eye candy for the rest of my life and cash that check I could probably make career strides faster than I have been. Some might say that’s what I’m already doing, but I think there’s a level of nuance that my best projects attain that the random goo shots don’t, and I prefer those.
CP: Would you say your work is analogous with the concept of “body horror”? Do you feel an affinity with people like Chris Cunningham and David Cronenberg?
SR: That whole body horror thing is actually an issue for me; I’m rarely trying to gross people out or be overtly gory—it’s just that when you use the body as a mark-making medium and contort it as an artistic device, that visceral connection people have to it that I mentioned comes into play and the result is something that some label as scary or intentionally horrific.
I’m not gonna sit here and front that Cunningham wasn’t a big influence early on, because he was—but I shy away from that comparison because I think we approach the use of the body differently. I wish I had a different way of putting it because it’s completely insufferable, but at this point my influences are structured like dispersed scattershot mood boards; just wide swaths of images and film and literature that I’m trying to pull from rather than sitting within the echo chamber of the art world. Lately I’ve been trying to dig into film editing, framing, and storytelling in literature to give some of the projects I’m pitching right now more depth and substance than being an extended .gif orgy.
CP: What are your current biggest aesthetic influences?
SR: I'd say lately I've been really fixated on everything animated by Masaaki Yuasa—the frenetic editing, insane stylistic jumps, approach to relationships, and intimacy of the human form in each of his films and shows left a big mark on me.
CP: You recently collaborated with the fashion label Nicopanda. How was that experience?
SR: Yeah all of a sudden I’ve fallen into the fashion world and I’ve been breathing that air for a while and feeling it out—it’s partially what you'd expect, but it’s also packed with severely passionate, talented and fascinating, if sometimes contrived, people who approach visuality, performance, promotion, and commerce in an entirely refreshing way from the art world’s facade of purity.
My collaborations with Nicopanda this year on fabric print design and promo design for their SS16, PF16, and FW16 seasons have been a pretty transformative experience; it's unlocked a completely new community with its own principles and processes that has made me reconsider a lot of my own.
Also they're killing it right now so it’s pretty rewarding to be a small part of that.
from Limp Body Beat
CP: You also collaborated with developer/artist Lars Berg on Limp Body Beat, a very popular (and defiantly experimental) visual music creation tool for Adult Swim Games. How did that come about?
SR: Well, I lucked into getting on their radar and started pitching a bunch (haha)—less romantic of a start than my initiation with Nicopanda but still very positive.
Limp Body Beat was my first foray into attempting to harmonize some of these different practices I've been messing with for so long. It's basically a drum sequencer, which is traditionally a 2D grid that you can click on and off to setup drum rhythms, but expanded into a 3D space and using slapstick ragdoll figures flinging violently into things as the actual percussive part of the instrument. Part novel music experiment, part art project, and something I plan to keep exploring in the future.
CP: What are your views on the current state of new media art in general?
SR: (Haha) I see where you’re leading me with this—it’s a little hard for me to say honestly because I pay less attention to that very specific scene anymore. We’re referring to a niche community of academically-leaning digital artists that gets passed around on a bunch of niche shows and generally hooks each other up, but I don’t really see anything different happening from the last few years that I can tell, outside of a few really solid animators and experimental game makers getting coronated by the bigger media companies.
To be frank, I’d like to think that the current state of new media art is slowly getting the hell out of the regimented art world and moving into anything that doesn’t purport to have its ideal environment be a white box. I'm sure it already has, and the academics are just starting to catch up.
We run an online magazine, so of course, we're interested in what's happening with art on the web. We invited online gallerist, founder, and curator of Digital Sweat Gallery, Christian Petersen, to write a bi-monthly column for us. Every other Wednesday he'll be selecting a Web Artist of the Week.
Film festivals are increasingly viable platforms for film and video artists to show their work, and much attention has been drawn recently to the developing trends of both visual artists working in film and filmmakers exhibiting and selling work in galleries. If the negotiation between these two worlds needs careful brokering to assure mutually beneficial symbiosis, then the interests of experimental film will find no better representation than that offered by the 2016 Oberhausen Short Film Festival.
The festival’s 62nd edition, held May 5 through 10, presented the institution’s first exhibition of non-moving image work in a gallery environment, offering an experimental platform where the meeting of these worlds could be further examined.
Of course, there’s always been crossover between art and film—indeed, the results have been seen in short films and programming at Oberhausen in the past—but what sort of work would the festival’s first white cube exhibition feature? Would the inclusion of a gallery environment operate as a Trojan horse sent from the art world, affecting the way work is chosen and presented at future festivals?
Alarmists need not have worried. The festival did not cede territory to gallery culture or the art world. Nor was the exhibition a referendum on, or interrogation of, the position of the fine arts within film—or vice versa. Rather, curated by the artists themselves, the exhibition functioned as a productive medium that acknowledged the fluid, creative spaces art and film practitioners operate within today. The artworks were not simply still images, plucked from a film to be sold as discrete objects—another item for the gallery to monetize. Instead, the presentation revealed process—filmic and otherwise—showing how object and material-based film practices can be, and opened onto the fundamental questions about narrative structures, aura, remixing, and even what a completed or “finished” artwork is or can be.
The exhibition was located in Zentrum Altenberg, an industrial site that had been developed into a cultural center some years ago. The vast, airy space was occupied by two visual artist filmmakers, Josef Dabernig and Sun Xun, who were featured in the festival’s Profiles sector—a special programming sector that includes screenings of multiple works, and in the case of Dabernig and Sun, a presentation of still artwork.
Sun Xun, Magician Party and Dead Crow, 2013. Courtesy: 62nd International Short Film Festival Oberhausen
Sun Xun: Bringing the gallery into the film
Sun Xun describes himself as visual artist rather than an animator or filmmaker and this wasn’t the first work where he’s explored the incorporation of gallery work into film—or film work into a gallery.
The film Magician Party and Dead Crow (2013), shown at Oberhausen, is partly a document of a multimedia event in ShanghArt Gallery's Beijing space. The exhibition space was totally filled with props and overrun with giant puppet-like sculptures animated and brought to life by his team; the film creates the impression of his animated films expanding into installation.
"Myself and my team lived inside the space for six months" he said of the ShanghArt experience, "and changed the white box into the theatre."
His work for the Oberhausen exhibition was also created in-situ, referring directly to its environment. One huge painted image depicts a turbine that sits rusting just outside the post-industrial space. Local newspapers were crushed into balls that fill a whole corner of the gallery. This appears to be an ongoing process for Sun: he creates material—woodcut work and 3D elements are recent developments—that feed into film, then returns the filmic into the installation. At a festival Q&A he said, “the job of animation is very boring—you need to keep changing things or you’ll become a slave.”
The exhibition demonstrated Sun’s approach and offered an opportunity to step inside his process. If he believes the magician, a reoccurring character in his work, is a liar then there appears to be much effort on his part to lay open his own process. Indeed, distinguishing the relics of his process from any resulting final object proves difficult.
Everything is a sketch for something yet to come; Sun’s practice is less linear than traditional paradigms of art or film production. Origins become lost and, it seems intentionally, clear histories and provenances become subverted. “It's like the famous game,” he said, “stories go from the beginning to the end and become totally, totally changed—history is also like this. It's his-story, not the truth.”
Xun Sun, Installation view of Josef Dabernig & Sun Xun, exhibition at Zentrum Altenberg, Oberhausen, 2016, 62nd International Short Film Festival Oberhausen. Photo: the author. Courtesy of the artist
Also striking about Sun’s exhibition, perhaps more then any critique of gallery-based convention, is the impact it may have on the way his screened films were viewed and experienced. The pathway of the short filmmaker can be solitary, that of the animator is deeply isolationist. Sun’s practice of making the gallery space his animation studio, as seen in Magician Party and Dead Crow and at Oberhausen, opens up that process not just in a sort of open-studio day sense but as something akin to the live feedback of video used by early video artists. It offered the chance for visitors to step into the creative loop and to view it from inside.
The impact of this may be more radical than it seems. The material of the white cube becomes also the material of film. The production of the art object is demystified as it is incorporated into a continuous happening without start or end.
Josef Dabernig: The remix and the aura
Austrian filmmaker Josef Dabernig has been making films since 1994. For the exhibition he installed series of still photographic prints shot as preparatory images in preproduction for films, some of which were featured in his Profiles film program. They accurately depict much of the mise-en-scène of the corresponding films, but on the gallery wall, their structure and narrative were reinterpreted, perhaps even deviating from their original intended meaning.
His foregoing of the original narrative and opening up of the material is more daring than first meets the eye; this isn’t so much a “director’s cut”as a potential undermining of the original work’s integrity—by the artist himself. It suggests that thefinished piece is still open to negotiation.
Dabernig described his series of images as “a quasi-text. A text [free] of semantic, however, referring to the structural implications of the filmic form.” This repurposing of filmic artifacts within a new context raises an interesting question underlying any crossover from film to gallery object: what to bring and what to leave behind? Formally, his simulation of the filmstrip could be interpreted as a somewhat on-the-nose, visual reference to “filmic form” that might not have needed reiteration. Yet they seem like remnants generated while transferring material between two positions. The iconography of the filmic process leaves an indelible mark on the material. It might be interesting to view these works alongside other artists’ attempts to express film in the gallery space, such as Fiona Banner's Apocolypse Now (1997) or Douglas Gordon's 24 Hour Psycho (1993), works that question what is essential to the filmic form.
Josef Dabernig, Jogging, 2000, 35mm, Farbe, 11 min. Courtesy of the artist
For Dabernig we see a part of his process of planning and structure. When I asked him why he still used 16mm film and a professional cinematographer/camera operator he said he could afford to because of his process. He described a system where every shot was planned in advance to the extent that the shooting becomes methodical and doesn't run the risk of overshooting or exceeding budget. Some of the still images faithfully represent compositions and camera angles in the final film, but were not actually filmed until a year later. For Jogging (2000) Dabernig took 35mm photographs of stray dogs living around the San Nicola-Stadium in Bari, Italy, one of which he later decided would be the onscreen representation of himself, a sort of selected familiar. It was a year before he returned with his cameraman. "I was a worried he might not be there anymore," Dabernig said, but luckily stray dogs seem as much creatures of habit as filmmakers. They found the mutt sat in exactly the same spot as he had a year previously.
Like the stray dogs of Bari, or Sun's description of history, works such as these wander the garden along forked paths. They break away as sketches, spin-offs, remixes, but find their own momentum, sometimes travelling in lockstep with their source, sometimes overtaking, diverting, superceding.
Within mainstream film, and now, quite notably, television, disparities between preconceived values— the movie adaptation of the novel, novelizations and video game versions of movies, movie versions of video games—continue to break down. What might have been considered derivative or inferior is now often awarded the same value as that which preceded it.
Remixing does occur to an extent in artists’ film and video. Grahame Weinbrun and Roberta Friedman's Post Future Past Perfect (1978/2004) was shot on 16mm film and reinterpreted via digital transfer and interaction some 26 years later. John Smith's Regression (1999) was a remaking of a film also first made in 1978. But these works are about time and process, and reflect development of the original concept, rather than an opening up to reinterpretation.
For a medium born out of the age of mechanical reproducibility, artists’ film and video could be said to remain somewhat precious, protective of its own authenticity and integrity. The cut negative or the video master, traditionally never see the light of day, remaining in the archive experiencing only the gloved hands of the technician, the electric light of the printer or scanner.
It is hard to imagine that the gallery space has anything to truly offer or teach film in this area and yet the exhibiton at Oberhausen does seem to expand the works and offer new and interesting interpretations of screened films.
Josef Dabernig, Installation view of Josef Dabernig & Sun Xun, exhibition at Zentrum Altenberg, Oberhausen, 2016, 62nd International Short Film Festival Oberhausen. Photo: the author. Courtesy of the artist
Sun and Dabernig’s images are at once autonomous artworks, preparatory works, and remnant artifacts, represented in cinematographic terms, both pre- and post-production. Is this work a sort of ectoplasmic residue left on the wall when the flickering magic has ended and lights have been switched back on? Within mainstream cinema, items associated with celebrated productions are considered to have a near auratic value drawing not on the item’s producer or handler but seemingly just evidence of something that has made transition from the world captured on the recording media into the physical. A quick look at movie prop websites reveal an airline ticket prop made for Fight Club (1999) listed at five hundred dollars, a filthy looking stretcher used in Fury (2014) for roughly the same money. These are examples of star-driven productions, that involve another source of aura, but there is also a sense of authenticity, a qualitative value awarded because they are items that exist in two separate worlds. Of course, collecting, fandom, and memorabilia are aspects of another culture, but there are some parallels and similarities.
In creating an exhibition that explores material that passes into, through, and out of the film gate—the screen—the artists have raised questions about where the process begins or ends: at which point is any sense of the finished work located?
A Curator-Free Zone
The exhibition had no curator, perhaps not just because that somehow weather-proofed it against the any perceived osmosis of art world culture, but also because it was equally about establishing a connection between working processes and the films shown as it was about the objects on display. If the art world came to Oberhausen as a Trojan horse, the stable boys would remain behind. The artist-filmmakers selected and assembled their own work, displayed it and then directly presented it, often in person, to the visitors. It suggested the possibility that in the merging of art and film practices there remained the potential for film to state its own terms, to find what’s best for itself rather than every film simply defaulting to being just another saleable art object.
Oberhausen Director Lars Henrik Gass told me that “there is no curatorial logic between the artists or works presented. There is, if you like, curatorial logic in how they refer to the film programs we have dedicated to them.” The absence of wall texts or titles, accompanying texts or documents, save a rudimentary layout diagram of Dabernig’s stills, makes one wonder if there isn’t reason to think this was a case of film subverting the art world rather than vice versa.
Short film may not necessarily require curators, when the film-programmers have managed that task for so long, but it continues to require support and care. Gass told me, “it is important to have places not previously defined, in a role, in a specific social system, where names, rankings, and values are already established in either the film business or the art world. A place in which you can see and experience things, works, art—in different way.”
(Image at top: Xun Sun, Installation view of Josef Dabernig & Sun Xun, exhibition at Zentrum Altenberg, Oberhausen, 2016, 62nd International Short Film Festival Oberhausen. Photo: the author. Courtesy of the artist)
This interview was originally published on ARTS.BLACK, a journal of art criticism from Black perspectives.
Tiff Massey, a Detroit-based metalsmith artist, has been a pioneering figure in Detroit’s contemporary arts community in recent years. Massey, one of the few, if not only Black female metalsmith artists in the city, was awarded the Kresge Visual Artist Fellowshipin 2015. In the same year, she garnered the support of the Knight Foundation to implement a one-month residency program for national and international metalsmith artists, and is now gathering matching funds to make this a reality in the city. A Cranbrook Academy Alum, and Detroiter, born and bred, she is known for creating metal work—hand, and neck jewelry—reminiscent of the large gold jewelry hip hop artists used to wear in the 1980s. She also creates large-scale public installations, that you can find throughout the city.
My first interaction with Massey was not necessarily a warm one. Similar to the hard dark exterior metal pieces she creates, Massey is stoic and hardly affable unless she considers you a close acquaintance. She and I met shortly after I moved back to Detroit in 2014. I came back aware of all of the disparities and appropriating happening in the city, but unable to speak first hand to the things that had happened while I was away for several years. Massey, along with other artists who have stayed in Detroit, have watched people come and go over the past several years to use the “new Detroit” brand to their benefit, much to the exclusion of the greater Detroit (arts) community.
Massey and I found ourselves in some debates shortly after meeting. In retrospect, I believe she wanted to see if I was returning to Detroit with an agenda, much like the people who visit for a short period of time to appropriate the City’s brand and despair. I knew why I came back home and it wasn’t to co-opt the city for personal gain and then leave. So, it was puzzling to me that I, a born and bred Detroiter, could be looked upon as a gentrifier of my own city. While I never agreed with Massey, it made me consider the intentions around my role in engaging and working in this “new Detroit.” Even as a native of a city, you could easily become a fixture in gentrification, if you are not sincere in engaging with the existing community.
For some time, I have wanted to talk with Massey unguarded, to discuss her experiences as an artist in the Detroit proper, specifically during the years that I was been away. I think Massey and I are both in very unique positions as minorities in our respective industries, and I was interested in exploring this commonality. It’s now been well over a year since our first encounter, and I think we have moved beyond that space of speculative acquaintances to allies. A few weeks ago, we sat down and had an unfiltered conversation at my local coffee shop, to discuss socio-politics in Detroit, '80s bling, and Massey’s rigorous art practice.
Taylor Renee Aldridge: Who are some of the artists in Detroit that have informed your artistic practice?
Tiff Massey: Iris Eichenberg informed my artistic practice. She exposed me to the world of contemporary art jewelry and has helped shape the way I use and view materiality. Richard Bennett showed me that through metalsmithing you can have longevity. Nick Cave is influential in how I aspire in my creative practice to move and travel. The scale and the community involvement imbedded in his projects left lasting impressions. All of these experiences have shaped the way my creative practice operates and all of this has happened in Detroit.
Photograph of Tiff Massey. Courtesy of the artist
TRA: I recall you mentioning that you were the first Black woman to graduate from Cranbrook's metal department. Can you tell me about this pioneering experience and how that influenced your perspective of the greater art industry?
TM: My experience at Cranbrook was enlightening and very informative to my practice. Cranbrook was a defining moment in my life. It’s where I discovered my creative language and I realized I was no longer limited to body-jewelry. I could make everything. To me that’s powerful and with that power I hope to share with the world on a larger scale, hence the sculpture. Yes, as far as I know I am the first Black woman to graduate from the metals department. In this experience I knew it was important that my story was told from the medium in which I choose to translate my ideas and to the fine art world.
TRA: I’m curious about your studio process, which as a metalsmith artist, can be quite labor intensive. Do you like working in solitude? What inspires your creative process most?
TM: Color has been a big thing in my previous work and I just started to totally take it away and just concentrate on the form, and more on the color Black. I’ve been particularly working on Black and Blackness, signifiers of Black, and materials that suggest Blackness. It’s really nice and refreshing to experiment and write down visually what it is I’m trying to convey to my audience. I keep going back and forth to the use of the mirror, the cameo, this oval shape [points to massive rings on her fingers], and these distortions within the reflections which are ongoing themes with how the audience is included in the work. There’s this distortion of history, distortions of Blackness. So I’m adding all these elements together, and whoever the viewer is will also be incorporated in the work.
Right now, [my practice is] pretty much deadline driven. I haven't, for a while, felt like making a new body of work on my own that wasn't designated to a deadline. Usually, time was never an issue, especially with the labor that’s included in a lot of the work, but being that I have so many exhibitions lined up, the time has become an issue, so I’m really not trying to short-change or cheat the possibilities of where the work can move, but I have interns now [smiles] so hopefully I can make all of these things happen. But usually depending on what I’m doing, I start with paper, because whatever I can do with paper, I can translate to other materials, specifically metal, and I can get a quick model. I don’t usually sketch a drawing, I make physical sketches. But now I generally don’t have time, I just go in my studio and make the work; whatever comes out, that’s just how it comes. I’m starting to just trust myself a little bit more in that regard.
Tiff Massey, I Do I Do I Doooo, Outdoor installation. Courtesy of the artist
TRA: I want to return back to this labor that is required for metalsmithing. I’m curious as to how exactly you got into jewelry making. Making jewelry can be interpreted as a feminine practice, however, the labor that goes into working with metal to create jewelry is very rigorous and could be associated with masculine work, or men’s work. What got you into making your own jewelry?
TM: I remember specifically having my first jewelry class [in high school] and it wasn’t like, "oh this is it." It was just something that I really liked doing. Getting custom jewelry made with my father, and then there was '80s hip hop jewelry and lucite rings that had all the colors in between them. I was really obsessed with the shape and form, so I knew I wanted to translate that design into metal. I became really obsessed with making hollow constructions, lightweight forms that look visually heavy. And yes, the work that goes into it, most people wouldn’t do. I tried to have some of my friends help me out and they tap out real quick.
TRA: In Detroit, we see foundations providing support enabling artists to be more autonomous. Particularly, the Kresge Fellowship, which you are a recipient of, has allowed for more opportunities for this professionalization and agency of artists to happen. What has your experience as a Kresge Fellow been like, and how has it informed your practice as of late?
Tiff Massey, Facet, 2013. Courtesy of the Library Street Collective
TM: The fellowship is life changing, really. The fellowship provides you with the tools for you to have longevity in the game and it's also like a punch to the gut all at the same time. You never really see the aspect that this [the art industry] is a business. You know, it’s a business. It functions as one; there’s buying, selling, and making. But I feel like now I’m doing more business than I am making, and so I’m just trying to find a balance. More opportunities are just coming in since winning the fellowship.
TRA: You have sort of become an unofficial watchdog, on people looking to penetrate the art ecosystem here with some integrity. Do you think there is a way for non-Detroiters to become a part of the landscape without looking like a clueless gentrifier?
TM: I feel like there is a way to do it. The most effective way? I’m not really sure. But this commercialized way, where people are really here for ulterior motives, where they only participate in the re-branding of the city; I feel like this is a disservice to actually what’s going on here. That’s really what I have a problem with—people trying to use the name to elevate themselves when they’re really not trying to elevate or help with the issues that are happening around them. Or, they are just totally aloof and subscribe to this "Captain Save-'em" mentality; none of these people [in Detroit] need to be saved. We just need more resources and that doesn’t necessarily translate to a damn art installation or a fucking mural [laughs].
TRA: You collaborated with Jeedo from Complex movements recently to produce a song and video “Detroit is Black” which is ironically revolutionary even though it’s a factual statement. In the text that accompanies the video you wrote:
I wanted to comment on what was truly taking place in Detroit at that particular moment, which unfortunately are current events. There's a cover story, and then there's the real thing; what happening on the ground. Everyone is talking about Detroit, but no one wants to talk about the real issues surrounding the city. The Detroit native narrative is missing. The native tongue is lacking in the conversation. What makes a city? What nurtures a city?
Can you share what issues in particular you are referring to in that text?
TM: We need schools. We need recreation. We need food that is healthy. We need lights. We need water. You know? Detroit is like a “Hot & Ready” for individuals who come here to basically exploit the land; people who feel like it’s cheap and can just make some money real quick—I’ve never seen property values go up so quickly in my life. It’s basically to exclude the people who have been living here. How do we [long-time residents] fit into the equation to become business owners, entrepreneurs, or start a small business? Where are all the Black people, where do they fit in?
TRA: I want to refocus on the arts community here end on a positive note. Can you tell me what artists in Detroit you are following now?