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Medusa, Size 16

Susie MacMurray's Medusa, at the opening Thursday

Susie MacMurray’s Medusa, at the opening Thursday

I’m rarely captivated by art outside of painting, which means I usually cherry-pick my way through a tour of New York City shows. A few memorable exceptions would be Terrence Koh’s kneeling crawl around a cone of salt a few years ago at Mary Boone, and the spectacle of Kara Walker’s Sugar Baby. More powerfully than either of those, Susie MacMurray’s work won me over immediately in her 2013 show at Danese Corey. Her work’s metaphoric power seems secondary to its formal originality. It’s conceptually anchored but its impact doesn’t depend on the meaning you extract from it. Most of her work looks unstrained and almost natural. In her current show at Danese Corey, Hinterland, what would have caused injury, in its original form, has been disarmed, and, in turn, is disarming, drawing you toward it rather than pushing you away, as it was originally meant to do: snakes, sniper shells, barbed wire, all become alluring, if only as objects of curiosity, but nearly as often because they’ve become beautiful in the new context she gives them. Her craving for simplicity and unity gives her innovative forms the feel of fresh archetypes, metaphors that attract interpretations rather than assert or contain a fixed meaning. Mythology has that quality, and she echoes a couple Greek tales in this show: Pandora and Medusa.

Medusa was a celibate disciple in the temple of Athena, but was lured into Poseidon’s bed and then punished for her infidelity, given a hairdo of serpents that petrified any man who looked upon her. Perseus beheaded her as a favor to all the men in her vicinity who still had a pulse. Susie MacMurray’s Medusa, though, takes it a step further. She’s headless as a dressmaker’s dummy, back from the grave and a lot more charming than when she dropped into it. MacMurray is doing a variation on the centerpiece of her last solo show, A Mixture of Frailties, where the gown was made of house cleaning gloves. Here, Medusa has upended her own punishment. At first glance, she seems aquatic, a cross between a mermaid and a squid, just the right look for a woman who fell for the god of the sea. Yet she’s still an upright land lover, as dry as MacMurray’s wit, her serpentine tresses now rooting her to the earth.

As well as inverting the anatomical placement of the snakes, MacMurray has clothed her in protective armor of copper chain mail—in fact, this metallic second skin is all you see. It’s a form-fitting second skin of glittering scales. She’s closer to a regenerated god than a woman who has lived through some of the worst hair days in history. As with MacMurray’s previous gown construction, where the inside-out cleaning gloves flowed like icing off the figure and outward onto the floor around her, the chain mail here writhes in all directions from around her feet. This armor sheathes even the subdued corona of serpents. Now she walks on them, or maybe with them, side-winding up behind you without a sound. Lop off Medusa’s head, and she grows snakes for toes. Strike her down, and apparently she will become more powerful than you can possibly imagine. Or at least a lot more intriguing when you spot her from across the room at a party.

Brood on the image and you think maybe her wig wasn’t punishment at all. Maybe she grew all that unstraightenable hair on her own, as her way of getting even. Maybe she went reptile to become the new archetype of passive-aggressive justice. Or, maybe the snakes, from the start, were a mind-trick, a misdirection, part of her misguided shame over having been victimized, and a defensive way of protecting herself from the gaze of others. It certainly worked. Granted, there was some collateral damage, a trail of hapless guys turned to stone.

Yet now she can’t live without all those curls. They grow out again from below, like suckers rising up from under a trimmed tree. She’s become her new defensive equipment: her chain mail. The woman has disappeared and so have the snakes; her metal cocoon is all that meets the eye. Instead of the serpents, you see only the slinky protective wrap uncoiling outward from below. The shape of snakes seeps into view, like smoke from under a closed door, but is there anything inside that armor? It’s almost touching now, if you see it all as self-defense, the snakes, the armor, all of it. All those tiny interlocking links knitted together by hand, fooling you into thinking the snakes are still there. The pathos of her wounded soul would be even more poignant if the work weren’t so powerful. Does that mean this Medusa’s beauty is all that stops you in your tracks now? So she’s a woman and has learned to fall back on her wardrobe to get looks? Is that her ultimate, ironic, defeat? But it is a victory. Everything phallic is now underfoot. And, give her credit: at the exhibit’s opening, she was turning heads without needing one of her own. It’s an image of a woman who has appropriated her abuse and punishment into a power she can control, and she may be sexy but she’s no fashion model. As MacMurray pointed out, with a grin, to a couple young fans at the show’s opening. “She’s a size 16.”

And so, round and round, it goes. The more you try to get to the heart of the matter, the more hints she offers up, without ever letting you pin her down. This is not unheard of in a woman. What’s true for Medusa herself is what makes MacMurray’s work as a whole so impressive: its enigmatic beauty exceeds whatever you can think about it, even as it inspires so much poetic resonance. None of the many ways to read her work deplete its aesthetic power. There’s no way to reduce these creations to something less than what they ultimately are: personally felt formal inventions. Her sensuous delight in her own craftsmanship with various materials give the work an immediate allure. There’s alchemy and humor in the underlying fact that what conveys the magic are such mundane materials: barbed wire, hooks, rubber gloves, wax, blocks of poured stone (like concrete).

Some have called her constructions and installations both beautiful and repulsive, or lovely and menacing. I don’t find them threatening or off-putting. In fact just the opposite: they are always seductive. Maybe there’s a hint of risk in that, as there is in being emotionally pulled toward something unfamiliar. That could be a definition of life, couldn’t it? You think: why do I have the urge to take home a passel of snakes? But the work speaks very softly. Her explosions of barbed wire reminded more than one person at the opening of a bouquet of forsythia. Her Orphan, little more than a shy, black gourd woven of metal wire and pierced by a bull nose ring, sits stunted and alone, longing to be tethered to someone.

What’s so distinctive about her work, for me, is that rueful, but smiling, tone. It isn’t strident or confrontational. You’re drawn toward it, and the challenge it presents doesn’t feel like an opposition or taunt, but an invitation into a fertile paradox. Pandora is a light box made of bullets—the grid of resin bullets are the box, the last item left when all the other evils have escaped. MacMurray pointed out for me that, in the original myth, hope was the only thing left in the box, but here the last hope is the defensive threat of violence, a final resort in a world of conflict. And yet these bullets are harmless, ordered, glowing from the inside, like ice. Medusa, at first glance, lights up some corner of your brain storing memories of designer gowns you’ve seen in pictures or at weddings, and yet, a few seconds later, you recognize the train of snakes, and then the copper links that form their scales and become the chain mail encasing the torso and legs. Eventually you learn that it weighs 500 pounds and took eight months to knit together by hand. But that first impression remains as the delivery system: the dazzling gown, even though you’ve learned about its quarter-ton of copper and three seasons of menial labor and all the heavy lifting and shipping charges it took to get it from the UK to Chelsea.

Hinterland seems to keep pointing toward a longing to transcend harm. In a predatory world, harmlessness is a rare and nearly impossible human attainment, and it ought to be the ideal. I think it’s a vision that radiates from everything MacMurray does. There’s an ethical imperative to do no harm within all those ostensibly menacing appearances. Her work is peaceable and self-effacing. She conjures imagery that, in other more overtly political hands, could easily be overwrought and tiresome. Instead, what she turns out is beguiling, irresistible, full of tristesse, and yet witty. Her Medusa isn’t monstrous, but shines with tenderness about the vulnerable, individual human heart in a violent world. Men and women both—we’re all potentially this Medusa. At one time or another, we all feel punished for having been fooled or used or violated. Some of us move on, a little stronger for it.

 

 

Ron Goldberg

ron goldberg

Going back to the early days at the March on Washington…to watch people respond to us as we walked by was…people just lit up. It was 6-7 years into the epidemic by then and people were just looking for something to do that was positive. I remember chanting: “we’ll never be silent again!” And the people on the sidewalk initially thought that maybe we were yelling at them, but then they realized: no, we’re the “we.” And by the end of that weekend everybody in town was wearing Silence=Death t-shirts and buttons. I looked around and went, “Oh my god. This is something. This is going to be a movement.”

Ron Goldberg was a member of ACT UP from 1987-94. During that time, he served on the action committee and took up the role of “chant queen.” Inspired by his love of theatre, Goldberg helped to make ACT UP’s demonstrations the performative masterpieces that are still remembered, and emulated, today.

*Special note: Because syncopation is important for Goldberg’s chants, readers can find a guide to their rhythms at the bottom of this interview.


Sarah J Halford: Let’s start in 1987 – the year that started it all for you. Tell me a little bit about who you were at that time, what your interests were, and what brought you to ACT UP.

Ron Goldberg: I was an actor-singer-waiter who moved well. I was doing auditions, I’d been in the city 7 years, and I’d gotten my equity card, but I had sort of hit a rut. My acting career, which is what I saw myself doing, was not panning out. It sort of came to this point where there was this decision of – I needed to get involved with something. There was so much going on and I needed to connect to something larger. So, I stumbled into ACT UP, as a lot of people did. I was actually at a meeting for something else. There was going to be a big march on Washington in 1987 for gay rights, so I went to this meeting at the Center on 13th street, which then it was the Lesbian and Gay Center, now it’s the LGBT center, and it was really terrible. It was like a bunch of us in the corner, and the organizer was saying how there’s not enough people and how it’s going to be so much work, and I thought, “Oh well this sounds great.” But then, ACT UP was holding another meeting in the big hall. I’d read about ACT UP, so I thought, “Oh, let me check this out.” It was electric. It was astonishing. It was the community I always wanted.

SJH: What was the difference between the first meeting and the ACT UP meeting?

RG: One, it was the energy. The energy was incredible, and the amount of people, I mean it filled up the whole room. It was an insane conversation about what to do for the gay pride parade; there was this big argument about a proposal to do a sort of concentration camp-style float, and people were like, “No! That’s not how it should be! We should be carrying coffins! These kids today, they don’t know that this is about death!” And another was like, “No! This is about living with AIDS, not dying!” There was this back-and-forth, and it was just heated, smart, electrifying, and riveting. I stayed in the back for the entire meeting. And I really wanted to get involved, but I happened to have gotten a reading for some terrible show, and I was in rehearsals for that, so I couldn’t attend. And for the first time in my life I was dreading going to rehearsals, because I really wanted to go to this meeting. I’ve come to realize, looking back, that a lot of the things that I went into theatre for – community, trying to communicate important issues, make an impact, and that intense closeness – I was getting that in ACT UP.

SJH: And then as you started to get more involved, you became ACT UP’s unofficial “chant queen”?

RG: Oh, I was official!

SJH: Oh! You were official! So how did that start then?

RG: Well, it was sort of like, everyone did what they were good at, and for better or for worse, I’m a good cheerleader. Not that I ever did it in the “go football team” sense, but I had energy, I was fun, and it was just something that I took to. I knew that I could get people going.

Part of what we were doing was so much in people’s faces. I knew that if I yelled, 50,000 dead from AIDS! Where was George?! And did it with a certain intensity, and people joined, a) it picked up people’s spirits and b) it also gave a focus. Chants are also sound bites that people hear over and over again. So, if they stuck a microphone in your face and asked, “Well, why are you here?” You would answer “Because healthcare is a right!” So chants provided soundbites, but they were also about keeping the energy going. It’s much easier to chant when there’s a little syncopation, or a little rhythm. One of the things that I’ve noticed when I’ve gone to the Occupy and the other protests recently, it’s like everyone chants in squares (beats on the desk in 4/4 time) and there’s no place to breathe and there’s no place for creative rhythms. But it’s much easier when you go: Healthcare is a right – healthcare is a right.

SJH: Right, so the musicality of the chant is inviting?

RG: Exactly! It’s electrifying.

SJH: So, if you were to define what makes a “good” chant, in your opinion, what would that be?

RG: I think it’s succinct, it captures what you’re trying to say. I think that it’s got rhythm – rhythm is really good. A place to breathe, and something that involves the crowd. You know, the call and response ones where you could alternate the phrases were great. I think those are all key points. And for us, a lot of it was what we could do with humor; a big part of our arsenal was ridicule.

So – this one isn’t a brilliant chant, but it was fun to do – for instance, Cuomo Sr. had a bad AIDS record. Mario kept promising us things, saying, “Oh, I feel you’re absolutely right” and then he would do nothing. And one year he actually said, “You’re right, I won’t be doing enough, but next year, come back.” So I came up with a chant when we went up to Albany that went: You said come back in a year? Time’s up Mario snaps we’re here! And that humor – you know, we didn’t do it a lot, but it was fun! It’s got this attitude that’s much better than something like: They say, ‘don’t fuck’ – we say, ‘fuck you!’ I used to go crazy with chants like that because anybody who says that is not getting onto any television screen at all. And today, there’s the internet which is much less censored, but at the time it was like, why say a chant that isn’t going to get your message across?

(Video: Goldberg – who enters at 0:42 – leads chants at an ACT UP meeting, prepping for the March 1989 Target City Hall demonstration.)

SJH: Now that you’ve been through the process with ACT UP, what are your thoughts on recent movements like the Arab Spring, Occupy, or #blacklivesmatter?

RG: I think things have changed so much. I think there are hints at what we did, but what you’re able to do has changed so much. We had videographers filming all of our actions because we couldn’t trust the media to put out our stuff, so we put out our own. But, I often think that movements now need to get out of those square chants.

SJH: Like: Hands up – don’t shoot?

RG: “Hands up – don’t shoot. Hands up – don’t shoot” – there’s no place to take a breath, though I certainly get the meaning behind it. It would be like saying: ACT UP – Fight back – Fight AIDS. But even with that, at least there’s an action there. “Hands up – don’t shoot” is like, what are you asking people to do? What are you saying? You’re taunting, and that’s legitimate, but I think a message beyond the chant is crucial for the chant.

You know, sometimes I’m asked about Occupy and why that “fizzled” or whatever, but it’s just the beginning of a movement. They got a whole bunch of concepts into the political dialogue, which is extraordinary. The idea of our movement started in 1981, 1982; ACT UP didn’t come around until 1987.

SJH: It takes a minute.

RG: It takes a minute. I think it’s amazing what’s going on, I’m very encouraged by it. The internet and social media have had an incredible impact in some cases, but it’s not deep. ACT UP had a deep connection that I would love to see incorporated into the internet strategy. Social media is a great way to get people connected, but it doesn’t build a sense of responsibility. Click activism has its limitations.

SJH: So, what’s needed to build that sense of responsibility?

RG: You have to get into a room. Get in a room with people who maybe don’t think the same way as you, but who see the same problems. It’s about building that trust, that love, that knowledge-base. Because with ACT UP, there was a lot of improvising, which you can’t do well if you don’t deeply trust one another. We had some set ideas, but there was a lot of improvising. You also need to think about the steps. You want to get a meeting with someone in power? Great. And then what? It’s great to have the end-goal of bringing down the institution, or whatever it may be, but what are your incremental pieces?

SJH: It seems like three things that ACT UP really had going for it were humor, shock value, and the utilization of the media. So, can you talk about ACT UP’s relationship to the media and how you fed into it?

RG: The other thing about ACT UP was that we had an extraordinary expertise. The people who came through that door were astonishing. Bob Rafsky, who headed up our media at one point, was the VP at Howard Rubinstein and was Trump’s spokesperson. We had a lot of people who knew the business. Our designers often came out of advertising. It was an incredibly media-savvy group, which was also because it was a privileged group. We were predominately white, very often connected white men, photogenic, and we had people like Anne Arthur, who was a producer at CBS, who would teach us how to do sound bites and who gave us media training.

SJH: What were the key things that she would say?

RG: You talk through the media. You decide what your point is, and you make that point. It doesn’t really matter what they ask you. You make your point, you do it succinctly, and if a microphone was in your face it was: don’t equivocate, state your point, it doesn’t really matter what the question is, and don’t get confused. I think that it was using the media to do something else. They’re not the audience. They are the vehicle.

SJH: So tell me about your audiences, then.

RG: It varied. I think there were sometimes demonstrations that specifically targeted the pharmaceutical companies, the FDA. Very often we did demonstrations that were essentially shows, which is one of the reasons that I attached myself to ACT UP because I realized, “Oh! It’s putting on a show! I get this!” So, sometimes the target is the institution or company or figure in front of you. Sometimes, you were at locations that were symbolic to use the media to get through to the larger public. So, sometimes the audience was right in front of us, and other times it was a bit more triangulated. I mean, look at something like the FDA. The thing about the FDA action was that we accomplished so much of what we needed to before we actually got there. So, we just had to show up and put on the show.

SJH: Interesting. What do you mean when you say that you accomplished what you needed before you arrived?

RG: No one had ever talked to the FDA. Our issue was that there were drugs that were stuck in the pipeline that we knew worked, that were tested in other countries, but were going to take 8 years for approval. We didn’t have 8 years. So, we prepared with internal teach-ins, so that we learned how the FDA functioned, what its structure was like, who was who, and what the issues were. We did trainings so that we knew how to do civil disobediences and how to marshall. We did media trainings, they sent out press packets with specific information on specific issues, who your local contact is. It was a national action, so there were people with AIDS all over the country who could then become the local angle.

A week before we did the demonstration, the information was already bubbling, so the FDA was already under the spotlight. And Michelangelo Signorile, who’s now a the Huffington Post, said that we were going to shut down the FDA, that it was going to be the biggest demonstration since Abbie Hoffman at the moratoriums at the Vietnam War. The night before the demonstration, the news was already saying that the FDA was closed. We had already sort of accomplished it. The spotlight was already on, and now we just had to put on the show so that there was footage.

ron goldberg 2(Pictured: ACT UP protests the FDA, 1988)

If you look at the photos, we had people doing die-ins, we had people using tombstones. If you’ve seen the photos, I mean, they’re extraordinary. And it was different groups doing different things; we had Silence=Death, AIDSgate – there were certainly images that were produced, but a lot of it was also different groups of people being creative and doing their particular show.

We had all of these incredible photos all over the country after that demonstration, but the New York Times had this one photo of a protester with his head down, surrounded by cops. There was no explanation, no description or anything, it just looked like some lone person. But a year later, when they were talking about all of the changes that had happened in the FDA because of activism, there was a ¾ page across photo of activists who were in white smocks with their blood red handprints on them and the Silence=Death banner. And that’s how the image of people with AIDS changed. The media went from presenting an isolated individual to presenting an entire movement.

SJH: Let’s talk more about the FDA action. As you said, the work was already done so you just had to show up and do the thing, so what had to happen to get them to shut down the night before? How did they know that you were directly targeting them?

RG: We had an incredible media committee. For big actions like this, we took out full page newspaper ads, we did teach-ins specifically for the media where we told them that this was going to happen and what we were about. We gave the media stories and people to talk to. The FDA, in a lot of ways, colored our reputation as a “threat.” Our name alone earned a certain cache, to the point that when we were around, people would come out to see what we would do. The media was staged as if we were opening a movie.

But it was a lot of initial leg work. We did the prep work and the teach-ins, and then a week before someone did an interview and introduced our story. We had our affinity groups feeding not just the national media but the local media around the country so that by the time we got to the FDA demonstration, we had the media saying, “This is going to be the biggest demonstration in Washington since…” and we all looked at each other like, “really?”

SJH: What did you want the FDA to do specifically?

RG: Well, we had (laughs) so many booklets. We had very specific demands about changing the way that drugs were tested so that access to them could be gained quicker. Our demands got more sophisticated as we went along, of course, but there were always very specific demands, whether it was the demand to bring a drug that was approved in another country to the States, or change a specific definition at the CDC because women were not getting diagnosed with HIV, so they’re not getting drugs and are dying twice as fast as men. That’s what built our reputation; not only was there this incredible force in the streets that could embarrass you, that could get headlines and attention, but it was also the detail. The smarts. We backed up our actions with smarts.

SJH: But some actions had more effect than others. Was there a specific thing that you did in this case to make the FDA actually do something?

RG: I mean, they were agog! We embarrassed them. We also had the advantage of being right. It was coming at a time when we were able to start to corral public opinion that things were not going fast enough and that there wasn’t enough money being spent on HIV drugs.

With the FDA, it’s interesting because we had this bizarre bedfellow in that Republicans really didn’t want any regulations on drugs to begin with. So, they were pressuring to ease up the testing process so that more drugs could flood the market; consumer beware. That’s not what we wanted – we wanted drugs to be tested, just tested quicker. We said that drug trials needed to be looked at as healthcare. If they couldn’t get the drug, then they would certainly die. Maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t work as well as it could…

SJH: But it’s something.

RG: It’s something.

SJH: It seems like ACT UP as an organization had a lot of affinity groups that would accomplish different tasks. How did it all come together so that each of you communicated effectively?

RG: We had a committee structure, which changed over the years – I was there from 1987 to about ‘94, and the organization underwent great changes. When I first came, there were anywhere from 70-100 people in the room, but in its heyday we had 500 people weekly. And that’s the thing, we also met weekly. You have to get people into a room because that’s where you build the relationships. That’s where you communicate.

SJH: Was it in those rooms that the artistic ideas were brought up? As in, the ideas for chants and images?

RG: Well, people would go off and do. We had this central floor, which for a long time it was a very active floor. All of the planning and everything generally happened in committees. There were planning committees, issue-driven committees. I very often was on the action committee. I chaired it for a while because it was project managing and putting on a show. Asking, “what’s the theme? How are we doing it?”

SJH: Basically setting the stage?

RG: Right, and all you can do is really set the stage. I mean, what we wound up doing later on, when we got bigger and took on so many more issues, was create a setting for a demonstration and let people highlight their own issues within the larger frame. So, a thing that I learned very early was that people need buy-in. You can’t dictate exactly what it’s going to be. People have to be able to own it and feel like that they were going to be able to say what they needed to say. We had parameters, I mean, they always had to be non-violent. We also got trained. The CD [civil disobedience] training and the marshall training was incredibly important because you never knew what was going to happen. It also allowed us to improvise. Now, looking back, people think “oh I can’t believe they planned that! That’s incredible!” But really, we planned some of it, the rest is just winging it. But if you’re with the same people for years, once or twice a week, and you’re all trained with the same mindset, you can adapt. Toward the end of my run, the police sort of let us do our own demos. They knew that if they shut us down, we would cause a problem, so they just let us do what we were there to do.

The other thing was that we educated ourselves. There were constant teach-ins on drug trials, on housing issues, on the way the city is structured, the way that the state is structured, on insurance issues, on health care, and then we did Queer history, and women’s health. One of our biggest ideas was that we were all experts – to the extent that that got a little convoluted toward the end. Some people became more expert than others in an area, and either you said that that was fine or you took umbrage at it. I mean, I don’t mean to paint this as if it was all “kumbaya.” It wasn’t. It was very passionate, very heated, we had people coming from various political perspectives, and then we had people who were dying. Passion wasn’t really a problem, you know, the issue was so powerful. It was just about directing that passion in a productive way.

SJH: As a member of the action committee, what were some of the tactics that you used to direct that passion?

RG: Well, when we did our first anniversary demonstration in ‘88 we used waves. For that demo, we stopped negotiating our civil disobediences with the police because we wanted to control the situation, not them. At that time, we broke our groups up in waves, so that the first group would go out and get picked up by the police, and then the next group would go out somewhere else. So, the goal at the end of the day was, for so much of it, to get AIDS talked about and for people to understand what was happening and what was not happening. That our lives mattered, and that what happens to us matter, and that the government has a role to play.

In a lot of ways, for all of the radical stuff that’s thrown on ACT UP, we were just demanding that the government do their job – which is not exactly a radical statement. As the group evolved later on there was some tension around the idea that the problems were institutional, so maybe we should bring down the institutions. Well, that’s lovely, but people are dying and are you willing to sacrifice the lives of all of these people for the sake of a longer-term strategy?

ron goldberg
(Pictured: A press clipping from the New York Post, 1988.)

SJH: So, circling back to the art within the activism. You had a bunch of different goals because there were a bunch of different issues within the AIDS crisis. What goals do you think that art was the best at helping you accomplish?

RG: I think it was in making what was abstract to people real. Images and propaganda can do that. Avram Finkelstein created Silence=Death, which was created before ACT UP was formed, but it was like the Bat Signal. Seeing that go up in the city was just this…everyone just stopped in their tracks and went, “What is that?” We recognized the triangle. Silence=Death seemed to resonate because yes, that was true, queer people needed to speak up. And ACT UP made Silence=Death into a performative piece.

Going back to the early days at the March on Washington. I was marching with ACT UP and it was just a couple hundred of us at the beginning, maybe. We had the Silence=Death posters and we had these incredible paper snakes that were on sticks that looked like Chinese dragons going through the crowd. We had Silence=Death and AIDSGate t-shirts, and all of that created a powerful presence. To watch people respond to us as we walked by was…people just lit up. It was 6-7 years into the epidemic by then and people were just looking for something to do that was positive. I remember chanting: we’ll never be silent again! And the people on the sidewalk initially thought that maybe we were yelling at them, but then they realized: no, we’re the “we.” And by the end of that weekend everybody in town was wearing Silence=Death t-shirts and buttons. I looked around and went, “Oh my god. This is something. This is going to be a movement.” So, there is an activating piece to the art.

The other thing was that, how could we make what was happening real to people? As Vito Russo said, it was like living in an alternate universe where we were the only ones who could hear the bombs dropping. So, how do you make other people hear the bombs dropping?

SJH: Do you feel that art was an important part of that?

RG: Well, it depends on how you define “art,” of course. I’m thinking of the demonstrations where we had die-ins, where people were holding tombstones that said, “RIP. Died because people of color don’t get AIDS diagnoses” or “Died because AZT was not enough.” It’s these constant images that were thrown up. We had flyers, posters, wheat pasting on just about any flat surface we could find. It created this sense in the city that something was happening. If you were in any given neighborhood, you could not avoid the information that we were sending to you – that Ed Koch was not doing his job, that the city was not doing what they needed to do for AIDS. And remember, we were still a very small group, though it may have seemed like we were bigger. We were still very controversial, even in the queer community, and in the African-American and Latino communities, even more so.

SJH: Do you feel like it’s important to saturate all vantage points? The media, on the streets, in rallies, etc.?

RG: Maybe it looked that way, but I don’t think that we were trying to, necessarily. There were certainly images and rallies that were geared toward the masses and the media, so we looked at the places that we could create pressure.

SJH: Can you tell me more about ACT UP’s audience or audiences? What were you trying to communicate to them?

RG: Well, the group that we honed in on was the people in power; government, pharmaceutical companies, CEOS – the composite of those were the “group” that we felt were essential to reach. To them, we were at best a special interest. To them, the response was, “Who cares, really?” Reagan didn’t even say the word “AIDS” until Rock Hudson, and didn’t make a speech about it until ‘87, which was six years into the epidemic. No one gave a fuck. Pardon my French.

But the overarching message was: “People are dying, what are you doing?” And that applies to our own community, to the “unaffected” community, and to the people in power as well. But if you go back to how the queer community and people of color were written about at that time, the general sentiment was that we were somehow not the “real America” and that our lives really didn’t matter the same way. It used to drive me crazy. When Bush was asked in ‘91 about the demonstration that we did near his home on Labor Day weekend he responded with, “Well, you know, if they wanted my attention, they got it. But there was a demonstration about people who are unemployed, and that’s one that really hits home because that hits families. And that’s something I care about.” It was like… [Goldberg makes a terrific stunned-in-horror-face]. You have these moments where you realize how “other” you really are to the people in power.

SJH: So, was it a goal of yours to get the people in power to see that they can be affected too, and you’re not so “other” after all?

RG: Well, actually, we didn’t really have time for that, so we went with the “We’re going to make your life hell. We’re going to embarrass the crap out of you, we will be on your doorstep, we are relentless, we will not take ‘no’ for an answer” idea.

SJH: The “people are dying, what are you doing?” is a very succinct, beautiful way to put it, but then it seems as if, for certain people, you have to convince them that you’re people in the first place. It’s no small thing.

RG: Well, certainly in terms of where the LGBT community is now, it would never have happened without AIDS. It completely changed the conversation, where it initially it was a conversation about sex, which everybody was queasy about. What AIDS showed was 1) you couldn’t really hide it, so you had to come out. And 2) it also presented an image of a powerful community, which is not what people ever thought that gays were.

ron goldberg 3

One of the things that I worked on a lot was a campaign around the ‘92 election, which was Bill Clinton. Our goal there was to “run AIDS as a candidate.” We would do a year-long campaign, but it wasn’t for a candidate, it was for an issue. We had this great, “What about AIDS?” poster. We would send these to all the other local ACT UPs so that when a candidate came around, people would be there with that sign. And the idea was – even if people didn’t talk about AIDS – it worked as a prompt, and if it got into a photo, it said exactly what we needed to say. And it did work as a prompt, we did get them to start talking about it because we pestered them until we got Clinton to promise to have a person with AIDS speak at the convention, it’s how he promised to make an AIDS speech during the campaign – it took him a long time, but he did. It’s how it became an issue that was brought up during the debates, none of which would’ve happened, had we not done that.

And we were relentless! Any time a candidate was anywhere, there were at least a couple of ACT UP people to yell and scream. What happened one time was that there were a couple of people in the snow, and CNN was there, and a reporter said, “Clinton – come over and talk to someone with AIDS!” And he couldn’t resist saying no with the camera going, so he came over and did the “I feel your pain, what do I need to do?” schtick, and that was the Bob Rafsky confrontation that ran in the Times for over a week. They had a big face-off during the New York primary and it became this huge story. Being relentless helps.

ron goldberg 4
(Pictured: Bill the Cowardly Lion)

SJH: Back to the chants. Can you think about a specific example when a chant that you suggested was particularly successful?

RG: Sure. There was this moment when we were up in Albany with [Mario] Cuomo. We had just gotten off the bus, and Mario was doing his Mario thing, which was that he would come and talk to you saying, “What do you need?” The cameras were capturing it, and I realized that he was co-opting what we were doing for his own gain so that he looks like “sympathetic Mario.” So, I burst into a chant that was like, People are dying – what are you doing?! Everyone grabbed onto it because they also realized what was going on, and we then commenced into a die-in right then and there. Mario had to flee because he didn’t want to be seen stepping over the bodies of the people there.

Another example: we were at an abortion rights march, I don’t remember what they called it at the time, but it was a march for reproductive rights. It wasn’t an AIDS march, but again, it was part of understanding the connection of issues. A bus load of us went down because it was important that there was a queer presence at that rally; we wanted to create a safe space in a time that was very anti-lesbian. So, as we were marching, we’d go, ACT UP, we’re here! We’re loud and rude, pro-choice and queer! A lot of the women joined us, and again, our crowd expanded. For me, what was always very satisfying was when we were able to reach out to the people who were watching us and create this place where they could join. That was extremely powerful.

SJH: So a successful chant unites people together, it’s catchy – so maybe it gets stuck in people’s heads for a few days, and it’s a good soundbite for the media, something that’s unavoidable because it’s loud and repetitive.

RG: Right, and because it says what needs to be said. And the other piece is that it ignites passion, whether it’s fun or it’s anger. I mean, it does, chants just connect people.

SJH: Have you ever been able to connect a chant or a die-in, something that’s performative, to tangible change?

RG: I think there are larger actions that did, but it’s never one thing. Part of ACT UP’s thing was that we were relentless, for years, we just kept coming. Maybe there was something that changed someone’s mind out there, but there were a lot of ACT UP’s stuff that disappeared without a trace until the footage comes out in someone’s movie.

The Ashes Action is an example. This was again ‘92, and we went from these symbolic die-ins to actually bringing bodies. The Ashes Action was inspired by David Robinson, who was an old member who had gone to California after his lover passed away, but he came back to ACT UP because he promised his partner that he would do something and he wanted to dump his ashes on the White House lawn. That created the Ashes Action, where we went down to Washington – the [AIDS] quilt was still there – and people brought ashes of their loved ones. There’s incredible footage in both How to Survive a Plague and United in Anger of these ashes going over the fence and people wailing, weeping, crying. And no one reported it.

ron goldberg 4
(October 13, 1996. Photo courtesy of ACT UP NY. Their caption: “ACT UP took the cremated human remains of those we have loved who were murdered by AIDS and killed by government neglect throwing the ASHES onto the White House Lawn.”)

SJH: Why? Was it because it was such an extreme action?

RG: I truly don’t know. But two weeks later, someone in the group had died whose thing was, “bury me furiously.” That was the first political funeral that we had, where we actually paraded the body through the streets of New York to the Bush campaign headquarters the day before the election. There were many political funerals after that, because it went from symbolic to the real thing. But those? I don’t know if they had any impact on change. Part of this was also – we did things for ourselves, we did things to bear witness, and sometimes we did things to make us feel better, to scream, to just let it out.

SJH: An activist catharsis.

RG: And it was so needed.

SJH: We’ve been talking about successful actions, but can you think of a time that an action was just a total failure?

RG: Oh yeah, for sure. My first address was total failure. It was 1987 and we were at the UN, which is a terrible place to demonstrate because a) you can’t get near the UN – they put you in the park, which is surrounded by very tall shrubs, so you’re just sort of serenading yourself, and b) this was the last civil disobedience demonstration that we arranged with the police, who, by the time we took to the street, stopped traffic three blocks south of us. There were no pedestrians. We were just shouting at nobody. They were in charge, so we lost control.

Oh, I just thought of a brilliant chant. It was Stonewall 20, which was 1989. ACT UP had planned a march that was going to go from Stonewall up to the big rally that was in Central Park. We didn’t negotiate with the police, but we needed thousands of people to make sure that we could move. I was marshalling and cheerleading, you know, chant-queening. We met at the Tiffany Diner beforehand, and I was sort of freaked out about what we were going to do if [the police] penned us in, what were we going to do if they didn’t let us go? That’s when I thought of: Arrest us, just try it! Remember Stonewall was a riot!

And that’s exactly what we decided to do. We got to this point at 14th street where we had taken up the whole width of the street, and they wanted us to constrict into one or two lanes, and we refused. Our head marshalls told them that they had better let us march or they were going to have a couple hundred thousand queers uptown ready to come down. While they were negotiating, I threw out the chant. Everyone caught on because it had attitude! It went, “Arrest us snaps just try it snaps remember Stonewall was a riot!”

SJH: So, did they let you go?

RG: You better believe they did! [Chants are] also about the attitude. There was no fear. I mean, that was pretty fabulous. That was thrown out at the moment and it just worked.

SJH: I love hearing about the successes, they sound amazing, but you gotta give me another failure.

RG: Okay, okay. We had, from my point of view, the one that was the hardest and the most upsetting was in ‘93. One of our members had died, and an affinity group had decided that they were going to bring his body to Washington, and we were going to march him through the streets to the White House. Because of a timing issue, the demonstrators arrived about an hour before they got there with the coffin, so the police were all over it. Basically, they wouldn’t let us take the body out of the car, and when we started to do so, it got to me this shoving match where they were pushing the casket…it was just horrifying. The police were snickering, it was awful. We were not able to accomplish what we wanted to, but on top of it, it just brought home how cavalierly we were regarded.

And there were a couple of ones where we got lost in the sauce. We had one in Times Square that looked like we were protesting some Broadway theater because there was a conference in the Marriott Marquis Hotel, which we were actually protesting, that was nearby. There was just no connection. We also had some depressing demonstrations in the rain…

SJH: What was it that kept you going all that time? Of course you had the personal connection to it, but for some, they have the personal connection to an issue and it just becomes too much to go at again and again.

RG: Well, it did get too intense for a lot of people, but it was a couple of things. One, we were clearly having an impact, which is motivating. You could see the impact happening in real time. My first demonstrations resulted in people in power resigning. You would actually see movement; not as fast as we wanted, but you don’t usually get to see it in front of your eyes. Another reason was that the people were incredible. It was family and community and fighting the good fight. And, the stakes were crazy.

For me, I was negative, so I had a different piece of the fight, but there were people who were fighting for their own lives. Really, for the first few years, we were all fighting for our lives because no one took the unreliable tests; no one knew who was positive or negative, so we all just had to assume that we were all positive. It was so satisfying to be able to fight the power and to get some results. It was theatre. For me, it really filled that gap in my life of family, community, contributing my performing skills to something bigger than myself. I think everyone doing it realized that it was the most important thing that we had ever done in our lives.

There is a tendency to use the war analogy a lot, but we really were in the trenches together, and so that builds a certain connection and responsibility. And love. Oh, and it was also fun! It was not all grim, sometimes we had a great time. We used to do “ACT UP: The Musical” and I wrote musical numbers for talent shows. It was a funny, smart, charismatic group. Of course, hindsight makes everything a little nicer – was it insane? Yes. Were there people who were crazy or annoying or even hateful? Sure. Were there incredibly tough arguments? Certainly, and they got more so as we got bigger. But, maybe it’s the Jewish thing for me, where the generations after the war contemplated how they would have responded if they lived in that time, and I constantly asked myself, “How would I have responded to those moments when you’re called to take a stand?” And this was that moment. It is, oddly, one of the great joys, because in so many ways I would’ve traded it all not to have done it, but I was able to recognize the moment and find a place where I was able to contribute and make a difference. I don’t have to ask myself that question anymore.


Rhythm guide to Goldberg’s chants. ( / ) indicates a stressed syllable, ( _ ) indicates an unstressed syllable:

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SOSA April Meeting

SOSA April Meeting

 SOSA February meeting : sosa logo southern oregon society of artists
This month’s meeting of the Southern Oregon Society of Artists will take place on April 25th at 6:30 at the Medford Public Library. This month’s meeting features our quarterly Juried Critiques, judged this time by Linda H. Snodgrass.  Registration and refreshments at 6:30, Program starts at 7 pm.
Artists of all levels are welcome to come, learn and enjoy!
For more information call BJ Mathis at 541 414-4993. Check us out at www.sosa-inc.org

Rembrandt van RAM

A computer-generated, 3-D printed, Rembrandt

A computer-generated, 3-D printed, Rembrandt

A short video at thenextrembrandt shows you how researchers created a very convincing forgery, a “new Rembrandt”, using advanced software and data mining to guide a 3-D printer that actually creates a topography of peaks and valleys in the print’s surface to imitate layering of paint. If an artist’s style can effectively be impersonated by artificial intelligence, does that mean a perfect, computer-generated art forgery could essentially convey everything an actual Rembrandt would? In other words, if if passed some kind of critical equivalent of the Turing test by fooling an authenticator and essentially creating a work of art indistinguishable from those of the artist being impersonated–is it virtually the same as an original Rembrandt? If it were possible to generate new works of art this way in the style of your favorite artist, what would happen to the value of the holdings among those who crave art the way the Hunt brothers craved silver? Nothing, probably. The original would still be what it is. I wouldn’t mind having an exact duplicate of my favorite Braque or Matisse or Van Gogh, down to the physical texture of the paint on the surface, for whatever one of these would cost. In this case, it’s still ink, paint-based or not. How long before they can build one of these using actual paint? Artificial intelligence marches on, for better or worse.

No Longer Interested

In 2014, Center Co-Director Steve Lambert was asked to contribute to A Blade of Grass’ ‘Growing Dialogue‘, a series of practitioner-led articles and opinion pieces circling around questions of the affect and effect of art and social practice. Steve’s contribution was No Longer Interested, which you can read below…


No Longer Interested

I’ve worked to strike the phrase “I am interested in” from my vocabulary. It is not easy. For years I have heard fellow artists explain their practice beginning with:

“I am interested in notions of…”

“I am interested in the intersection between…”

“I am interested in questioning…”

I searched for the phrase “I am interested in” in connection to “artist statement” and was embarrassed at how far reaching this crutch phrase is among my peers.

Here’s some examples from the search, pulled in the order of the search; names removed to protect the guilty:

I am interested in creating places where people have a sense of being connected – of being a part of something larger.

I am interested in painting as it helps me remember.

I am interested in, how the male is represented and constructed in culture, with all its stereotyping pictures and its suppressing mechanism.

Hang around artists long enough, especially when they are talking about their work and you will hear this opening phrase over and over and over again.

As noble as the artist’s projects may be, the “I am interested in” preface is maddening not just because it is grammatically inaccurate — like a pet peeve around misusing “literally” or “ironically” — or because it’s another cheap method artists use in puffing up their descriptions of themselves. No, “I am interested” culturally isolates artists, obscures their goals, and handicaps their ability to act in the world.

IF YOU’RE A DOCTOR SAY, “I’M A DOCTOR.”

When artists introduce topics with “I am interested in,” it’s needlessly vague. Let’s look closer at the examples from earlier:

I am interested in creating places where people have a sense of being connected – of being a part of something larger.

That certainly is interesting, but I would ask this artist; are you interested in creating places where people have a sense of being connected, or are you actually creating those places?”

I am interested in painting as it helps me remember.

Again, are you interested in painting, or do you, more simply, paint because it helps you remember?

I am interested in, how the male is represented and constructed in culture, with all it’s stereotyping pictures and it’s suppressing mechanism.

And again, are you interested in how males are represented, or are you working to change it?

Saying you’re interested is hardly descriptive. Are you interested or are you studying? Or researching? Or investigating? Are you interested in a method or testing it? Are you working within it? Or playing with it toward some end? Or moving towards something? Or fighting for something? Or defending it? Developing? Changing? Destroying? Building?

There are so many better words, why list interests at all? Everyone is interested in things. An artist’s interests are just as inane or compelling as anyone else’s. When asked to describe you and your work, starting a sentence with “I am interested in” and making a list, or restating the “tag cloud” from your blog doesn’t do that well.

Everyone wants to know what you’re doing.

Let’s imagine I meet a woman at a party and ask “so, what do you do?” She answers, “I am interested in the body, healing, and science, and how those intersect within institutions and the public.” Fascinating right? But why not cut to the chase and say you’re a medical doctor? In the non-art world, people talk about what they do. Describing what you’re doing instead of your interests moves the conversation forward. It’s more clear.

Why be so forthright? Because artists are already too cloistered off from the rest of our culture; isolated in elite institutions, appreciated by small numbers, and/or segregating ourselves in confusing social difference alone as some kind of admirable attribute. Around 45 years ago John Berger disparagingly called this phenomena the needless “mystification” of art. If we want to change this, and we should, we need to speak clearly in a language people can understand – not by adopting academic language for institutional appeal or trying to cover over our insecurity with pompous nonsense.

To make art and show it to the world is a generous act. Art is not just for the artist (that is called art therapy), but also as a means to participate in the broader culture and move it forward. To do so, we need to take seriously how we communicate to audiences through art, and in how we talk about our work.

ARTISTS AREN’T INTERESTED, THEY’RE BUILDING REALITY.

You may wonder, why shouldn’t an artist be a little vague and leave some mystery to the description of their work? And so what if an artists uses language inaccurately – we all do it. (I admit, after years of effort I still have a difficult time avoiding “interested” in my speech.) And who cares if the language is a little imprecise, we’re talking about artists, not writers – what’s the harm?

Because it changes the work we make.

Saying you are merely interested in something is being non-committal. If I’m interested in something, I’m not necessarily taking a position on it, much less any action.

But most artists are not just passively observing. They make work that challenges our view of everything – from shape and form to concepts and beliefs. Most artists don’t stop at being interested, they are truly changing the way we perceive, think, and act in the world – thus changing our very reality – in deliberate ways. To believe any less continues to falsly undermine and diminish the power of artists and art in our culture.

By prefacing our own descriptions of what we do in the world with “I am interested in…” it positions us as artists at a safe and cerebral distance from the rest of the world. This follows a justification that academics, critics, and administrators use to explain their positions and their institutions because in these spheres keeping a critical distance gives one legitimacy. It’s also the outlook of a consumer browsing the aisles, taking an interest in a product, examining it and moving on. These perspectives have somehow bled over to become a dominant model for artists. While this approach may legitimize an academic, or entertain a consumer, it does not work for artists. It is disempowering and strips us of our agency.

When artists are describing their work first and foremost as “an interest” in a set of issues and topics, it’s more than an inaccuracy, it lowers our artistic ambitions and blinds us to what is possible. Going back to an example from my web search, if the artist has said they are “interested in creating places where people have a sense of being connected” then any exploration of that interest is a step towards success. For example, building a tree house, or drawing one, or simply reading and thinking about tree houses could be an expression of that interest. It doesn’t matter what the effort changed, how many people it reached, what those viewers believe as a result, or if there is an outcome at all because the goal has been set so low and can be achieved too easily. When we state our intentions so ambiguously we’re cheating ourselves.

When goals are stated explicitly, it brings a sense of clarity and purpose. Goals give you focus. When you articulate to yourself and your friends and family in concrete terms “I am going to complete the Bay to Breakers Marathon this year” that is fundamentally different focus than saying “I am interested in running.” The former means you need to start training and if you don’t, you know you won’t be able to complete the run. Whereas, if the most you’ve said to yourself and others is you are “interested in running,” you won’t accomplish much because you haven’t decided you aspire to anything more ambitious. It’s well established that focusing on outcomes and creating clarifying goals works for atheletes, businesses, communities, and us in our every day lives, and for some tragic reason we believe doing the same in an art practice is crass and limiting. By framing their work around interest, artists are unwittingly putting a ceiling on their ability to operate in the world.

THE TRAGEDY OF “INTERESTING PROJECTS”

Especially disappointing is watching how this unconscious handicapping impacts the art that gets made.

I’m most familiar with how this plays out in the media art circles of which I’m part. There’s so much new technology enabling art works that weren’t possible 10 years ago, sometimes even 1 or 2 years ago. The software and hardware itself is so novel it provides a layer of “interesting” distraction for the artist and audience. While a research fellow at the Eyebeam Art and Technology Center I had to review reams of residency applications over the years that fell into this trap.

For example, take a newly introduced circuit-board based micro-controller, add some sensors, write a program that collects air-quality data, take it on a solo bike ride around a polluted district, throw in a little theory (maybe) and mix them together for an interesting project. Pretty good, right?

Or combine live social media feeds with a 3-D visualization of the earth and you have an interesting project.

Or combine any new technology with an ancient one. Run Twitter into a typewriter and you have an interesting project. Combine 3D video with stereoscopic photographs of the 1800s and bingo, you have an interesting project.

Or 8-bit graphics, or a Kinect 3D motion sensor, or a 3d Printer, with… anything, really.

I could go on, but I’ve already come dangerously close to describing work made by good friends… and myself.

Any of these examples could be the beginnings of a great, challenging, and world-shifting work of art, but when any creative person orients their work around an “interest” in materials, methods, or a few topics it’s all to easy to just toss them into a pot and stir it up for a while. Making projects that meet the standard of exploring an interest is fairly easy.

A prime charecteristic of Modern art was its interest in materials and processes. This was liberating a hundred or more years ago because it allowed artists to be free of the overarching concern with accurately representing their subjects. After photography, what was the point? With an emphasis on materials and processes whole new realms of artistic expression opened up. Well and good. But what came with this liberation was a type of elision: artists could think less seriously about what they were producing: what would it look like? what impact would it have? what was it supposed to do? Yes, some asked these questions, but one could also wallow around in the materials, enjoy the process, and only give an afterthought, if that, to what you actually produced and the impact it might have on others.

Today, if you want to explore the world of high-horsepower technology combined with loose ideas check out The Creators Project. It’s the home of pointless yet clever mashups. Raphaël Rozendaal, who “doesn’t care if something is art… only if it is interesting,” combines modernist painting with flash animation. Or Martin Messier’s orchestra made of sewing machines. Or Gleithero’s project using songs, turned into computer punch cards, and then knitted into scarves. All of these are creative projects and indeed interesting, but they don’t transcend their own materials and cleverness because there’s nothing at stake beyond being interesting.

The irony here is that all this vague “interest” in high-tech materials and creative process, does dosomething. The Creators Project, according to their website, is “founded by a revolutionary partnership between Intel and VICE…” The purpose of the Creators Project is not to move culture forward and further great art, it’s mission is as a “showcase” of “artists whose works are inspired and enabled by new technologies.” The purpose here is looking and consuming – it’s to capture your interest as a viewer. It’s a matter of taste, but to mine, finding truly challenging art works is the exception. On the Creators Project, it’s wow and hollow spectacle over all else. And brand recognition for Intel and Vice.

Understand the high art world is not different. They just conceal it a little better due to who the work is interesting to; wealthy collectors. The idea that the purpose of your life’s work may simply be as a supplier of alternative currency and high-end home decor for the ultra rich is not something many artists want to confront.

WE ARE MORE THAN INTERESTED, WE ARE POWERFUL.

While the field at large may have self-esteem issues around this, artists are the best equipped at shifting the perceptions, attitudes, and actions of the cultures they are embedded within. Unfortunately, propaganda and advertising have cast long shadows on these practices and there’s a natural reluctance to have any association with this sort of cultural manipulation. However while artists – creative people without an ulterior motive or corporate backing – have retreated, marketers and propagandists have filled the void.

If artists are going to change culture for the better, we need to step up and begin admitting we 1) have tremendous power 2) have largely not engaged it, and 3) handed over our cultural role to marketers and corporate-backed entertainers by default.

As artists we need to reclaim our agency and our position, articulate what we mean beyond being “interested,” and be clear with ourselves and others about what exactly we want to do. Whether it’s painting landscapes or avant-garde performance, challenging fundamental societal shortcomings or, sharing beauty through form and color, if we ever want to get anywhere significant with our work we need to take control, elucidate what we’re striving for in certain terms, and periodically adjust and calibrate those aims as we move forward.

CLARITY IN PURPOSE IS NOT CLARITY IN ART.

When it comes to art there’s some powerful myths about lives of artists that come into play. The “starving artist,” “the madman,” “the misunderstood genius,” “the navel-gazing recluse,” “the addict,” “the freewheeling dandy,” and there are others. These are not healthy models. Setting goals and making plans about your own life, much less your impact on the broader culture is not part of, and in many ways runs counter to, those myths.

Approaching other areas of our lives with intention comes quite naturally. If you’re over 25 and looking for a place to live, you have a budget, an ideal living arrangement in mind, a distance from the other key locations in your life you don’t want to be too far from. Planning out how and where you will live comes naturally. There’s room for the unexpected, but just “doing my thing and seeing what happens” will probably land you on the street. It wouldn’t be hard to find an artist with a detailed plan and vision for finding the perfect studio situation, but reluctant to put these same tools to work for their art. There are few helpful models, few coherent paths for artists that are empowering in this way, so it’s much easier to believe in the myths about libertine artists and not follow through with intentional thinking.

But these myths, combined with the “I am interested in” detachment, have subtle but strong disempowering effects. A smart person can infer by speaking with artists, reading a few contemporary art magazines, catalog essays, or artists statements that having lucid ideas about what you’re trying to achieve with your work, much less a connection to the audience goes against the grain. For art students who don’t read between the lines, it’s common to be told not to speak in such direct terms about their work. Or worse, told this is not art, or not what artists do.

The error here is conflating clarity in one’s purpose with clarity in their art work. Clarity in purpose is a great thing. Knowing who you are, why you do what you do, what you’re working on, where you want to go with it: this is highly personal and beneficial work that we all do as we grow. Having unambiguous goals for yourself, your work, and it’s role in culture – provides direction. With a point on the horizon to move towards, it’s easier to filter what’s important versus what is getting in the way.

Clarity in art work – having one message that is unequivocally understood by most or all viewers – is usually terrible. Mystery, a little ambiguity, uncertainty, contradiction, multiple layers and meanings, these are powerful agents to be used and leveraged by artists.

But you need clarity in your purpose in order to actualize the power of mystique in your art. In this way, art functions like a prism. It is able to project layers of colors only when light is focused upon it. Clarity in purpose enables the spectrum of meanings and subtlety on the other side.

Even the most formalist, abstract painter can benefit from clarity of purpose. The main subject of their work may be light and color, but the purpose is more likely to; create a meditative or revelatory experience in their viewer, or to alter the viewers experience of reality, or to inspire deep contemplation and a basic recognition of emotions or our humanity. That kind of thing. The last thing I would advocate for is an artist like this to alter their course and start shoving a direct and unequivocal message down their viewers throats – make no mistake, this is not what I’m saying. But, they do need to be clear, publicly or privately, about what they’re striving toward and what their purpose is in order to come reasonably close to achieving it.

BEYOND INTEREST

Getting caught in the “I am interested” state of detachment is a rookie’s mistake. We’re drawn in to artmaking through an interest; an interest in the practice, in the sensory experience, and the magic of conjuring from inert materials. In order to begin, one needs to pursue those interests. But being interested is the first step, the bottom rung of the ladder. It’s the least you can do.

Eventually interests die off. They’re fleeting. Later in the experience of a young artist one must learn to sort through their collection of interests, evaluating and organizing as we gravitate towards the ones that resonate. As we grow, we also learn what matters to each of us the most. Eventually we have to figure out what we are not just interested in, but invested in. When you are invested, there’s more involvement and commitment. You have a position, an outcome in mind; a way you’d like to see things play out. Expoloration, experiments, and failures happen along the way, but a point to strive for remains.

Anyone who has embarked on some creative project also knows there is a moment when you need to commit if it is going to get done. Whether it’s personal drive or an external deadline, eventually you make a promise to yourself to see something through or feel an obligation to something larger. You’re determined to complete what you’ve started and you carry something into action. Then there is action. Getting out into the world and altering it in some way. You make a contract with yourself and then perform the deed. This is where things happen.

This is different than interest.

IT’S SCARY

Committing to more than interest is scary; just like stating your big goals and deciding to take control is scary. It may feel too grandiose to say “I am going to make people feel interconnected through my sculpture” or “I will make paintings that cause people question their existence.” More importantly, everyone can see that this has not happened. They will know when you’ve failed. To avoid this one can play it safe and deal in interests: if your only articulated goal is to express an interest in a topic, then no one knows you’ve failed – not even you. How comforting.

Of course, if all you want to do is “wow” audiences with hollow spectacles, that’s fine too. But be clear to yourself and everyone else that you are an entertainer. As an artist you can do more, so make sure you’re making a conscious choice.

You don’t make great art by staying comfortable. Doing what is important is never comfortable. Stating your goals, expressing your dreams, and actively striving toward them through an art practice that threads its way into the broader culture is far riskier than pondering a few ideas and playing with materials in your studio. But at least you know you’re being honest about what you want. And with this honesty you can begin moving toward those dreams.

While setting a point on the horizon might give you direction, it does not make an easy path. Yes, artists have power – super powers even. But like Peter Parker learns from his Uncle, “with great power comes great responsibility.” Looking deep within yourself, pushing beyond your interests, getting invested in outcomes, making a commitment and taking action with your artwork – whatever kind of artist you are – feels much more high stakes.

It’s scary. It’s uncomfortable. And you’re without a doubt more likely to fail. But the only way you’ll get close to the experiences, the culture, the world you are striving to create, that point on the horizon, is through action. Interest is an important step, but only a first step. The way forward is doing.

Artists; find better words. Be honest about what you want from the hours and resources you pour into your practice, and push it as far as you can. Help make our every day culture something of your dreams. Because once you strike “I am interested in” from your vocabulary, suddenly things get way more interesting.

INTRODUCTORY ESSAY FOR ‘TRUTH IS CONCRETE’

In 2014, Stephen Duncombe and Steve Lambert were invited to write an introductory essay for “Truth is Concrete: A Handbook for Artistic Strategies in Real Politics“.

It includes essays from, among many others:

Andy Bichlbaum, Reverend Billy, Andrew Boyd, Tania Bruguera, Andrea Fraser, Guillermo Gómez-Peña, Hans Haacke, John Jordan, Kalle Lasn, Leónidas Martín, Antanas Mockus, Yekaterina Samutsevich (Pussy Riot), Gregory Sholette, Krzysztof Wodiczko, Salam Yousry and Slavoj Žižek, Jonas Staal, and Nato Thompson…Phew!

The book is available to buy but you can also watch videos of the conference that came out of the book for free.

You can download a PDF of their chapter here!

 

On Utopia

Keri Smith is a long-time friend of the Center, and even sits on our board!

For her 2014 book, The Imaginary World Of…, Center Co-Director Steve Lambert was asked to write a few words on Utopia, so he did…

(Also – check out her latest book, “The Wander Society“)


On Utopia

The problem with reality is it’s so easy to see.

Look around. There it is.

Go outside. There’s some more.

You can’t leave reality’s presence. It’s always there to remind you and it all seems so tangible and permanent. So real.

In fact, it’s not permanent at all. Things are always changing and in the long term, everything is temporary. Also, our idea of what reality is is never complete – after all, we can’t know everything. On top of that, our idea of reality is usually inaccurate – some of the great moments in life are when we learn things and change our minds. That’s how we grow.

When we think about the future, this reality can get in the way. Our incomplete and incorrect ideas of reality, and reality’s persistence, end up tainting our imagination of what is probable in the world. The resulting visions of the future are tainted as well, and usually not very different than our current sense of reality.

It takes extra effort and imagination to set those tainted visions aside and dream up a reality we’d prefer, not to mention explore the innumerable futures that are possible.

But why do this? It is certainly more difficult.

Well, it’s definitely more fun. The world as it is could be a lot better. If you’re going to imagine the future, it’s a lot more joyful when you can escape from mistakes we’ve already made and envision something radically new. But there is another reason.

Utopia is a combination of three greek words; Eu (good), Ou (not), and Topos (place). Utopia translated is “good not place”. It is important to remember, as a “not place,” it is impossible to arrive at utopia. The reason we imagine utopias is to provide a point on the compass that orients us on our travels. Without utopia, we’re lost – we are traveling without direction, guessing and hoping that we are moving forward. The purpose of utopia is not a destination, it is to give us direction so we can progress.

‘No One Wants To Watch A Drum Circle’ (and Something for the Letters Section of The Sun Magazine)

Back in 2011, Center Co-Director Steve Lambert wrote a short piece called “No One Wants to Watch a Drum Circle” for the Beautiful Trouble book (which you can read here). That piece was selected to be included in The Sun Magazine in 2014.

After it was published, someone who didn’t like his criticism of drum circles wrote a letter to the editor to complain. The Sun was kind enough to allow him to respond. (Warning – Contains graphic descriptions of sexual acts in public!)

‘No One Wants To Watch A Drum Circle’ (and Something for the Letters Section of The Sun Magazine)

Back in 2011, Center Co-Director Steve Lambert wrote a short piece called “No One Wants to Watch a Drum Circle” for the Beautiful Trouble book (which you can read here). That piece was selected to be included in The Sun Magazine in 2014.

After it was published, someone who didn’t like his criticism of drum circles wrote a letter to the editor to complain. The Sun was kind enough to allow him to respond. (Warning – Contains graphic descriptions of sexual acts in public!)

Hinterland

Medusa, handmade copper chain mail

Medusa, handmade copper chain mail

Susie MacMurray is back with another solo show, Hinterland, at Danese Corey. I plan to be there for the opening reception next week and hope to talk with her in person about the new work, which arrives less than three years after her last solo show in Chelsea. From this distance, it looks like another knockout. I’m eager to see it up close.