Mar 28, 2009

Two tips about flying

Two things I've learnt on the transatlantic hop:
  • If you ever fly virgin, remove those little security stickers they apply to the back of your passport within 24 hours. If you don't, they adhere to the back of the passport and over time it becomes a gummy mess.

  • After pushing the flush button in an airplane toilet, you have about 2 seconds to put your fingers in your ears.



[published in ArtArtArt Issue 6 | The New Cultural Imperialism]

I saw the light, B/W photographic print, Lindsay Seers, 2005.

In Lindsay Seers’ moving video documentary of her life, shown in the Altermodern exhibition at Tate Britain, we are told by several narrators of the artist “becoming the camera” and later “becoming the projector”. These two becomings involve Lindsay placing a piece of film in her mouth to form an image, or strapping a projection device to her head to project light out into the world.

Nicolas Bourriaud, curator of Altermodern as well as writer and theorist, seems particularly drawn to these types of transformations today. Listing more examples, he writes in the exhibition catalog of how Simon Starling relocates a piece of furniture from one continent to another by radio waves, Katie Paterson transmits silence from the Earth to the Moon and back. And Darren Almond teleports bus shelters from Auschwitz into the gallery.

None of these becomings actually took place. Just as, this morning, when I filled my mouth with water, I did not become a water bottle. In common language, words like “camera” and “teleport” are too specific to bend this far.

What Altermodern proposes, through language and imagery, is a lyrical take on contemporary art – one where the artist becomes a poet or a shaman figure, capable of performing mystical transformations, living a nomadic lifestyle. We see in the exhibition catalog Shezad Dawood and Olivia Plander use imagery of American Indians, and Sparticus Chetwynd writes of rituals and of entering into a state of trance. But perhaps the clearest example of this nomadic theme is artist Marcus Coates, who literally dons animal outfits and performs shaman rituals, as confusing as they are funny.

Badger-skin headdress: Firebird, Rhebok, Badger and Hare by Marcus Coates 2008, from the Telegraph review of Altermodern.

The poetic tone in Altermodern is a new departure for Bourriaud, whose earlier theorizing is far more operational. In his book Relational Aesthetics (1998) Bourriaud describes how Christine Hill works as a checkout assistant, Cattelan feeds rats cheese, and Hirakawa puts an ad in a newspaper. These are mundane everyday tasks. No magic here. In relational aesthetics, instead of the artist transforming, it is the viewer who is transformed by the experience. Relational art adopts a collaborative model, one that rejects the authorship of the artist. The attention is on the everyday (serving a meal, watching a movie) rather than the market-driven aesthetic objects in galleries. Relational aesthetics is always both anti-author and anti-aesthetics.

In constrast, Altermodern embraces aesthetic objects. Loris Greaud's installation vibrates with minimalist aesthetic austerity, and Subodh Gupta's mushroom cloud of stainless steel utensils has an arresting presence, to name just two examples. Authorship also returns, and many of the selected artists have strikingly individual voices. Bob and Roberta Smith places humorous shrines in the galleries once a week, consisting of painted signs and found objects. He calls them a "physical conversation." These temporary altars are based on conversations that Smith and Bourriaud hold each week. Although outtakes of the conversation appear on some of the signs, the original conversation remains private. Smith therefore occupies a position of authorial power – as an interpreter, filtering a private event to create an aesthetic representation for public consumption. This, too, has a shamanistic feel – Smith is talking to the “gods” of theory (or god in this case) and producing public signs based on this private interaction.

The return to aesthetic objects and authorship in Altermodern is not a rejection of the social. Bourriaud retains his commitment to the dynamic circuit of relations that extend beyond the art object. Each artwork in the show refers in some way to something outside of itself, removing any pure notion of autonomy. For instance, Ruth Ewan’s gargantuan accordian is a monumental aesethetic object. It is also also a working instrument used in social song gatherings. Through this dualism Ewan embraces a wider and more diverse relationship between the social and the aesthetic.

Since the 90's in art there has been a split between what you could call autonomous art practices (such as painting and sculpture) and social art practices (which cover a wide range of relational and collaborative activities). These two camps have tended to sneer at each other. The social crowd labels their counterparts too elitist and market oriented. Meanwhile the autonomous crowd responds with accusations that social practices lack rigorous criteria for evaluation or artistic relevance.

Through Altermodern, Bourriaud is, it would seem, joining Claire Bishop’s call (in Rediscovering Aesthetics, 2009) to seek art that exists in the midway point between social and autonomous, weaving together elements of both. Such art clearly argues from opposite poles at once - being both aesthetic and anti-aesthetic, authorial and anti-authorial. In the worst case the result of this hedging is a total cancellation: art which tries too hard and fails in a compromise that lacks any coherence. However, I think Altermodern (and other recent shows) indicate that when such art succeeds, it does what all great art does: it exists as a paradoxical hydra, a multi-headed creature where no one head defines the identity of the whole.

Mar 23, 2009

Empty storefronts for art

James Wagner recently wrote in his blog about putting art in the vacant storefronts in New York:
We absolutely should be doing this already. We have experienced people in place in several institutions now who could act as administrators and curators. We're going to have a lot of vacant stores for a while; artists never have enough spaces to show work; and most people never see enough art. It might have been a bit of a hard sell twenty-five or thirty years ago but today real estate owners and developers should jump on the idea. Art is now taken more seriously, and capitalism, well, it's not. I worked as a liability underwriter when I moved here, and it was clear to me that the biggest obstacle for these installations would always be the difficulty and expense of getting insurance to cover property owners who might otherwise be supportive. It still is. By the way, one of my company's biggest competitors, AIG, was always the most aggressive underwriter for this kind of odd risk arrangement. But New York City self-insures; there's no reason why it's not in the interest of the whole regional economy to absorb the risk for these minimal exposures. The idea is to turn the visual and performing arts, already integral to both the soul and the pocketbook of all New Yorkers, into an even more vital, attractive and economically-valuable part of New York (maybe the most successful part economically), at least until the rest of the economy can be reconstructed.

Why turn to curators already at New York institutions? They have a platform for expressing their curatorial agenda. Far more healthy would be to turn to the thousands of independent, emerging curators, as well as emerging artists who want to self-curate but don't have an opportunity to do so. If vacant shopfronts are used for art, they should be in ways that challenge the existing power structures in the art world, rather than strengthen them

Regarding administration, I wonder if the New York BIDs can assist with this. What would be ideal is:

  • an adminstrative agent such as a BID that acts as the broker connecting curators (or artist-curators) with landlords
  • a blueprint set of documents outlining a short term (six weeks?) lease structure that makes sense both to the artist/curator and the landlord.
  • a tax abatement program for landlords who join the scheme.

I once went to a talk by Derek Denckla from The Propeller Group ( who said that tax abatements would be important to get the landlords on board. There are already tax abatements for landlords who work with non-profits. My understanding is that they are complex and would need to be streamlined and simplified to make the suitable for short-term rentals.

On liability insurance, I think this one will end up falling on the folks who rent the spaces. Fractured Atlas lists several liability insurance options for artists.

Mar 22, 2009

California College of the Arts


I'm pleased to announce I have been appointed a visiting artist at the California College of the Arts (CCA). Kate and I will be going to San Francisco for a year, starting in September. I have a joint position in the critical studies, graduate art and graduate design programs. I will be teaching and also making new work and presenting my work there.

CCA was founded in 1907. It has around 1600 full time students, and is the largest independent school of art and design in the western United States. When I visited, the scale of the space reminded me of Goldsmiths. The photo above shows the new graduate center. I'll be posting regularly about the transition on my blog here.

Three Fishbowls


I want to make some comments on the relationship between participatory art and aesthetic art. First I will describe three "fishbowl" artworks. Last year was a big year for fishbowl art. I am thinking of three installations in particular: Do-Ho Suh's Reflection, Leandro Erlich's Swimming Pool and Tomas Saraceno's Observatory: Air-Port-City.

These three works share many qualities. They use surprise and humor (haha, look at the funny creatures in there). They rely on industrial materials, transparency and translucency to achieve their effect. All three adopt a split-level structure, dividing the audience into two classes on two different levels, where visitors on a higher level can see/be seen by the people on the lower level, separated by a layer of material.

By positioning the audience behind a transparent material layer, these works create an "inside", a site of containment and display, that references spectatorship and the beholder. Through drawing attention to the environment we live in and its constructed nature, the works of course reference the virtual. They also engage the audience in looking at each other, and in this sense they are all social works, the audience participates in social forms of play.


Tomas Saraceno
Observatory, Air-Port-City (2008)
Photographed at Hayward Gallery in 2008

Observatory utilizes materials in a direct and utilitarian manner to create a fairground ride, a high tech Bouncy Castle on the top of a museum. Members of the public are allowed to enter the upper or lower portion of a large spherical structure. The upper floor is made from translucent plastic. People below can see can look up and see the upper deck people floating above them.

The message here is - bounce around, have fun, enjoy!

Observatory is similar to Carsten Holler's slides at the Turbine Hall of the Tate modern: art as a thrill ride, artist as an enabler of an experience. Much of the success of these types of work depends on operational pragmatics. For example, both Holler's slides and Saraceno's Observatory suffered from long lines and strict health and safety restrictions. As a value judgement, I can say I enjoyed the ride down the slides at the Tate far more than the Observatory, mainly because the guards at the Observatory repeatedly told us not to bounce. All that waiting and the payoff was anticlimactic.

As art, Observatory is closest to a pure relational model. The focus is on the audience and participation. The dome is a big industrial object that is impressive and quite striking to look at. But the aesthetic forms at play are fairly established, conservative rather than complex. There is little to shock or frustrate, little that is unexpected. Observatory reaffirms the spectacle and arts' role in it, rather than offering a critique.

Swimming Pool

Leandro Erlich
Swimming Pool (2004)
Photographed at P.S. 1 in 2008

An encounter with Swimming Pool happens in three stages. First, you see what looks like a swimming pool, your believe it is a real indoor pool. Second, you see people standing below, it only takes a moment or two to understand that it is a fake swimming pool, a trick. Third, you decide to believe in the illusion anyway, to treat it as real even though you know how it works, so you can enjoy the oddity of seeing people standing at the bottom of the pool.

In Swimming Pool, Erlich uses a transparent acrylic sheet and a thin layer of water to create the illusion of a small indoor swimming pool. Swimming Pool has a strong social element, since the piece works best when there are some people below and some above. The audience activate the work.

However, the piece is not purely social. At its core it is illusionistic. Like a magic trick, the artist takes on the role of the magician. The suspension of disbelief that happens in Swimming Pool is similar to our experience with realist paintings - you know that what you are looking at is not "real" but decide to believe it in any case. Swimming Pool is therefore activating aesthetical concerns. Swimming Pool reclaims the role of the artist as an individual capable of facilitating transformations. The scale of the model is important. Swimming pool is a modest pool, almost intimate, the kind you could imagine having in a small private residence. It has a hand-made feel to it, there is some evidence of the artist's hand. You can imagine the artist making the model in his studio. All of these factors temper the social element in Swimming Pool.


Do-Ho Suh
Reflection (2004)
Photographed at Lehmenn Maupin Gallery in 2008

For Reflection, Do Ho Suh created a model of an archway out of silk, then made a duplicate of the model, and positioned the two models stacked vertically, so one appears to be the reflection of the other. Viewers can either enter the lower chamber, and look up through the "water" (a thin layer of silk), or enter a balcony above and look down into the water.

When I first encountered Reflection I was on my own in the space, and the archway evoked a dreamy and slightly eerie impression. Reflection has sufficient autonomy as a sculptural object that it does not need multiple people present in the space to activate it. It functions well as a sculpture in its own right. In this respect it differs from Observatory and Swimming Pool, which both function best with a group of beholders.

During my visit, some people entered the lower space while I was upstairs. What struck me was how the people became entwined in the exhibit - I found myself imagining them as carp in a pond. Rather than the surrealist "oh there are people beneath the water" sight-gag of Swimming Pool, or the art-as-play of Observatory, in Reflection I found myself caught in representational and imaginary modes of thinking. In this respect, Reflection was, of the three pieces, the least participatory, the most reliant on aesthetic values.

Art and the social turn

I first mentioned the essay "The Social Turn" by Claire Bishop in my post on the Deller show at the New Museum. Taking up that essay again, Bishop at one point remarks on how we must reevaluate the terminology we use to evaluate socially engaged art:

The development of a new artistic terminology by which to discuss and analyze socially engaged practices is now an urgent task - and one that is not assisted by the present-day standoff between the nonbelievers (who reject socially engaged work as marginal, misguided and lacking artistic interest of any kind) and the believers (who reject all aesthetic questions as synonymous with the market and cultural hierarchy). If the former risk condemning us to a world of market-driven painting and sculpture, the latter self-marginalize to the point of artistic and political disempowerment.

Bishop refers us to a set of binary oppositions identified by Gillian Rose which capture the two sides of this standoff:

  • active and passive viewer
  • egotistical versus collaborative artist
  • privileged versus needy community
  • aesthetic complexity versus simple expression
  • cold autonomy versus convivial community

However, as Bishop is quick to note, these kinds of binary oppositions are too reductive. A productive rapprochement must take place.

I think this is beginning to happen. The work of Do-Ho Suh, Leandro Erlich and Tomas Saraceno shows there are many shades to participation, a spectrum of midway points between pure aesthetics and pure sociality. Artists in the future will seek new positions, awkward balancing points, which lie between these two poles.

Mar 21, 2009

Morph says goodbye


Pryers photo stream

Earlier this month fans placed a cluster ofmorph figures outside the Tate to commemorate British TV presenter Tony Hart, who died in January aged 83. Like everyone who grew up in England in the 70s and 80s, I remember Tony's Take Hart, his popular children's series. Here's a sample of the 1976 series:

Hart focused on low-tech and playful techniques for making. The episode above shows Hart using kitchen utensils as stencils, and using fingers to "walk" paint across a piece of paper. Stop motion animations also featured regularly, most memorably Morph, a creature created by Aardman Animations of Wallace and Gromit fame. Hart's mixture of animation and inventive use of materials is an aesthetic that lives on in the films of Michel Gondry.

I hope the BBC commissions a special episode of Morph to commemorate Hart.

Mar 16, 2009



I was recently in London, and attended a lecture at Goldsmiths by Adrian Rifkin, professor in art writing. Rifkin's lecture was on the topic of art research. One thing that caught my attention was his remarks on disciplines.

In the lecture, Rifkin commented that he wasn't an advocate of the words interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary. Transdisciplinarity, he said, implies the imposition of a single sovereign transcendental discipline, one discipline to rule them all I suppose. Interdisciplinarity implies merging several sovereign disciplines into a new discipline. Both retain the sovereignty of disciplines: they suggest we start with disciplines as a base and build from there.

Rifkin preferred adisciplinarity: without a discipline. He suggested as an example that art can be adisciplinary. Art is annunciatory, in art it is possible to make things that don't recognize disciplinary boundaries, or that confuse and disrupt those boundaries in productive ways. (See my previous post on Jeremy Deller).

When I thought about this later, I thought perhaps the Internet, too, might be described as adisciplinary, without a discipline. The universal linkage of anything to anything else flattens disciplinary boundaries. So perhaps adisciplinary makes sense.

As a holder of degrees in different fields, some people refer to me as interdisciplinary, and I share Rifkin's discomfort with this word. When I think, I don't think in terms of disciplines. If someone starts talking about unbalanced hashing functions or about minimalism I don't switch between a "science" or "art" discipline. We all have what Wittgenstein called a mental toolbox, a compound collection of professional languages, tools and ideas that we work with. Disciplines make no sense in that framework.

Also, perhaps strangely, when people talk of disciplines, I find myself thinking of my friend's dog Rocko. Rocko, who is good at tricks, is at times well-disciplined, and at other times needs disciplining. These other aspects of the meaning of discipline - being in control or being punished - are important. Disciplines are not simply an organization of knowledge, they encode power structures. Foucault was thinking along these lines when he wrote "Discipline and Punish." Here is an extract from Part III of Discipline and Punish where Foucault discusses the relationship of control and power in the formation of disciplines:

"To begin with, there was the scale of the control: it was a question not of treating the body, en masse, 'wholesale', as if it were an indissociable unity, but of working it 'retail', individually; of exercising upon it a subtle coercion, of obtaining holds upon it at the level of the mechanism itself - movements, gestures, attitudes, rapidity: an infinitesimal power over the active body. Then there was the object of the control: it was not or was no longer the signifying elements of behaviour or the language of the body, but the economy, the efficiency of movements, their internal organization; constraint bears upon the forces rather than upon the signs; the only truly important ceremony is that of exercise. Lastly, there is the modality: it implies an uninterrupted, constant coercion, supervising the processes of the activity rather than its result and it is exercised according to a codification that partitions as closely as possible time, space, movement. These methods, which made possible the meticulous control of the operations of the body, which assured the constant subjection of its forces and imposed upon them a relation of docility-utility, might be called 'disciplines'. Many disciplinary methods had long been in existence - in monasteries, armies, workshops. But in the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the disciplines became general formulas of domination. They were different from slavery because they were not based on a relation of appropriation of bodies; indeed, the elegance of the discipline lay in the fact that it could dispense with this costly and violent relation by obtaining effects of utility at least as great. They were different, too, from 'service', which was a constant, total, massive, non-analytical, unlimited relation of domination, established in the form of the individual will of the master, his 'caprice'. They were different from vassalage, which was a highly coded, but distant relation of submission, which bore less on the operations of the body than on the products of labour and the ritual marks of allegiance. Again, they were different from asceticism and from 'disciplines' of a monastic type, whose function was to obtain renunciations rather than increases of utility and which, although they involved obedience to others, had as their principal aim an increase of the mastery of each individual over his own body. The historical moment of the disciplines was the moment when an art of the human body was born, which was directed not only at the growth of its skills, nor at the intensification of its subjection, but at the formation of a relation that in the mechanism itself makes it more obedient as it becomes more useful, and conversely. What was then being formed was a policy of coercions that act upon the body, a calculated manipulation of its elements, its gestures, its behaviour. The human body was entering a machinery of power that explores it, breaks it down and rearranges it. A 'political anatomy', which was also a 'mechanics of power', was being born; it defined how one may have a hold over others' bodies, not only so that they may do what one wishes, but so that they may operate as one wishes, with the techniques, the speed and the efficiency that one determines. Thus discipline produces subjected and practised bodies, 'docile' bodies. Discipline increases the forces of the body (in economic terms of utility) and diminishes these same forces (in political terms of obedience). In short; it dissociates power from the body; on the one hand, it turns it into an 'aptitude', a 'capacity', which it seeks to increase; on the other hand, it reverses the course of the energy, the power that might result from it, and turns it into a relation of strict subjection. If economic exploitation separates the force and the product of labour, let us say that disciplinary coercion establishes in the body the constricting link between an increased aptitude and an increased domination.

Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 1975. trans. Alan Sheridan, Vintage Books, 2nd Ed (1995). Part III, p.137.

Thinking in this framework, adisciplinarity, the end of disciplines, can be seen as a utopian quest - a quest for an end of control, a quest for a world where all forms of knowledge are equal, and all people are equal. It is a nice vision. However, as Malcolm Gladwell points out in his book Outliers, it takes around ten thousand hours, or ten years of practice, to become a master of a skill. When I go to see a doctor, I legitimately hope the doctor has put in those hours. I would not want to rely on WebMD. This is why we are all willing slaves to the docility of disciplines. Expertise has tangible benefits.

Finally, talking about adisciplinarity masks that, if anything, the world is becoming more specialized. The web has not reduced the number of disciplines, to the contrary, it has multiplied the number of things we now recognize as forms of expert knowledge. Suddenly there is a market, for example, for someone who specializes in jellyfish aquariums. And when I seek an expert, I no longer look for someone who just has the right diploma (the right discipline) - I do a search on their background, training, reviews, website and so on... Web technologies have created a cambrian explosion of disciplinarity, both a daunting and a thrilling prospect.

We have arrived at the age of the 'patadiscipline, dedicated to studying what lies beyond the realm of the interdisciplines. I am a staunch 'patadisciplinarian.

Mar 14, 2009

Jeremy Deller at New Museum


I went to Jeremy Deller's "It is What It Is: Conversations about Iraq" at the New Museum today. Physically it consisted of a livingroom style area where Deller had invited "experts" to come in and talk informally with visitors about Iraq. There was one large physical object in the space, a burnt out shell of a car that was car-bombed in a market in Iraq, literally a shock and awe art object.

Carne Ross was the resident expert during my visit, sitting in one of the chairs and talking at a fast clip. He is a compelling and impressive speaker, with a very real story to tell. He is a diplomat who worked in the British Foreign Office, and helped negotiate several UN council resolutions on Iraq before the war. He resigned in 2004 in protest over the handling of the Iraq war, after submitting a testimony to the Butler Review. This interview with Carne Ross is representative of his position. My own not very eloquent summary (I took no notes so this is from memory) is that (1) the UK government lied to its people to justify an illegal war, a lie he was caught up in, (2) modern diplomacy has become so complex that ministers no longer grasp the ground situation and there is a systemic breakdown, and (3) when a Western democracy lies to its people and fails so systemically, it signals a time when people must stop trusting government to take care of everything, and start taking much more individual responsibility.

I asked Carne Ross how he had come to be part of a show at the New Museum. Carne responded that he knew Deller from school, and had agreed to do the New Museum talk partly because they are friends. He commented that he was uncomfortable being labeled an "expert," that on the whole we rely too much on experts. Many of the people in the government who are called experts have no clue what they are doing, he said. For example, how could he be called an expert on Iraq, even as he helped the UN make decisions regarding Iraq, since he had never actually been there, spoke no Arabic, and had little deep knowledge of the culture.

I next asked Carne how it felt talking about these issues in an art museum. Carne admitted he had reservations talking about Iraq as part of an art project in the New Museum. One of the possible risks of Deller's project, he noted, was that talking about Iraq in popular entertainment, in plays or in art serves as a release valve. It produces discourse but without any actual political consequences. It reduced pressure, allowing people to go "that was a good play, lets go have a beer" etc., whereas what we need is political action. For example he felt there needed to be a public inquiry, much like the 9/11 commission, into the Iraq war. The ministers who made mistakes should be held accountable. He was concerned that talking about Iraq in an art museum would reduce the public demand for an inquiry.

At that moment, another visitor (who identified herself as "I am creative time," I believe it may have been Anne Pasternak) remarked that, in her experience, the opposite occurs. Art can raise awareness of political issues, and through that, increase the demand for political change. Creative Time is a co-sponsor of the Deller show.

This was the most intriguing moment of the event for me, it highlighted some of the complexities that are at play. On the one hand, an experienced career diplomat expressed concerns that mixing art and politics might actually be counterproductive, emptying a drive for real political action. On the other, a seasoned art director expressed enthusiasm for arts ability to raise social awareness and cause real politics to occur.

What I experienced personally at that moment was a sense of conflict. As an artist, I was reluctant to openly disagree with the artistic director of Creative Time, a powerful arts organization. But I agreed with Carne Ross's point. It was actually refreshing to hear someone openly question whether art makes the world a better place.

When I hear people argue that art can produce political betterment, I often think of Eyal Weizman's research on Deleuze, Guattari, Debord and the Israeli Defense Force. Eyal observes that the IDF for a period of time were using critical theory as a way of re-conceptualizing urban war. What Eyal's research illustrates, in my opinion, is that the link between critique (or art) and its object can be very counterintuitive and surprising. Debord's goal when writing the Society of the Spectacle was almost certainly not to supply the IDF with a war manual, yet this is one of the things he achieved. My conclusion is that when artists and intellectuals make claims about any real-world effects of their work, these claims are at most conjecture. The opposite effects may also occur. History has a way of surprising us, we just have to wait fifty years to see...

The sense of conflict that I experienced at Deller's exhibition made me think of an essay I read recently, "The Social Turn" by Claire Bishop (in the book "Rediscovering Aesthetics"). Claire Bishop cites Jeremy Deller as an example of an artist whose works provoke complex reactions. She writes of one of his works that "it harnessed the experiential potency of collective action towards conflicting ends." She continues:

Some important terms that emerge here are "disruption," "ambiguity," and "pleasure," and the way these converge in psychoanalytic accounts of making art. Rather than obeying a superegoist injunction to make an improving or ameliorative art, Deller [and Phil Collins] act upon their desire without the incapacitating restrictions of guilt. This fidelity to their desire - rather than to the judgmental eyes of the big "Other" - enabled their work to join a tradition of highly authored situations that fuse social reality with carefully calculated artifice ... in which intersubjective relations are not an end in themselves but serve to unfold a more complex knot of concerns about pleasure, disruption, engagement, and the conventions of social interaction. Instead of extracting art from the "useless" domain of the aesthetic and fusing it with social praxis, the most interesting art of today exists between two vanishing points: "Art becoming mere life or art becoming mere art."

Bishop's essay is an important call to end the polarizing divide that has existed since the 1990's in the art world between artists engaged in social practices (or relational aesthetics) on the one hand, and artists committed to aesthetic objects on the other. This divide was manifested most recently at the Guggenheim, where the main ramp was given over to theanyspacewhatever, a show on socially engaged art practices, while the Annex exhibited Catherine Opie, a photographer in the more classical sense. Bishop makes a plea for recognizing a middle ground, artwork that does not aim to be purely social or purely aesthetic.

In today's event, I think Deller achieved this. What is crucial in Deller's work is that he involves actual witnesses to history - how often can we sit down and chat with a career diplomat who worked at the UN during the start of the Iraq conflict? It is Dellers intentional crossing of expert and non-expert, art and non-art, history and staging - a car shell that is also a war artifact - which produces a moment that defies classification. In some ways he constructs the very systemic breakdown that Carne Ross identifies at the heart of diplomacy. I don't really know if this is art. That, in all likelihood, may be what ensures that it is.

Bloomberg's Buildings


Jane Jacobs, in “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” famously identified the vital signs of a healthy city. One of her simple ideas with profound consequences is the following:

Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings.

Jacobs' observation was that, in a vibrant city, city blocks “must mingle buildings that vary in age and condition, including a good proportion of old ones.” Jacobs points out that the types of companies that can afford newly constructed spaces are invariably chain stores, banks and chain restaurants, because they can afford the high capital costs associated with new construction. But startup companies, the companies that will produce future growth of the city, these must make do with older spaces. If you eliminate all the older spaces, you also eliminate the potential for future growth.

What is remarkable about Jacobs’ book is that it presents an economic argument for tempering the speed of development. She doesn’t argue that cities should pace construction for nostalgic reasons, e.g. to preserve some idea of the city of the past. Instead, she makes point after point of sound economic sense why cities must avoid the temptation to raze and build.

There are numerous ways to achieve a healthy balance of development in a city. A comprehensive review process is one. Leveraging a tax on developers who buy and flip a building in less than five years is another. The goal is to dissuade developers looking for a fast buck, while encouraging developers who think in longer terms about investing in a community.

Politicians, however, rarely argue for this model of development. Major Bloomberg, well known for his developer-friendly stance, took the opposite tack. During his tenure, Bloomberg doubled the size of the Department of Buildings, which grants building permits. At the same time, he reduced the budget to the city community boards, which review building permit applications. The result was a huge increase in the volume of building permits, with less oversight from the communities that were being developed.

By eliminating barriers to development, Bloomberg achieved his goal of massively expanding construction in the city. For a while, it seemed that every block in Manhattan had at least one building project underway. Many developers saw this as their chance to get rich: buy a building, fast-track a permit, do a demo or gut reno, flip it in eighteen months as luxury condos, and make a huge profit.

The results of this recipe for quick money are now clear. While we have had an unprecedented level of construction of new buildings since Bloomberg came to office, they are not the buildings the city needs. In the economic downturn, we now face a massive glut of unsold luxury condos, unrented newly built storefronts, and stalled building projects that may never reach completion. Meanwhile the city needs affordable apartments, low-rent commercial spaces suitable for new business growth, and hospitals and schools - in short, incentives to keep New York's middle class in the city, something the city is failing to do, according the a report by the Center for an Urban Future published in February.

Jane Jacobs’ book easily predicted the current situation. In what must be economics lesson 101, she argues throughout the book that cities must above all preserve diversity. Diversity is what gives the city its strength in times of crises and rapid change.

Bloomberg argues that he is running for a third term as major because this gives New Yorkers more choice in the election, and it gives us the choice of electing a financially knowledgeable manager.

The New York Times reports today that political opponents are dropping out of the race left and right, because they view Bloomberg’s $80 million campaign war chest as unbeatable. Just as he reduced the diversity of the city’s stock of buildings, Bloomberg is now doing the same for the pool of candidates running for mayoral office. For a man who claims to have economic wisdom, Bloomberg is surprisingly forgetful of his Economics 101.

I hold Bloomberg largely responsible for the city’s unfettered development of buildings for the ultra-rich, and the consequent housing bubble. He will not receive my vote.

Mar 11, 2009

Jon Salad


Large bunch of fresh baby spinach
Fresh basil leaves (a whole handful, twenty or so)
Spring onion, cut into small segments
Other veg, nuts, raisins, sprouts, as available
Half a lemon squeezed (don' be shy)
Olive oil, salt, pepper

Close friends refer to the food I make as "Jon Food". I don't usually follow a recipe. I know the basic sauces and preparations, I have a strong instinct for what will go together, and I do a lot of improvising. I prefer food that is fast to prepare (fifteen to twenty minutes), packs a lot of flavor, and is healthy. I'm not afraid to use a bottled or canned ingredient (e.g. olive tapenade, pesto etc) to speed things up, but I read the ingredients of prepared foods carefully. My rule is, avoid products whose individual ingredients I can't imagine stocking in my kitchen, which rules out anything with e.g. corn syrup or artificial colors.

With no recipes, its hard to explain to people how to repeat what I make. But several people have asked about my salads. My salads tend to combine two main things: first, my friend Kaethe showed me that nothing beats fresh lemon and olive oil as a dressing. I rarely use any other dressing. Its simple, affordable, fast, and tastes great. The second thing is, mix a sweet green with a bitter green to cut the flavor. Basil and baby spinach can do this, but you can also use any lettuce with dandelion, endive, arugula, ... its that combination of sweet, bitter, salty, and sour (lemon) that is so great.