Thursday, December 4, 2008

Bear Deluxe 28 (Contemporary Art Issue) Hits the Streets. Whadya' think?

Last night Orlo celebrated its 16th birthday with a spirited event at the Someday Lounge in Portland. On hand was the new issue of The Bear Deluxe Magazine to make its official public debut, though it has been around town for the past 10 days or so. Copies were snatched by many loyal readers and leaders from the local arts community. The issue is also now in stores across the country and landing in subscriber mailboxes as we speak.

If you haven't seen the new issue, you can visit the Orlo website ( to find a list of distribution outlets. Around Portland, the surest bet is to look in the outdoor distribution art boxes around the Alaphabet and Pearl Districts, though you can find copies at many other outlets as well.

For those who haven't seen the special issue, it features six individual artists and artist teams (Ryan Pierce, Linda Gass, Lucy and Bart, Maslen and Mehra, Melody Owen, and Josh Keyes) as well an interview between artists Harrell Fletcher and Fritz Haeg, a curator's statement from Massimiliano Gioni, director of special exhibitions at the New Museum, and excerpts from the interactive interview with Stephanie Smith started here on Landscape and Canvas.

Special thanks and call-outs are due to art director Kristin Rogers Brown and senior designer Vanessa Morrow for bringing it all together in a template and design that allow the works to speak for themselves.

Now it's time for the readers to speak. Let's hear your feedback on the new issue as well as related movements happening around the country.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Wrapping up

Ok, back again with what should be my final posts.

To dig back a bit, let's go back into the issue of terminology.

To get back to Tom's and Taylor's posts: "sustainable" is still my term of choice, imperfect as it is. Tom, I completely agree that labels like "environmental" and "eco" are fraught with problems. They sound dated. One of the biggest reasons is that they suggest a practice that's only focused on "the environment" as if that could be detached from these broader interlinked issues. Of course, even "sustainable" has that connotation for some folks. Last month, at a workshop on urbanism and sustainability sponsored by the Dutch magazine Volume, I talked with an architect who felt that "sustainable" has become narrowly synonymous with "helps abate climate change": defined in a narrow way that leaves out all considerations of social justice. That echoes Taylor's comments. If you're both right, we need to either find a new word or reclaim "sustainable" so it's not yet another tool of greenwashing or the kind of shallow, feel-good faddism you mentioned, Tom. So, if we do need new and better terms to help focus our thinking or talk about it to wider audiences ... well, we still have work to do.

But still for now I'll stick with "sustainable art". The others Tom mentioned — "Landscape-based or "place-based" — seem to be related, overlapping terms. Some, but not all, sustainable art deals with specific places; some, but not all, place-based work deals with sustainability. It sounds like we both think that this zone of overlap is an especially fertile area of investigation for artists right now. For now maybe that level of description is enough, without getting too hung up on finding the perfect words.

I also wanted to respond to Tom's question about artists I'd include in "Beyond Green 2". First off, I wouldn't frame a project quite that way. To dream a little... I'd rather do something that might be grounded in an exhibition but would have a different kind of long-term impact, perhaps by fostering truly critical, generative conversations among cultural leaders so we can deal more effectively with sustainability in relation to everyday practice within all manner of art institutions, or by creating structures that support the work of artists who are committed to serious—and seriously playful—work around sustainability (in that broad sense). Even the exhibition portion itself might take an unusual form. In Beyond Green, I consciously cut out site-specific projects since those could only be brought into the exhibition in the form of documentation. I could imagine another kind of show where site-specific work could instead be the focus---a dispersed exhibition that would link new and ongoing projects all around the world. (This would be a counterpoint not only to museum shows like Beyond Green, but also to the biennial model of commissioning new projects for a short burst of energy around one city.) Maybe you have something happen within a museum, or perhaps everything's simply linked through through a website, publication, programs. Design 99's work in Detroit would fit here, or Superflex's onoing biogas project, but I also want to get to know artists who haven't yet been part of the discussions here in Europe and North America. I want to learn more about what's going on in Asia, and Taylor's already pointing to the relevance of some of the work in Brazil.

And of course there's a whole other conversation we could have about art that touches on questions of sustainability but does so purely through representation rather than through hybrid or activist practices. For instance, in the Smart's current show, my colleague Wu Hung examines four Chinese artists' nuanced responses to to the Three Gorges Dam. The artists speak in different ways to the complexities of the dam's impact, and two of them do so through very traditional forms of representation—ink painting and realist oil painting—and they're incredibly powerful, moving works.

Taylor, you asked about Dan Peterman. I've known Dan longer than any other artist in the exhibition; he was part of my first show at the Smart Museum, back in 2000. (The exhibiiton, Ecologies, included new installations by Dan, Mark Dion, and Peter Fend.) Dan's piece for that show was the first to explore the Universal Lab, a defunct amateur laboratory that is the source of most of the materials contained within the travel pods in Beyond Green. I won't go into the Lab here—I'll bring a catalogue when I come to Portland—but it's proven to be an incredibly generative set of materials and issues for Dan, and the travel pods are one of the most succinct objects to come out of the wonderfully sprawling larger project. (We have a set in the Smart's collection and visitors love them.) Dan's been a very important friend and colleague. We've worked together on several projects but he's also inspiring because he's built a practice that is simultaneously extremely localized and globally networked, that moves nimbly through a lot of different kinds of aesthetic and social infrastructures. Check out the Experimental Station ( Dan is one of the founders of this place, which is run through the creative work of a whole community of people. This goes back to our conversation about place...

But I should get back to other work. There's so much that we could talk about; there are a number of issues that we've started and stopped along the way, questions that I didn't get to, more things that I would like to know from all of you. I would have liked to have gotten into a more extended back and forth with everyone. Maybe we can can together while I'm in Portland, to discuss some of these questions in person? That w0uld be fun if we could manage it...

Thanks everyone, and I look forward to seeing you in Portland!

PS: Tom, re Heartland: here's a link to our partners in organizing the exhibition, the Van Abbemuseum, where they've set up a blog covering our research process so far. I need to get some new (and old) information up there... I'd love to talk more about that project and hear more about how it links up with the Portland scene, but let's save that for another time.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Hi everyone,

Back again after a week; thanks for all the posts.

First, I wanted to respond to Linda's concern about Michael Rakowitz's shelf display. It's surprising and also helpful to hear that you read the shelf as a potentially alienating part of the presentation. It's not an art historical in-joke; that reading would probably horrify Michael. Certainly his work draws on many sources including other works of art, but Michael isn't wired toward the cheeky or the smug. He's a storyteller, and a very generous one.

The shelf is part of the paraSITE narrative. I don't see it as a freestanding work of art— conceptual or otherwise—but rather as one of the ancillary elements of his presentation in Beyond Green, along with the the DVD that shows sketches and photographs of Michael's collaborators and their structures in use on the street. The shelf display and DVD help him tell the story of the paraSITE project within a museum gallery. As you say, the inflatable structure says a lot by itself—the dirt on its sides, for instance, makes it clear that it was really used out on the streets--but the shelf and DVD flesh things out. They embody aspects of the project that would otherwise only be shared through a wall label. The bags, tape, scissors stand in for the remarkable fact that most of the paraSITES were made from off-the-shelf materials costing under $10. That in turn suggests that small gestures and micro-experiments like this do have the potential to be taken up by others, that we all have the potential to make a difference in our own ways. Projects like Michael's can foster real change in individual lives while also activating the world of symbols and metaphors, and shifting the dinner-table conversation for those who encounter them. The latter is something that Michael's very interested in, and one of the places that all of these projects can work some magic.

(I should note that Bill Stone's structure, the one included in Beyond Green, was a prototype made out of more expensive and sturdy materials, not plastic bags. And most of them were used in Cambridge, MA so I suspect they'd stand up to Portland...)

More to come on the rest...

Hi Stephanie:

I'd like to ask a follow-up question to Taylor's concern that "the two faces of sustainability---the ecological and the human---take so much effort to unify in the minds of the public."  For me, the most effective---and poetic---object in Beyond Green is Michael Rakowitz's paraSITE inflated igloo for Bill S.  With very little contextural information, the viewer understands immediately that this is an inventive and workable means of supplying shelter for a homeless person, and one can spin from there the possibilities and challenges of public service entities collaborating with commercial building owners, etc., etc.  Far less successful, for me, is Rakowitz's "installation" where he provides a rudimentary shelf for which the exhibition venue must provide boxes of plastic garbage bags, packing tape, and scissors.  I am interested in your views about how conceptual art, at this level, can be effective in conveying a sustainability message. . . I assume that Rakowitz is making a coy historical reference to Duchamp's Fountain, and the subsequent 90+ years of readymades and found art making.  I also assume that Rakowitz is suggesting to the audience that if only a person had garbage bags, packing tape, and scissors---hey look!  You, too, can make a shelter.  Maybe Rakowitz can fashion a shelter out of these materials (although I would like to see it weather an Oregon January), but I fear that most (or at least many) gallery visitors cannot make the leap between these raw materials and the possibilities for real solutions (I might be short-changing the average viewer, but I don't think so).  In this case, the artwork seems cheeky and intended for an "in" audience, which thereby keeps the artwork in the realm of the intellectual and the culturally elite, and not in the world of real life, even though I value and respect conceptual art.  Can you comment?   

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

While I am also growing tired of the word ‘sustainable,’ I think it has enabled artists to create environmental work without the stigma of being perceived as an environmentalist (a radical).  In the process, the environmentalist stigma seems to have abated in recent years.  But what enabled the mainstream to embrace the idea of sustainability?  I wish it were because of the social justice issues that it inherently includes, but I suspect it was the profitability of so-called sustainable products, and the subsequent commercial and media coverage, that drilled the word into our lexicon.  Certainly disasters like Katrina have helped to remind the public that sustainable design is not just a luxury for the ecologically minded elite, but I don’t get the sense that the general public fully understands the difference between sustainable and environmental.  Beyond Green does a great job addressing the human justice aspect of sustainability.


 In some places, those distinctions make all of the difference.  In Brazil, for example, recycled art has proliferated for years.  But because it comes primarily from underserved communities, infamous for drugs and crime, people have stigmatized recycled art and craft much in the same way that they discriminate against the poor.  As one Brazilian woman explained to me, “trash art is just that, trash.  And if it is trash from the slums, it is that much dirtier.”  Now, as environmentalism is becoming increasingly popular in Brazil  (80% of Brazilian NGOs are environment-based), recycled art is drawing new interest in popular culture.  US and European interest in it helps, I am sure.  And I think that as Brazilians become more accustomed to the idea of recycling, their discards will seem more like recyclables and less like trash. But I find it both fascinating and frustrating that the two faces of sustainability-- the ecological and the human— take so much effort to unify in the minds of the public.  And I worry that, as recycling and other ecological efforts take flight in places like Brazil, the technological advancements that result will be reserved only for those who can pay.  How do we as artists respond to this shift, and still remain positive?

It was a strong turnout at the Andrea Zittel talk last night, way beyond fire code: people sitting on the floor, between desks and at right-hand angles to the projected images. Portlanders can't get enough of this stuff.

What I took from Zittel’s presentation (and her work in general) was a reinforcement that contemporary art can’t stop blurring lines wherever possible. Installation, architectural design, drawing, painting, fashion, furniture, and textiles are all part of her whole. The artist's life as art itself is embodied in her fixation on individual living spaces. Place is part of her projects but not an overriding theme. Personal experience, memory and time are also strong elements. Or as Zittel references in her various project names: it’s about an "A to Z" approach…whatever creates emotion.

Stephanie, can you talk about your draw to Zittel's work, and also, how her work in Beyond Green was commissioned or developed? The piece in Beyond Green seems somewhat like a departure from what she presented last night.

What I also took from last night’s event (and it did feel like a happening of sorts) was the reality of how many talented and knowledgeable curators there are in this town. (And for the record, I could never claim to be one of those: I’m an editor, writer, publisher, nonprofit manager and fundraiser…definitely not a professional curator or art historian.)

Finally (for today), my vote for best contribution to Beyond Green is Dan Peterman and his "rolling vitrines," or what I might call "orbs of discarded delight." They seem to work on many levels and are pleasing at face value, whether or not there is a green message associated. They point to both 19th century laboratories as well 21st-century satellite technology. It's as if Peterman captured space trash, vacuum-sealed it and brought it back to display on earth in small, clear-shelled comet balls. [Note to art directors: let’s keep his images big.] Where did you first discover Dan Peterman?

Monday, October 13, 2008

Fad or Fabric


Thanks for your remarks here.

On the issue of place as a defining term, I agree that it is part of a very long continuum. (See Paul Shepard’s Man in the Landscape: An Historic View of the Esthetics of Nature for excellent historical tracking.) Still, I am growing convinced that a new chapter has either begun or is still emerging in infant stages. I say this for several reasons; the primary backdrop being that green issues are no longer perceived by many as fringe, leftist or elite (for the most part). Artists working in this space appear to have more room to be positive and forward leaning. In the post-Katrina era, there’s much more of an interested and accepting audience base. (But then again, perhaps the artists are faced with less risk taking, for better or worse.) Another development is the first generation of students and artists who have graduated from the school of green education. Finally, the primary era of earth works and land art has distanced itself over time. That major shows like After Nature and Beyond Green are popping up more regularly says to me that they are reflecting a heightened social as well as artistic focus over recent years, which may have started some years before Katrina. Can we call it the “Katrina Movement?” (Perhaps you can tell that I have a more political background; we like to talk in terms of movements.”) Then again, maybe it’s less movement and more explosion; something that folks involved in sustainability are worried about—that these concerns are more fad than fabric.

Tell me more about the Heartland show. Its themes of center and periphery seem to relate to the Suddenly: Where We Live Now exhibition currently up at the Cooley Gallery at Reed College ( It’s interesting that Beyond Green and Suddenly are running at the same time in the same city.

Those of us around the magazine are growing tired of the terms “place-based,” “environmental art,” the all-too-awkward “eco-art,” and even to a degree “sustainability.” Perhaps it’s best not to try and define at all, but I have to say something in my grants. I am tending now toward “landscape-based;” it seems general enough to cover a lot of ground but with some measure of specificity. Do you have a preferred term to describe this work?

Say you were to start Beyond Green 2 this year, which new artist (s) would you have to include?

I’m going to hear Andrea Zittel speak tonight at Portland State University. Knowing Portland, it will likely be a packed house. I’ll let you know what she has to say.

For those chiming in, please try and be more specific than general. Also, if you set yourself up to “follow this blog,” you should receive emails on each new posting.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

And adding a few more responses...

Hi all,

I'm back again to add a few more responses to those I posted earlier.



Q: How do you describe your curatorial style?

A: I try to create projects that are both rigorous and generous. I hope the shows that I curate are serious and layered but still accessible to people who aren't already deeply invested in contemporary art.

Over the past nine years my curatorial practice has been, in part, a site-specific response to the Smart Museum and the intellectual energy of the University of Chicago. At their best, university art museums like the Smart offer platforms for experimentation and for quite special kinds of collaborations. So I think about how to make the best use of this platform. I ask whether a project can do something useful within this context, in this place, at this moment. I think about sustainability in relation to mission: is this an idea that is responsible for the Smart to pursue, one that makes the best possible use of resources (materials and energy but also money, time, passion)? All of these parameters are incredibly useful. In the case of Beyond Green, the show is one of a series of thematic exhibitions that have explored living artists' responses to pressing social issues, so it has a strong context in the Smart's program. Still, when I started working on it seriously in 2003, "green" and "sustainable" weren't really at the tips of any tongues so the idea could have been easily dismissed. I'm grateful that the Smart took the risk of launching the project and that iCI collaborated with us to make the tour possible.

In terms of style, my process tends to be open and collaborative and a bit messy. Most of the shows start when I notice resonances among strong works of art that suggest a theme. If the theme seems timely, a strategic fit for the Smart, and something that I'm personally excited about, I'll take it further. I usually go big at the beginning, playing around with the myriad ways that a project might take shape and the many artists and other partners who might be involved. I'll look into other work that might amplify or extend or challenge the theme—work that is aesthetically rich as well as conceptually appropriate. Then I hone. It's an oscillation between hypothesis and evidence, intermixed with all the other pragmatic, logistical wrangling that's such a huge (and usually very enjoyable) part of putting together an exhibition.

Q: What have you seen in the field that captures your attention post work on Beyond Green?

A: I have pretty catholic tastes, so there's a lot that I'm paying attention to now. Here I'll stick with a few examples that connect to sustainability and also to some of my post-BG work. In Detroit, I love the projects of Design 99 and the Detroit Tree of Heaven Woodshop. In New Orleans, Marjetica Potrc did a terrific post-Katrina case study project, and I'm just starting to learn about the work of Transforma Projects. (Transforma builds on Rick Lowe's endlessly inspiring prior work with Project Row Houses in Houston.) These projects link back to the question Tom posed for my last post: place matters to this work. The artists are responding to the particular qualities of New Orleans and Detroit, but rather than merely romancing the ruins of these cities' former glory they're using the challenging conditions of the present as catalysts for new ways of working. The particular characteristics of these cities—symbolic as well as actual—offer rich terrain for new thinking about how culture can provide a safe zone for meaningful experiments, and how art can contribute to sustainable communities. I think of this as "making the world you want to live in."

Q: The After Nature show at the New Museum in New York is very apocalyptic. Beyond Green is very optimistic and solution-oriented. Is there still a role for the very angry artist?

A: I wouldn't characterize the sensibility of After Nature as angry. Apocalyptic, though, yes, and melancholy. But in any case, yes of course there's room for anger. There's a lot to be angry about these days, if you're wired that way. But hope's crucial too. Within art, the question always is whether anger or optimism or any other mood is expressed within the work in a necessary and convincing form.

Q: What does it say that major museums and institutions are following these issues?

A: On one level it's great since this is a reflection of a positive cultural shift. Portland's understood the importance of sustainable living for a long time, but now more people in other parts of the country are catching up. It's great that museums are putting on exhibitions that respond to this shift as well as to the merits of the art itself. But ... there's a lot more to do. It could come off as simply trendy. It could reinforce an unfortunate tendency for "sustainable" to be equated with "environmentally friendly" rather than understood in a broader sense that includes both environmental and social justice. So, as I've written elsewhere, we should do our best to bring sustainable thinking into our daily practices as artists, cultural workers, institutions. We need to get to the point where sustainability—in its broadest sense—is lived and breathed as a core institutional value. We could also do more to support long-term interaction among artists and thinkers in other disciplines who are also grappling with these questions. I'm starting to talk with some European colleagues about a post-BG project that would explore this bigger set of issues.

Q: How many green artists does it take to screw in a light bulb? (This is a trick question.)

A: Thanks for the warning, Tom. One green artist would, I suppose, be able to handle the task of replacing a conventional bulb with a compact fluorescent one. A sustainable artist, on the other hand would...what, let's see...might start by questioning whether that particular light is really necessary...and then might consider whether it might be more entertaining and efficient to craft a new lamp using the oil left after frying up a batch of organic, locally-grown heirloom potatoes....oh, it's getting late in Chicago and I'm reverting to stereotypes. I need help... Anyone?

Getting started....

Tom, thanks for these questions, and thanks everyone for participating. I'm sorry to be a little slow off the blocks; I just returned from three weeks out of the country working on another exhibition and have been settling back into the swing of being home.

I'm looking forward to our discussion. I'll start with a few things now and follow up shortly.


Q: Here in the Pacific Northwest, and really all over, so many artists are adopting a relationship to place as part of their work. Is it enough to call it a “movement?”

A: Place has been a factor in art for a long, long time, so no I don't think it's fair to use it, alone, as a defining term. I'd be more interested in thinking about the particular ways that specific places inflect content, and more importantly, whether there's something in the air right now that makes attention to local territories compelling in different ways than it has been in the past. Attending to the local has a different urgency now than it did a few years ago, but it has to be done in a sophisticated way, as part of a critical dialogue with other places/practices. This hooks into another project I'm working on, a show called Heartland that looks at art produced in and about the middle part of the country. We've been talking about redefining old notions of center and periphery, and new ways of thinking about interactions between the two.

Q: How do you view audience participation in the artistic process? When does that work, and when doesn’t it, and how do you know?

A: I'm not sure exactly what you mean by audience participation. Since you say "audience" I'm assuming you mean interaction with a finished piece rather than participation in the development of the work, but let's talk about both.

An example of the latter would be Michael Rakowitz's PARASite shelter/sculptures. He designs each portable inflatable tent in collaboration with the specific homeless person who will use it: the one in the show was designed for a man named Bill Stone, who returned his shelter to Michael when he no longer needed it. A tool that I still find useful in analyzing the complexities of this kind of socially enaged, participatory work is a diagram from Suzanne Lacy's essay in Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art (1992) in which she visualizes the different audiences who will encounter the work and notes the need to assess quality in relation to those different audiences. In Michael's case, you'd use one set of criteria in relation to the experience of Bill Stone as a co-creator and "real-world" user, another for the people who saw the actual object in use on the streets, another for those who encounter the work in Portland in the galleries at Lewis and Clark, another for what Lacy calls "the audience of myth and memory"---those who encounter the work through documentation and media reports.

It doesn't get any simpler in relation to audience participation with finished works in a gallery setting. We train people not to touch, so it can be confusing when they encounter works that require physical interaction. I haven't figured out the right way to handle this yet. We experiment with labels, training guards to invite people to interact, etc. but every strategy has its problems. I also suspect that very few people actually follow up on the actions that artists propose in connection with museum projects. I have no idea how many people have used the orange wrappers that Free Soil created as takeaways. I'd love to think that as Beyond Green has traveled, visitors to the exhibition have taken Free Soil's fliers out into the world, wrapping adorable graphics and thought-provoking statements around oranges in their local grocery stores and leaving them for unsuspecting customers. You'll have to keep your eyes peeled in Portland!

To step back a bit from the show: usually, physical interaction is limited to moving through a gallery, seeing work from different angles, comparing and contrasting with other works on view. We ask viewers to make meaning by looking closely, assessing what they see, and making connections to their own knowledge. This is certainly a form of audience participation. At its best, such a process of choosing to look and think about works of art can yield an incredibly satisfying and powerful form of engaged spectatorship. It's not too much of a stretch to say that when viewers intentionally open themselves up to complex art—whether or not that art has any political content or intent—they fire up mental and experiential processes that feed their capacity to be more critically engaged and discerning citizens. I believe this even though I'm sure that it doesn't happen as often as it could or should ... but that's another conversation.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Invited Curators

Hi Stephanie,

Here's who has committed to the blog so far:

Taylor Stevenson, Curator, Live Debris Project
Linda Tesner, Director, Ronna and Eric Hoffman Gallery, Lewis & Clark College

Thanks to everyone for being involved.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Hi Stephanie

Hi Stephanie:

Here's my first set of questions. Alas, I came up with a few more than I originally intended. Don't feel like you have to answer them all and take them in any order. Others should be entering the discussion beginning on Saturday.

To get things started:

What personal predispositions led you to select these artists in Beyond Green?

How do you describe your curatorial style?

What have you seen in the field that captures your attention post work on Beyond Green?

There is a strong craft element to the show, albeit modern craft. Is this a reflection of the theme or just a reflection of the revitalization of craft in particular?

To what extent did aesthetics play in your selection process? Or were the artists’ chosen more on a conceptual basis?

So much of Beyond Green, by definition and intent, is focused on or derived from a sustainable design perspective. There is a high degree of functionality in many of the works. Is this pointing us toward technology as the answer to many green challenges?

Here in the Pacific Northwest, and really all over, so many artists are adopting a relationship to place as part of their work. Is it enough to call it a “movement?”

Do you see these artists as establishing something new…how do you place them in the context of “environmental art,” even though none of them would ever likely use that term?

The After Nature show at the New Museum in New York is very apocalyptic. Beyond Green is very optimistic and solution-oriented. Is there still a role for the very angry artist?

What responses to the Beyond Green exhibition have surprised you most? What’s your favorite success story associated with the show?

What does it say that major museums and institutions are following these issues?

How do you view audience participation in the artistic process? When does that work, and when doesn’t it, and how do you know?

How many green artists does it take to screw in a light bulb? (This is a trick question.)