On museums and technology

Caption: Gerald Murphy, Watch, 1925.

“Museums innovate at their own risk,” was the way writer Mike Pepi concluded a recent piece for Art in America on New York’s New Museum’s “New Inc.”, the first “museum-led incubator for creative entrepreneurs.”

I’ve been spending a good deal of time recently thinking about our experience of art in 2016. Not just mine but generally how I imagine people are experiencing art both inside and outside of museums in an age of mediated encounters.

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Language, the Mind, and the East vs. the West

Are we, in the West, overly consumed with creating validity through language? In other words, by naming something do we legitimize (or at least think we legitimize) something ie., eliminate the possibility of debate? 

I’m overly obsessed with language and the question of how it affects the way our mind functions analytically, so I was intrigued by Perry Link’s recent New York Review of Books blog post pondering the possibility that Western languages’ preference for nouns in contrast to Eastern languages’ preference for verbs, might lead Westerners to think something exists simply because a noun (label) for it exists. 

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On our absurd art

Image Caption: The Atlas Group – Walid Raad, Notebook volume 72: Missing Lebanese wars, 1989. Attributed to: Dr. Fadl Fakhouri. ©Photo: Walid Raad. Repro: Haupt & Binder.

Contemporary art is at odds. On the one hand it is interested in temporality and the dissolution of the individual as its practitioners attempt to extricate themselves and their work from the grips of the art industrial complex.  On the other hand it is consumed with creating information about art events, thereby preserving it (if you haven’t stopped to look around, much of our art is documentation in one form or another). It seems that, try as we might, despite a million desires and predictions to the contrary, we cannot allow the art object to die.

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Orlando, orlando, orlando

Orlando, orlando, orlando. Could there be a more exhilirating account of the writer’s life? 

From the opening line Woolf announces the freewheeling narrative style she intends to adopt in her whimsical, slightly off “biography” of the Elizabethan aristocrat Orlando (a stand-in for Woolf’s lover Vita Sackville-West) who is constrained by nothing: not time, or sex, or tradition, in a majestic critique of biography, fact, and societal “norms.”

Orlando (and Woolf’s subversive writing style, in all of its breaking of the fourth wall and sly jabs at the dominant male voices of the age) was a modernist before his time. A solitary wanderer, an amateur poet, royalty. A boy who despite his position, finds himself perpetually shifting between emotional extremes, riding high on life only to fall into the depths of despair. Why? Orlando is a writer. And embedded in a raucous adventure story masquerading as biography, we find Woolf is documenting nothing other than the life of a writer, long before we as a culture spent countless words analyzing said life. And who better to lay it out? Woolf knew it, in all of its self-doubt and contradiction, all too well.

“Anyone moderately familiar with the rigours of composition will not need to be told the story in detail; how he wrote and it seemed good; read and it seemed vile; corrected and tore up; cut out; put in; was in ecstasy; in despair; had his good nights and bad mornings; snatched at ideas and lost them; saw his book plain before him and it vanished; acted people’s parts as he ate; mouthed them as he walked; now cried; now laughed; vacillated between this style and that; now preferred the heroic and pompous; next the plain and simple; now the vales of Tempe; then the fields of Kent or Cornwall; and could not decide whether he was the divinest genius or the greatest fool in the world.”

Woolf (seemingly forever tongue-in-cheek) describes Orlando’s love of literature as a disease, an infection, which grows in solitude and leads to an even worse disease – writing. When Orlando catches it, he literally loses years. 

Because of course, as only a writer can know, and as only a writer can dictate, life is not constrained by time.

“Life seemed to him of prodigious length. Yet even so, it went like a flash.”

Orlando is a fantasy novel. In a way. For Orlando is not tethered to time (or anything else for that matter): he falls asleep for days, wakes up in a new century, wakes up a woman. Because why not? “The extraordinary discrepancy between time on the clock and time in the mind is less known than it should be and deserves fuller investigation,” Woolf writes as a biographer’s aside. “The true length of a person’s life…is always a matter of dispute.” Does it not live on, on the page anyways, indefinitely? 

Orlando wallows in the benefits of obscurity and despairs of discovering truth. Words come when she least expects them, when it would be “impossible” for them to appear, and fail him when he tries. She is entranced with the world and sick of it in equal measure. She is on a perpetual rollercoaster between the need for solitude and the desperate craving for companionship, romantic companionship particularly. 

“I have sought happiness through many ages and not found it; fame and missed it; love and not known it; life — and behold, death is better. I have known many men and many women, none have I understood.” 

As some know only too well, brilliance comes only when it is least expected. When Orlando becomes neither submissive to, nor combative of, life and her age, only then can she write. And she writes and writes and writes. 

Of course Woolf also offers herself, in the guise of the biographer, as an exemplar of the writing life. “Thought and life are as the poles asunder,” her biographer declares. So when Orlando sits, there is nothing for the biographer to describe, “life, the same authorities have decided, has nothing whatever to do with sitting still in a chair and thinking.”

The great paradox of writing. Something others have written about far more beautifully than I: “One can never be alone enough to write” (Susan Sontag), the need for, and hatred of, solitude. The need to be of the world and at the same time to be apart from it.

“What is more humiliating than to see all this dumb show of emotion and excitement gone through before our eyes when we know that what causes it— thought and imagination—are of no importance whatsoever?” Woolf facetiously asks, poking a zillion holes in the historian and encyclopedist’s sorry attempts at documentation. It’s not facts that matter silly, she seems to be saying, thought and imagination are the only things that matter.

Orlando concludes abstractly, but before Orlando buries her manuscript near the oak tree which inspired her lifetime spent in search of truth, a life spent writing, she feels the insatiable desire to have her work read. And read it is,  leaving Orlando with a giant weight lifted, a weight he/she has carried with her, as we all have, throughout the tortuous writing process. 

By freeing Orlando of any and all constraints, and any and all absolutes, Woolf has provided her readers with the most gloriously liberating, entertaining, and enlightening account  of the writer’s life anyone had seen up until that point (or, I would argue, will ever see again). Orlando is of course about much more than writing, but writing, for many of us, is life.

The Fragility of Technology

Since I have little time for my own long-form blogging, cross-posting a review of Jeff Zilm’s work I did for the Observer. (Photo Credit Kevin Todora)

Dallas artist Jeff Zilm is engaged in a quest to determine the role art can play in a world riddled with images: What meaning can it possibly have to offer a world over-saturated with visual stimuli?

Specifically, Zilm has his eye on the technology of film and how the medium has transformed not only how we experience the visual world, but also how the comprehensive technology inherent to it is in large part responsible for our image fatigue. In an effort to explore the things which have changed our perception of the visual, Zilm utilizes the tools of the medium itself both symbolically and abstractly, to propose a new artistic language: a language built from deconstruction.

In Lossless Forms for Picture Plane, an overwhelming display of Zilm’s large canvases, ready-made sculptures and film work, on view at the Dallas Contemporary through March 20, audiences have, for the first time, the opportunity to see Zilm’s various bodies of work side by side, grasping the commonalities between his various artistic explorations as they gaze.

Upon entering the Contemporary’s cavernous space, viewers are greeted by an array of Zilm’s “film” paintings; Zilm created the menacing (a descriptor I found myself coming back to throughout the show) gray-scale canvases by liquefying the emulsion from 8mm, 16mm and 35mm black and white films and then brushing or spraying the results across the canvases. The sinister beauty of the works repels at the same time as it attracts, while remaining planted firmly in a history of abstract painting and canvas-based art, without even an awareness of the fact that each painting contains a single film in whole. Zilm tampers with the complex visual information of a film, contained in the mechanisms for recording that information, reducing it to, as far as pure information is concerned anyway, meaninglessness.

Alongside the sculpture Zilm has created from a complete print of the film Alien located in another section of the gallery (an apt choice of film to accompany the eerily alien paintings that surround it), these film-centric works’ strong focus on the art of film and its relationship to the technical tools of film prompts a reconsideration of the meaning we think we’re receiving from the information-laden medium. The pieces work together to prompt a rather stunned response from the viewer, a “Really? This is it?” feeling of discomfort and disappointment in a medium which consistently asserts its omnipotence; a shocking critique of the meaningful, panoptic experience we have, or at least think we have, with film.

The funny thing is that despite having reduced the information contained on the film almost entirely to abstraction, there’s an eerie feeling of recognition as you wander around the exhibition space, the inverse of the idea Zilm seems to be teasing out of his images: the idea that in the 21st century we are perpetually seeing without recognizing.

In later galleries we encounter Zilm’s less interesting “password “paintings, narrow, creatively installed depictions of various combinations of real passphrases which crop up in unusual spots throughout the exhibition space, a tacit reminder of the technology inherent to all that we do, including the conceit inherent to Zilm’s technology-laden analog art.

We also find the space obstructed and our path through the gallery pre-determined by oversize metal sculptures reminiscent of the television and radio antennas we mostly left behind with the turn of the millennium. The, again, alien-like qualities of the oversized sculptures of (formerly) banal household objects are jarring as they dictate our experience of the space — like film, in a way. The sculptures, like Zilm’s paintings, are menacing only if they’re not considered fully. They are, in reality — like film and the images it contains — more fragile than aggressive.

Zilm, like many artists in 2016, is concerned with the paradoxes of life in the 21st century. He’s also interested in the dual nature of film — its power to revolutionize and evolve our experience of the visual world in wholly new ways, at the same time as it desensitizes us, in its ubiquity, to the image’s power. In his work he is not-so-subtly tackling the incongruence between the seemingly all-powerful onslaught of the Internet, film and technology as a whole, and its truly innate tenuousness, pointing out in his intentional destructions and his simple illustrations of the passwords which have come to rule our lives, that the “real” is often self-destructing before our eyes.

To Live A Life

“A bird is an animal with an inside and an outside. Take away the outside and the inside is left. Take away the inside and you see it’s soul.”

In Vivre Sa Vie Jean-Luc Godard juxtaposes a tragic story with stylistic camera work and affectless acting to create a wholly surprising film.

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On happiness, or our lack thereof

Happiness. It’s kind of a national obsession. Just do a quick Google search. It’s nauseating to realize how many Fast Company articles and TED talks are devoted to the subject. Whether we’re young or old, rich or poor, we’re less obsessed with having happiness than we are with talking about why we don’t have it and how we can fix that. As if there were a recipe.

Journalist Jonathan Rauch had a recent story in The Atlantic on the midlife crisis. It’s just another in a long line of well-researched, professionally published stories which have surfaced in reputable publications over the last few years on the subject of happiness, but it prompted me to put down a few of my own thoughts on the subject which I will commence forthwith.

In his story Rauch analyzes specifically the over-stereotyped and over-discussed ‘midlife crisis,’ although he couches the ubiquitous catchphrase in new terms. As Rauch discovered after going through a ‘crisis’ of his own, there is an increasingly large body of research from both economics and sociology experts which shows evidence of something called the u-curve. It’s pretty self-explanatory. Happiness and general life satisfaction follow a u-shaped pattern; you start at the top in childhood/adolescence and young adulthood, grow increasingly harder to please as you approach midlife, then, typically in your early 50’s, you start to climb back up the u, concluding your life generally pretty close to where you started in terms of overall happiness.

Surprising? I think so.

First of all we’ve been using this term midlife crisis to refer to an actual ‘crisis.’ You know the story. Mostly men, it seems, start an affair, buy a corvette and generally act irresponsibly in middle age, a reaction, we (or at least I) have always chalked up to the boredom and malaise that naturally sets in as one begins to realize their youth has flown by and their perceived ‘glory days’ are behind them. What Rauch seems to be positing is that while this ‘midlife crisis’ isn’t a fallacy, perhaps ‘crisis’ is the wrong word.

For Rauch the bottoming out of the u curve in his 40’s evidenced itself more as a foundationless depression. His life was great; dream job, wonderful relationship, good friends, but for some reason, every morning he would wake up with an overwhelming depression, a dissatisfaction that he called “whiny and irrational.”

This midlife depression can last a long time, a decade for some. For Rauch it took until he hit his early 50’s when, despite some “real setbacks,” the “fog of disappointment and self-censure began to lift.”

I’m torn on this one. Science is science and there is certainly a lot of research to back up the idea of happiness following a u-curve throughout life (although all researchers are quick to admit that it is not a catch-all and there are many people to whom it does not apply), but while the findings offer some comfort for those in middle-age who suffer from the same confusing sense of disappointment as Rauch, it’s a bit discomfiting for those of us in our 20’s, especially those of us in our 20’s who are already feeling a sense of “malcontentedness” on a regular basis.

It’s not that I’m unhappy, to the contrary, 80% of the time I would say that I’m very happy. But, like Rauch, despite having what most days I can easily say is my ‘dream life,’ on a fairly regular basis I wake up with an overwhelming sense of depression which, although not always, can last for an entire day, and I find it hard to believe I’m the only person of my generation that experiences something along the same lines.

Maybe I’m a cynical person (okay, not maybe) but I kind of always expected that sense of unhappiness to be fairly prevalent. We’re told a story about life and fed a narrative by the culture at large about how exciting and wonderful our young adulthood is when in reality it is a profoundly confusing time, and no time has it been more confusing than in the 21st century. I chalk it up in large part to the expectation gap, which, happens to be what I believe causes most of life’s strife, be it familial, marital or work-related. I would propose that the expectation gap has been severely exacerbated by a couple of things unique to Millenials;

  • Our generation’s constant exposure to a previously unimaginable stream of content
  • A life lived socially online

We read books, we watch tv, we watch movies, we listen to music, we peruse blogs, constantly, and, perhaps most importantly, we use Facebook or Instagram (same difference for the purpose of my point) obsessively. In his article Rauch discusses his disappointment and how it was in large part driven by comparing himself to others, “where was my bestseller? My literary masterpiece?” But that is something that begins much earlier than middle age in the age of constant exposure.

The gap between our life and the ‘perceived’ lives of those around us often seems ridiculously huge, and this generation is hyper-aware of those discrepancies.

I would hypothesize that, despite all of the cheerleading we do to the contrary, living in the Internet age is causing a profound sense of dissatisfaction.

After two decades of television and life lived in large part online, we expect and often need our accomplishments viewed and thereby affirmed. We not only seek affirmation we’re addicted to it. It’s old hat now to say something along the lines of “if it’s not on Facebook it didn’t happen.” And while we may have collectively moved on to Instagram, it’s really the same thing isn’t it? Another artificial method by which we think we are creating ourselves and our public persona.

Life lived on social media can’t help but inculcate the need to be recognized into its users because the services by definition, are intended to secure attention. The services, by their nature, appear to create what I’ll just call the ‘celebrity’ effect. We, just like the fictional characters we see constantly in our screen-filled life, now function as if our lives are on display. While it may not be a source of pervasive unhappiness for everyone, we’re all affected.

Enter the expectation gap. There comes a time in the life of every 20-something wherein it hits. It hits that despite the Facebook likes and Instagram hearts, you’re still in exactly the same place you would have been without them. Unlike the people on TV you still go home at the end of the day to your normal house with your normal stuff and your normal self. People have already forgotten how impressed they were with your ass in those gym shorts or the picture of the impressive sounding philosophy book you’re currently ‘obsessed with.’

Women aren’t obsessing over the fact that you’re smart and attractive, and that cute guy isn’t going to reach out just because you’re listening to a rare Dinosaur Jr. cut on your iPhone (FYI. If you weren’t aware, there’s a whole codified language in the 21st century of ‘cool’ and ‘not cool.’ Girls that listen to obscure rock cuts would fall into the ‘cool’ category. Moving on.) But despite the fact that we’re not being noticed for what we think we should be noticed, despite that fact, we keep expecting people to notice us don’t we? We keep expecting our manipulated persona to have an effect on our real lives, and when it doesn’t, reality hits. Enter depression.

It’s something unique to the generation of people who grew up living online, and something we’re just beginning to grasp the ramifications of. We’ve already realized what online anonymity allows people to do, but how does the gap between expected recognition and actual recognition affect us?

I say all of this not at all to discount the fact that middle age is hard, but I do so mostly to posit, perhaps, that this u-curve research bullshit is about to get turned on its head thanks to the Millenials, because despite all of our ambition, our smarts and our work ethic (and shut up those of you who want to denigrate said ethic because everyone I know works their ass off, usually at more than one job), I would venture we’re one of the most disappointed generations yet. Not in a debilitating way. In a quiet way. And one smart people tend to realize is entirely our own fault.

Take all of this with a grain of salt, as I’m sure you will. After all it’s one person among millions, one person who has used a very small research sample from which to hypothesize conclusions, and, just like with the u-curve, this certainly won’t apply to everyone. But we don’t talk enough about the sense of disappointment, and even depression, social media instills in its users, probably because, like I mentioned above, it’s not debilitating. It’s quiet and in all honesty, it’s quite easy to ignore most of the time. But I think it’s there and we would all be wrong in asserting that constant exposure to the lives of others doesn’t have an effect on us. Humans weren’t meant to be in constant contact with an extended network. Sometimes we’re meant to be alone and most of us have forgotten what that truly feels like.

If you make it this far, forgive what is a rather incomplete thought. I’m really just beginning to parse through this topic, and there are many more unique factors that contribute to unhappiness, or at least disappointment amongst my generation. Writing is just a way to work through my philosophy.