The Visible Invisible: A Ruffled Look at United States History

(Available as part of the Summer 2018 “Labor” edition of Surface Design Journal)

Known colloquially as “green-screen”, chroma-key compositing is a “technical term in video and television for placing a person or an object against a uniform background, onto which any given situation can subsequently be (realistically) superimposed.”[1] Using post-production technology, this uniform “green-screen” background can be replaced, overlaid or projected onto. Oddly, the intensity of chroma-key green is necessary in order to render superimpositions with the proper density of information. The color’s visibility is paradoxically necessary in order for it to remain invisible. Stephanie Syjuco’s most recent project, The Visible Invisible, foregrounds this vivid shade within the rubric of historical garments. Fashioning iconic American dresses out of chroma-key fabric, the artist examines how our historical narrative has rendered certain populations invisible, both literally and metaphorically.

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Stephanie Syjuco, Chromakey Aftermath 1 (Flags, Sticks, and Barriers), 2017. (c) Stephanie Syjuco; Courtesy of the artist and RYAN LEE Gallery, New York.

Syjuco’s work frequently merges physical objects with the unfixed quality of the digital, uncovering relationships between the two worlds. Focusing the “insistent physicality of the digital world”[2] within the realm of the political, the artist examines global flows of capital, hierarchies of power, and activism through playful and complex imagery and pattern. While much of Syjuco’s projects have focused on the outward gaze of the United States toward foreign “others”, her two most recent projects have turned inward, examining what it is to be an American.

In one, CITIZENS, Syjuco’s 2017 exhibition at Ryan Lee Gallery in New York, the artist began her exploration with chroma-key and transparency, continuing her thread of image distortion in the internet era. In one section, Syjuco blanketed an entire gallery wall in the gray-and-white checked transparency background recognizable by users of Photoshop. In another, lush archival-pigment photographic prints featured flags, sticks and barriers, detritus from the 2016 election protests at UC Berkeley, rendered entirely in chroma-key green. Both the pattern and the monochromatic technique render visibility and invisibility in digital visual culture.

In the other, The Visible Invisible, to be first exhibited as part of a larger project at the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery in November 2018, Syjuco continues to expose the subjectivity of historiography by applying the lens of (in)visibility to fashion, labor, and the female form. American history is not always positive and rarely linear, and the strains of our past are woven into each of Syjuco’s garments. Consisting of four dresses emblematic of important periods in United States history, the dresses are constructed almost entirely from chroma-key cotton muslin.

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Chromakey garments that approximate iconic moments in American history. Left to right: Western prairie, American Colonial Revolution, and Puritan pilgrim. Image courtesy of the artist.

The Visible Invisible consists (for now) of four historic adult dresses and one child’s growth-gown, symbolizing iconic moments in American history: a pilgrim dress denoting early settlers, a 1776-style Revolutionary-era frock, a prairie dress representing Manifest Destiny, and a Civil War-era gown. The choices are deliberate; each is a simultaneously celebrated and derided time in US history. Undercurrents of slavery and the genocide of indigenous North Americans, both during colonization and Western expansion, abrade the grain of each garment.

Syjuco constructs each dress from commercially available modern-day patterns from companies like McCall’s and Simplicity. Syjuco says of this decision, “I wanted the mass-produced commercial version. I chose the iconic garments that I assumed the everyday person might be able to identify.”[3] The Pilgrim dress in particular is stereotypical: it is almost cartoonish with its wide, flat collar and upturned cuffs.

Meant to replicate historic dress for the modern home sewing enthusiast, these commercial patterns, though often complicated to construct, are not historically accurate[4]. They provide an inauthentic, aggrandized version of our nation’s past through fashion. Historically accurate patterns are available through specialist companies, particularly for Civil War-era garments. Actual patterns from this period have (miraculously) survived, but the artist’s choice of marginally accurate “costume” patterns accentuates the romanticized and often flawed eye we cast on our own past. As Syjuco hems 120 feet of monochrome green satin into Civil War-era ruffles, she gives us an opportunity to see through the construction of clothing to the construction of history.

Commercial patterns have been mass-produced and distributed since the mid 1850s, with detailed instructions appearing since the late 1800s[5]. Patterns democratized fashion by liberating its production from tailors crafting expensive bespoke garments and contributed to the standardization of sizing, allowing the home-sewer to approximate the style previously reserved for only a wealthy few.

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McCall’s “Misses Centennial or Square Dance Costume” pattern illustration, 1952. Courtesy of the Commercial Pattern Archive.

Paper sewing patterns became available initially throughout the United States by mail order through fashion magazines. With instructions printed or stamped on semi-transparent tissue, suddenly a very complicated bodice became accessible to a casual dressmaker or home-sewer. The accessibility of patterns and their relative ease of construction was advantageous for new settlers during westward expansion. Though newly annexed Western territories offered opportunities for Anglo-American settlers, the Manifest Destiny ideal forced the relocation of indigenous North American peoples onto small tracts of land, driving them out of sight as they struggled to re-establish lifestyles and traditions.

In terms of instruction and materials, contemporary commercial patterns are very similar to the ones of the late 1800s. They offer a plan for garment construction, but leave individual choices (fabric, size, etc.) to the user. Functioning within a commercial or standardized rubric while subverting its intended outcome is a common strategy in Syjuco’s work (see The Counterfeit Crochet Project, 2008 or Cargo Cults, 2016).

For the Civil War-era dress in this series, Syjuco pinned and sewed great lengths of grosgrain ribbon in pleats, attached six rows of ruffles and boned a bodice. A labor intensive process, these embellishments are indicative of the time period, where due to changing social mores and a higher social value placed on dress, elite women worked with seamstresses and dressmakers to recreate the fanciful frocks found in Parisian fashion magazines. Composed in newly available rich colors[6] and bold patterns, heavy silks, taffeta and velvet with embroidery, lace and tatted collars, giant gigot sleeves, and convoluted crinolines and bustles, Civil War-era fashion was extravagant and ornate.

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Pinning intricate ribbon work to embellish the Civil War-era gown. Image courtesy of the artist.

In Syjuco’s version, embellished in layers of monochrome, we can avert our gaze from the marvel of fine fabrics and instead superimpose the complicated class dynamics of the mid-1800s onto the garment. Social gatherings and leisure time, which necessitated such finery, was afforded, at least in part, by slave labor. Tailoring and garment construction was frequently at the hands of slaves and recently freed-women, their labor and specialist knowledge rendered anonymous and invisible beneath each stitch[7]. Contemporarily, the unethical working conditions of sweatshops, fueled by fast-fashion industries, endangers the lives of its workers (as made brutally clear by the 2013 Bangladeshi Rana Plaza tragedy) and keeps its supply chain obscured[8].

All of the costumes created for The Visible Invisible are dresses, and sewing is often coded as feminine labor, but Syjuco resists a purely feminist reading of this work. She says, “I wanted to focus on female garments because I’m interested in how the female form, or being, or personhood, is equated to nationhood.”[9] Bound together, women and nations have both been conceptual tokens of sanctity. The garments are placed on mannequins with white jersey covered heads and pose-able limbs. The blank white faces and bodies, though a common display technique for the exhibition of clothing, are a stark contrast to the chroma-key green fabric. The featureless white mannequins offer a second site for projection, as a stand-in for the anonymous women who would own and inhabit these dresses. Laid bare, these four costumes provide a blank slate, acting as a prompt for criticality.

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Sleeve detail of Civil War-era dress. Courtesy of the artist.

Chroma-key compositing offers a liminal space where the real and the fictional interact: in film, actors are often placed within a sea of green and instructed to react and interact with featureless, objectless co-stars to be rendered only during post-production. The color becomes a placeholder, suggesting boundless potentiality between the real and unreal. This duplicity is at the core of The Visible Invisible, as the commercially viable version of American history is offered up as both a fact and a fiction to be superimposed, replaced, or projected onto. Pairing this relatively new technology[10] integrated with historical dress links past and present. It offers the viewer a critical eye toward past narratives, with the implication that the problem continues in present-day.


[1] Wennberg, Teresa. “Through the Electronic Labyrinth: The Meanderings of a Visual Artist”, Leonardo, Vol. 29 No 3 (1996) p.182-191

[2] Ditzig, Kathleen. “Stephanie Syjuco”, Artforum, 2011.

[3] Interview with the author, 3/22/2018

[4] One blogger/Elizabethan garment scholar called out McCall’s “Victorian Splendor” costume pattern thusly: “…the bastard child of gowns from the mid-1500s and mid-1800s, with some late 1900s/2000s Faire gown and Wedding dress design genes thrown in for good measure.” From RaevenFae Blog, 3/11/2010 (http://raevenfea.com/historical/when-patterns-lie-mccalls-m6097/)

[5] For more information on the history of commercial patterns, see: Emery, Joy Spanabel. A History of the Paper Pattern Industry: The Home Dressmaking Fashion Revolution, 2014, Bloomsbury Academic Press.

[6] The mid-1800s saw the development of synthetic dyes, including Mauveine Aniline dye, a purple shade developed by an eighteen-year-old chemist, William Henry Perkins, which took the fashion world by storm. (Source: https://library.si.edu/exhibition/color-in-a-new-light/making)

[7] According to Virginia Reynolds’ research for “Slaves to Fashion, Not Society: Elizabeth Keckly and Washington, D.C.’s African American Dressmakers, 1860-1870”, “Sewing was a common skill for domestic slave women… enslaved women often became competent dressmakers with a sense of what modern readers might recognize as fashion design.”

[8] For more information on transparent sustainability and ethics in fashion supply chains, see Fashion Revolution, “Fashion Transparency Index 2017” https://issuu.com/fashionrevolution/docs/fr_fashiontransparencyindex2017?e=25766662/47726047

[9] Interview with the author, 3/22/2018


[10] Chroma-key compositing has been used in news broadcasts since 1977. For more information see Tobias, Jenny. “Truth to Materials: Modernism and US Television News Design Since 1940”, Journal of Design History, Vol 18. No 2 (Summer, 2005) p. 179-190

Lewd 2: Erotic Art of the Masters

“Lewd” originated in Old English as a term to describe the laity [1]. Its pairing with the current usage as “offensive in a sexual way” leads back to the particular animosity ascribed to commoners, decrying them as “vulgar, worthless and vile.” The link is in the feeling of offense, in many instances a misdirection of shame and embarrassment.

At some point, shame and embarrassment became bound with sexuality. Perhaps through the act of confession– urging divulgence and repentance– shame, sexuality and perversion mix to form their abject cocktail.

‘All the nuns told me I’d go to hell if I watched sexploitation movies. So naturally I became obsessed.’

-John Waters

Dovetailing with religion, Western understandings of sexuality is bound (perhaps counterintuitively) with science. In demographics, sexual education, and statistical analysis, sexuality is understood along the lines of reproduction with a clinical sterility. Sexuality as a distanced, scientific knowledge places marriage and reproduction at the center (as it can be easily classified and categorized), and positions anything outside of that very specific norm at the margins, as deviant or perverse. [2]

Distinct from this is the ars erotica— a term coined by Foucault in his seminal (sorry I had to) History of Sexuality: Part One of 1978. This art of pleasure is based in a perceived, embodied knowledge of sex as an art form.

What Lewd 2: Erotic Art of the Masturbators, on view at Joy Gallery in San Francisco through Nov. 25, 2017, aims to achieve is a peepshow into the ars erotica. Both quite literally, as on view are works of erotic art, and as a mode of being, of accepting both sides of our sexuality– the shame and the joy, the pleasure and the pain, concealing and revealing.

The subtitle of the exhibition is riffed from a Taschen published book by Bradley Smith from 1974 titled Erotic Art of the Masters. Fitting, as many of the works in the exhibition display a lascivious re-articulation of art historical referents.

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Jedediah Corwyn Voltz, Jacme Brand Scissor Oil, 2017, acrylic and ink on panel

Both a potter and a deft illustrator, Jedediah Corwyn Voltz’s two paintings of pots in the exhibition call on both skills. He articulates the geometry of the vase and illustrates the surface to recall the decorative amphoras of ancient Greece.

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Nikosthenes, Vessel with erotic scenes, Greek, Archaic Period, about 520–510 B.C.

Though the illustration is rendered in bright neons and features monstrous folk with forked-dick noses and doubled eyes, it nods to ancient Greek pottery decoration, which as early as 520-510BC, emblazoned erotic orgy scenes onto plates, cups, and vessels.

Karen Thomas’ work in the exhibition features such classical allegory subjects as Narcissus and Leda and the Swan. The latter story follows Zeus, masquerading as a swan, as he seduces and impregnates Leda, an Aetolian princess. Often depicted in classical Renaissance paintings, the bestial fantasy provided something of a loophole to slip the censor in the 16th century. It created an oddly acceptable rift for painters to depict female sexuality.

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Leda and the Swan, a 16th-century copy after a lost painting by Michelangelo (National Gallery, London)

Michelangelo produced a “cartoon”[3]  of Leda and the Swan in 1529 for a commission– the painting was never produced, but this sketch circulated for about a century, and allowed for copies to be made. Thomas’ version positions itself in this line, as the ink on paper lends itself to a “cartoon” or sketch. She breaks with the subject matter, as in her depiction it appears the swan is being seduced by Leda, who is fully in command of her sexuality.

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Karen Thomas, Leda and the Swan, 2017, ink on paper

Jumping forward to contemporary art historical referents, Camille Mariet’s huge digital photograph prints (Clockwork, 2017, digital inkjet print, and Reclining Seminude, 2017, digital inkjet print) carry on the tradition of Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills.
Though sexuality is rarely explicit in Cindy Sherman’s photographs, there is an implicit critique of the sexual objectification of women in Hollywood, and a questioning of the male gaze in cinema.

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Cindy Sherman, Untitled #153, 1985, color photograph

In Mariet’s photographs, subjects are styled and positioned to suggest the gorgeously gory cinematic auteurship of directors Herschell Gordon Lewis, Dario Argento and (more recently) Anna Biller. Thinking through photography and film as sister processes, Mariet’s photographs pack an entire narrative into a single “still”. Tropes of horror cinema and its historically exploitative treatment to female characters are embedded within the photograph, though the perspective is flipped and distorted. The viewer appears to be gazing up from a prone position to a standing woman hovering menacingly above– the blood covering her body not her own.

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Camille Mariet, Clockwork, 2017, digital inkjet print

The blood, hand-made merkins and labia prosthetics (made from sculpted Starbursts) cover and distance the subjects from a straightforward eroticism. In this way, the photographs carry on deeper art historical traditions, as an argument could be made to link the tough gazes and distorted perspectives in Mariet’s photographs to Manet’s Olympia (1865, oil on canvas). Olympia flipped the script on female subjectivity as it depicted the reclining nude with some agency, her hard stare directly at the viewer.

Bene Fabio’s quartet of small acrylic on vinyl paintings consist of tight linework on bright neon backgrounds. Fabio’s figures are boiled down to the smallest possible number of lines necessary to describe different sexual positions and acts (i.e.: Tea Bag, 2017, acrylic on vinyl and Face-Chair, 2017, acrylic on vinyl.) Much like Keith Haring’s work, the images have to be decoded first before they register, like hieroglyphics.

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Bene Fabio, Face Chair, 2017, acrylic on vinyl

Haring made work intensely and explicitly about sex. Gay in New York in the late 70s, he frequented backrooms and bathhouses and engaged that energy in his work. His seductive patterns and colors sometimes decorate (much like the Ancient Greek amphoras above) giant phalluses carved from wood, tarpaulin tapestries, his own nude body, and canvases, blasting them full of orgiastic writhing communes of geometric people.

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Keith Haring, Untitled, 1984

Having traveled down a historic understanding of erotics in both philosophy and art history, it’s interesting now to position sexuality in the present. Many of the artists for Lewd 2 were found and asked to participate through Instagram, which, ironically, is puritanically censored and policed from within, as users can “report” sexually explicit content. Instagram’s bizarrely austere stance reaches to artists using it’s platform (I’m reminded of Michelangelo’s never-finished version of Leda and the Swan). Even so, Joy Gallery owner Heather Rosner curated 20+ artists into the exhibition. There are infinite ways to engage and experience sexuality, and as many ways to represent it.

Now that the internet has provided a community for every adult baby, puppy player, furry, shrimper, splosher, blossom hound, bear, otter,  dommy mommy, etc., and packaged them up into attendant forums and YouPorn categories and convention booths, I fear even our perversions are falling victim to Foucault’s scientia sexualis. Divided, categorized, classified up into little sections, fetishes are calculated and tabulated into the almighty algorithm.

In “The Ethics of Psychoanalysis”, Jacques Lacan defines jouissance as that which compels a person to go beyond the prohibitions and limitations placed on them, “beyond the pleasure principle.”[5] Now that the world of pleasures is open to us in easily searchable terms but closed in myriad other ways, perhaps it isn’t so surprising that we look back to see how to expand beyond.

 

[1] https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/lewd
[2] Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: Part One, 1976, Editions Gallimard.
[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leda_and_the_Swan
[4] Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: Part One, 1976, Editions Gallimard.
[5] Jacques Lacan, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 1986, Routledge.

Kicked out of the Webelos

A hornet’s nest is composed of paper made from saliva and wood pulp. The outside of the hornet’s nest is a paper envelope, protecting and shielding the colonies’ combs vested inside.

A hornet’s nest is also a metaphor used to describe an unsettling situation in which many are affected. The metaphor relies on the implied act of shaking a hornet’s nest, in which the colony of up to 700 hornets living inside may swarm outwardly and surround the nest-shaker, causing dismay and likely many stings. Perhaps relevant, a hornet may sting as many times as he’d like, as his stinger does not contain the same harikari barbs as the honey bee’s, a dangerous balance by which the honey bee may sting, but must also lose his life.

Steven and William Ladd’s Webelos (2015, shredded paper, glue, wheat starch, metal beads, metal trinkets, glass beads, crystal beads, pins, screws, dye, mesh, staples, wood) is a hornet’s nest of both registers.

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Steven and William Ladd, Webelos, 2015, shredded paper, glue, wheat starch, metal beads, metal trinkets, glass beads, crystal beads, pins, screws, dye, mesh, staples, wood

The ground is primarily shredded paper in a brownish-goldish color, pocked with thread-bare areas revealing mesh screen beneath. The mesh is orderly and tight beneath the clumpy shrouding of shredded paper, a perfect geometry like honeycomb. I imagine the shredded and crumpled bits of paper adhering to the surface with a glue chemically analogous to the saliva and wood pulp mixture of the hornet’s nest.

Built up from the surface, tight clusters of meticulously categorized gold and brass beads encrust small circular openings in irregular clusters. These bedecked orifices give way sometimes to mesh backing, sometimes through to nothingness. I envision swarms landing upon the surface of Webelos, fighting for entry to the mesh colony in wait behind these entry points.

Trypophobia is a freshly coined term for a fear or unease linked to clusters of irregularly placed holes (think Lotus pods). Trypophobia’s symptoms can be severe, inciting anxiety, or can be as relatively trivial as the feeling of skin crawling. The closer I zoom in on a high resolution image of Webelos, despite all its glittered golden gorgeousness, the more I notice the hairs on my arms raise and my skin tingle and tighten uneasily. Its luxe surfaces are clustered, irregular, like a demented honeycomb– the soothing, perfect geometry melted and warped.

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Detail, Steven and William Ladd, Webelos, 2015

And then there’s the other kind of hornet’s nest. The work’s title, Webelos, references “a Cub Scout section for older participants”, its color “the glimmering gold of the Scout badge for that division” according to a statement from the artists.

Innocuous, no? An older Cub Scout division for whom badges are golden. Its a surface statement, somewhat hollow. Webelos is somewhere between portmanteau and acronym for “We’ll Be Loyal Scouts”. The obedience and collegiality of the sentiment seems almost too obvious an analogy to colonies of hornets or worker bees, building and protecting the hives of the queen.

We’ll be loyal scouts.

Prior to 1994, 2,000 instances of sexual abuse were reported within the Boy Scouts of America organization. As Chief Scout Executive J.L. Tarr (a murky, sticky sort to be sure, but what’s in a name?) responded without affect after allegations in 1988: “That’s been an issue since the Boy Scouts began”. [1]

Fortunately, the numbers of sexual abuse accounts in the BSA have nearly zeroed out in recent years. But how can a work titled Webelos operate without evoking this shared cultural trauma in our recent past? Without erasing or replacing this traumatic memory, can we view this work in a light less shot through, less like a hornet’s nest?

The artists, Steven and William Ladd, are brothers. They grew up together in a community outside of St. Louis with two other siblings in a “supportive Catholic family.”[2] Their work often references their shared memories of childhood and family relationships. Though the two seem to be profoundly upbeat, positive dudes (William traveled the world as a fashion model– they’re both handsome, brilliant, engaged in community, artistic) I can’t seem to get past the melancholic overtones of Webelos. There is a duality that wrests itself throughout their biography and artist statement.

Two sentences lifted from their artists’ statement highlights the struggle: “we tease and laugh and talk as we work, shaping the development of each piece over time. The physical process is painstaking and unpredictable.”[3]

The first sentence is light, airy, you can imagine the positive energy emanating from two people, so close, sharing and molding their creative vision. The second sentence, a rebuttal, deliberately stark, maps the conflicts that arise from working with someone you love. Love, family, memory, home, time… all of these can be “painstaking and unpredictable.”

Later in the artist statement, the brothers address the material explorations in their work: “seemingly soft surfaces may disguise jagged pins and dangers we call ‘infections’ or ‘wounds.’ It is all part of our world.”[4]

Infections, wounds, painstaking labor (and elsewhere in their oeuvre appear infestations[5]) dressed up in gleaming gold beads. Is this how we access our memory? As a wound, a hollow, surrounded by but isolated from detail and decoration?

I realize that the swarm is shaken and angry. The hornet’s nest has been riled. The Ladd brothers are profound makers, and this is but one example of their diligent labors exploring variant materials and styles of making. The part should not be taken for the whole, however redolent. But Webelos and its relationship to memory, to trauma, to the collaborative and collective living spaces of bees is stuck in the slow-like-honey spaces of my memory. It takes on, collects, distills some minor and major traumas.

 

 

 

 

[1] Patrick, Boyle (1991). “Scouts Honor”. The Washington Times.
[2] Biography of the artists as mentioned on their website, stevenandwilliam.com
[3] Steven and William Ladd, Artist Statement http://www.stevenandwilliam.com/artist-statement/
[4] Ibid.
[5] One series from the Ladd brothers sprang from a memory of an ant infestation pouring out of a plastic LEGO container. One piece is a plastic LEGO container filled with paper ants, another series features large hand-blown glass ants anthropomorphized with names like “Billy”, “Barbie”, “Mom”, “Dad”, “Matt”, “Stevie” (all names of the Ladd siblings and ostensibly their parents.)

Giggling Blonde

The nearer I get to it, the more upsetting it becomes. It is capped, contained, deflated behind a plexiglass cube. Elevated just below eye level so that you have to lean over it in order to decipher the mess of platinum blonde spilling out of the frame of a wooden shadow box, the stiff wax skin glistens as it peeks out from amidst the spill and shine of ratted wig hair.

Behind the stiff skin, the eyes are locked shut as if they had been forced so by an embalmer’s hand. The lips are parted slightly but expressionless. Coral lipstick picks up the undertones of rouge on the cheek. Half of the face is obscured by the platinum wig, it parts like a curtain to reveal the sallow, waxy skin. As I leer over it, for it is displayed prone, a troubling and disembodied giggle cuts the silence.

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Lynn Hershman Leeson, Giggling Machine, Self Portrait as Blonde, 1968, wax, wig, makeup, feathers, plexiglass, wood

A giggle is entirely feminine. It is the remainder of a laugh, either forced or repressed. It is flirtacious, perhaps, a reaction in concert with eyelash-batting to a john’s bad joke. It is also the laughter that follows stinging gossip about that john with the other girls later on. It is a laugh with a hand covering the mouth, squeezing the sounds down like a choked cough.

But this stifled laugh is mechanical. It is the musing of a skinned cyborg paired with a maniacal repeated laugh track, triggered by a surveilling eye as bodies near.  It is as if this creature had disobeyed the laws of Asimov, and its remains are kept under a plexiglass prison.

The giggle repels me. Any reflection of identity, any simper I read into the lipstick, any flush I spotted in the cheek, I suddenly recognize as duplicitous. The giggle is scripted, forced and run through audio tape. This giggle has been translated and traversed mediums like a nomad– from human lips to microphones, recorded on audio tapes, sent through mixers, play-back mediums, perhaps first on tape or vinyl (she was made in 1968) then later through Beta, audio cassette, CD, MP3 now, perhaps… who knows. Her mechanisms are hidden in the shadow box.

“In the traditions of ‘Western’ science and politics — the tradition of racist, male-dominant capitalism; the tradition of progress; the tradition of the appropriation of nature as resource for the productions of culture; the tradition of reproduction of the self from the reflections of the other — the relation between organism and machine has been a border war.” — Donna Haraway, Cyborg Manifesto1

Though Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto was written in the late 1980s, Hershman Leeson’s work seems to battle both sides of the border war. In an interview with curator Hou Hanru, Hershman Leeson says, “…I made objects as far back as 1957 that resembled cyborgs. The word wasn’t even coined until 1960, by the biologists Manfred Clynes and Nathan Klein, but I was making robotic figures with organic features nonetheless.”2

Upon connecting to Haraway’s figuring of the cyborg as an ironic analog to feminine identities, the threads of the exhibition, Lynn Hershman Leeson: Civic Radar, seemed to appear. The Giggling Machine: Self-Portrait as Blonde is a perfect cipher. The identity is overtly feminine– the giggle, the makeup, the platinum wig– but contained as a “machine”, a cyborg, programmable yet adaptable, and always one step ahead of her human onlookers. Perhaps that’s why she giggles.

And it is a self-portrait. But what self can we determine through this portrait? It mirrors back its nothingness to us, its collapsed face rendered hollow, its giggle mechanical and forced. Later in the exhibition, as we explore the artifacts of the life of Roberta Breitmore (perhaps Hershman’s most famed project, a construction of a life lived as another), the Phantom Limb series, wherein women and representation-machines merge bodies, the Artificial Intelligence of DiNA and Agent Ruby, we are reminded of the themes of Giggling Machine: Self-Portrait as Blonde. It is a constant re-engendering of identity, less a reflection than a refraction.

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Lynn Hershman, Phantom Limb, Seduction, 1985, b/w photograph

As Haraway reminds us in Cyborg Manifesto, The cyborg would not recognize the Garden of Eden; it is not made of mud and cannot dream of returning to dust.”


1Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century”. Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. 1991. Routledge.
2 Hanru, Hou and Lynn Hershman Leeson. “Hou Hanru: Interview with Lynn Hershman Leeson.” Lynn Hershman Leeson: Civic Radar. 2014.

blow up, break away: mod revolution

Blow Up (1966 dir. Michelangelo Antonioni) begins with David Hemmings playing the character of Thomas photographing a lithe blonde model (Vanessa Redgrave?). As he steps over her with his camera, the model writhes prone on the floor. Thomas shouts pre-orgasmic phrases usually relegated to a breathy moan, “give it to me”, “yes, yes, oh yes!” The mock sexual conduct climaxes as he leans over his camera and kisses the young model’s ear. The shot is taken and he exits to sit spent on the couch, as she rises, unsatisfied, and leaves the room. The scene establishes the unilateral direction of power given to the photographer and the blatantly sexual dynamics of the photographer/model relationship.

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The next scene is another photoshoot, this time with several models, one of them a cameo by Peggy Moffitt. Moffitt is in her classic Vidal Sassoon geometric hair and makeup of her own design– mirrored metallic triangles set beneath heavy liner and lashes. Moffitt poses snake-like, each hold a seamless reflection of the previous pose and a midpoint for the next.

The photographer, pedantic and patronizing, stops the fluid dance, shouting “re-think it! Start again!” and continues to berate and belittle the models before him. “Wake up!” “Smile, I asked you to smile- do you know what a smile is?” he barks before ending the shoot and the scene.

Blow Up’s intention, in part, was to mirror a phenomena of the swinging 60s, exemplified by designer Rudi Gernreich, his photographer/collaborator William Claxton and his model/collaborator Peggy Moffitt. The three came to define the mod look of the 60s, and created an entirely new paradigm for modelling, fashion and fashion photography. Despite her cameo in Blow Up, Moffitt’s modelling career with Claxton and Gernreich was defined not by a paternalistic exploitation of her choreography, but by a collaborative spirit in which she and Gernreich worked together to define a “Total Look” of the 60s.

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Gernreich’s designs stirred controversy (his monokini continues to shock even by contemporary standards) and defined the era. For a runway show in 1971, Gernreich outfitted the models in fairly standard knitted separates, but accessorized them with dogtags and rifles. Only a few months after the student shootings at Kent State, Gernreich reiterated his refusal of normative standards of fashion and voiced his politicization of the medium, stating “Women are on the warpath, they’re tired of being sex objects.”1

Surreptitiously using the medium of fashion to implode it’s own codes, Gernreich and Moffitt blew apart conventions in order to question them and their relevance in an ever expanding cultural zeitgeist. Reconstructing the troubling power binaries of photographer/subject, the collaboration brought about an entirely new lens for dressing and photographing the female body. Reversing the course of Dior’s “New Look” which structured and constricted the feminine form at the chest and waist, many of Gernreich’s designs were voluminous, taking inspiration from the caftan. Many more featured transparent panels or bared breasts to accentuate the body rather than conceal and reform it. Moffitt’s body in these clothes did not seem particularly more susceptible to the lustful eye, but rather engaged it– spoke directly to it as an equal participant rather than as a submissive.  

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No longer a sexualized object to inspire desire, Moffitt’s direct gaze and choreographed movements revealed her artistic control in the deployment of her body. Moffitt was able to animate a narrative for the designs that pushed them into the creation of a politicized, feminist world; one where the function of design is no longer to sexualize the female body but to assist in its liberation.

From the beginning of their collaboration in the early 1960s, Moffitt designed her own makeup for each shoot and runway show. The shared creative syncopation pushed Moffitt and Gernreich down similar aesthetic and conceptual paths simultaneously and wordlessly.

The most amazing example of our being on the same page occurred with the 1968 resort collection. By this time I was living in New York and had no idea what Rudi’s collection would look like. Just before he came to town, something compelled me to design a very exotic Siamese face. When I saw the clothes and Rudi saw the makeup, neither of us could believe it. It looked like the same person had designed both.2

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Released the same year as Blow Up and Gernreich and Moffitt’s 1966 collection film Basic Black, Bay Area-based artist Bruce Conner created BREAKAWAY (1966, dir. Bruce Conner), a 5-minute experimental film starring a 23-year old Toni Basil.

BREAKAWAY (1966) is unlike much of Conner’s body of collage and assemblage work while maintaining his line of questioning. Filmed by Conner himself, a rarity in his body of work, the film questions cinematic convention through medium and representations of the female body.

This notion of remixing found footage was key to almost all of his films, although he did also insert his own footage, here and there. BREAKAWAY is the big exception as it’s completely his footage, but its a driven, frantic, complex montage and its aesthetics show he’s continuing his exploration of the representation of the female body.” – Rudolf Frieling2.

Featuring Toni Basil as the object of the camera’s gaze and the singer of the accompanying title track, BREAKAWAY acts as a collaboration between Basil’s choreography and voice and Conner’s manipulation of medium.
conner-breakaway

The film is five minutes long. It opens with a credit, “Antonia Christina Basilotta” (Toni Basil’s full name), followed by the title, BREAKAWAY. Conner often played with movie titles and authorship. A Movie (1958, dir. Bruce Conner), for example, disrupts narrative time by inserting the title cards and countdown sequences, “A MOVIE… BY BRUCE CONNER” throughout the duration of the film. Immediately crediting Basil, and only Basil, alerts the viewer of the collaborative nature of the film.

The first 2.5 minutes are a spasmodic, strobing exploration of Basil’s body and movement set to driving Northern Soul beats. Toni Basil is first introduced to us in an outfit that could have been a Gernreich design from the cutting room floor. She wears a black bra and leggings cut through with holes that double as polka dots. The polka dots both reveal and disguise her body as she hits poses. Her poses are smooth and articulate, but spliced with black frames that strobe and distort the movement.

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Bruce Conner, Breakaway, 1966. Collection of MoMA NY.

The song, composed by Ed Cobb and sung by Basil, is the main narrative force of BREAKAWAY. Piano riffs punctuate loose driving guitar and drums to push forward lyrics like

“I’m gonna break away from all the chains that bind/ And everyday I’ll wear what I want and do what suits me fine/ Hey, hey I’m gonna break away, break away from the everyday”

Like a manifesto for a newly liberated world, the lyrics follow Basil as she gyrates with the deliverance of a lone dancer in their bedroom.

Sometimes credited as being the father of the music video, Conner often drew inspiration from music, as in a video collaboration with DEVO for the song “Mongoloid”, Cosmic Ray (1962 dir. Bruce Conner) an experimental film set to the Ray Charles song “What’d I Say”, and his photographic exploration of the 1970s San Francisco punk scene (some photos also featured Toni Basil). BREAKAWAY syncs its strobing camerawork with the heavy downbeat to transfix the viewer.

The camera roves back and forth and Basil moves in and out of frame. Like a moth trying to absorb itself into a streetlamp, the movements are jarring and spectral. Despite the frenzy, it’s clear that Basil is an experienced dancer, at one point she twirls with the precision and expertise of a ballerina. Her choreography animates and narrates Conner’s camera histrionics. Cigarette burns pulse in an overlay through the frame, mirroring the polka dots of Basil’s initial outfit and grounding the film in the geometric zeitgeist of the mid-60s.

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As the song powers on, Basil jumps in and out of costume through nighties to nudity, and though the costumes have a sexualized air, the spastic camera eludes any eroticism. There is simply not enough time for desire to ferment in her image. The viewer is constantly trying to catch up.

Once the song ends, the film stops its forward motion and is set in reverse. The viewer takes in the entirety of the visuals again, this time in reverse motion– Basil’s movements seem even more convulsive when detached from linear time. Like a possession, the viewer soaks up the lyrics in their warped retrograde.

Though the lighting, camerawork, time reversals and the synaptic structure of BREAKAWAY create the film’s reverie, Basil’s ownership of the screen and her movements imbue the work with a feminist re-reading of the cinematic starlet– un-fixing them from the static subjectivity of the silver screen. BREAKAWAY not only ruptures this subject/object relationship, but, in reference to the title, breaks from traditional cinematic narrative by denying a fixed beginning-climax-ending structure.

Scott MacDonald: “Have you assumed that people would look at your films on a rewind, as well as watch them projected?”

Bruce Conner: “I look at them on the rewind.”3

Conner and Basil’s collaboration spanned from their first meeting in the early 60s and included many other famous faces. The collision of creative forces also brought in Teri Garr, Dean Stockwell and Dennis Hopper. Hopper recalls holding the lights as Basil danced for BREAKAWAY, and later cast Basil in Easy Rider (1969 dir. Peter Fonda). This collaborative network was one of many for Conner, as he flitted through different crowds and subcultures.

“I really did have the same vision as he did, and since I was the vehicle, I knew I could help drive the vision.” — Toni Basil4

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Bruce Conner (in tub), Toni Basil, Teri Garr, and Ann Marshall, 1965. Photo by Dennis Hopper. Courtesy of and (c) The Dennis Hopper Trust

After her collaboration with Conner, Basil herself began working with film as a medium. She created 8mm films involving superimposition, still frames, and physically manipulating the film. Her experience exemplifies how collaborative nodes and networks span outward, influencing and providing the backbone for movements.

BREAKAWAY existed in the same moment as Blow Up and Gernreich’s designs as modelled by Peggy Moffitt. The three depict a similar world, one driven by a collusion between art, film and design–  a new paradigm, geometric, swinging and liberated. The failure of the opening scene of Blow Up in contrast to the two artifacts of the time is in it’s depiction of a unilateral power dynamic between the photographer and model. The relationships exhibited by Basil/Conner and Gernreich/Moffitt showcase how collaborative work can transcend normative power dynamics to incorporate politicization and radical world making. This division of authorship allows for creative capacities and possibilities that would not exist in a vacuum of power.

1.Peggy Moffitt and William Claxton, “The Rudi Gernreich Book” Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 1991
2.Leigh Markoupolos, “Rudolf Frieling: In Conversation with Leigh Markoupolos” SFAQ, 2016. http://sfaq.us/2016/11/rudolf-frieling-in-conversation-with-leigh-markopoulos/
3.Chuck Stephens, “Exploded View: Bruce Conner’s BREAKAWAY”, Cinema Scope, vol. 53. http://cinema-scope.com/columns/exploded-view-bruce-conners-breakaway/
4.”Bruce Conner – BREAKAWAY – Art + Music MOCA TV.” https://youtu.be/5CHtEASlzG8

Art Work: Office Space @ YBCA

Office Space, an exhibition curated by Ceci Moss at YBCA in San Francisco, features artists responding to the immaterial labor force of the 21st century. Examining offices as a site of politics, these artists dissect contemporary work forces.

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Herman Miller, Action Office II 

I work at a museum, and feel tied to this subject in two directions, one from working in an office, and two, from working in an office where my main task is to organize and maintain exhibitions of art.

 

My desk is located within an open office floor-plan. It is situated laterally between two other desks, such that our backs are against a wall. I look out at a row of five other desks, all of them situated against the opposite wall. On all of the desks is a phone and a computer. Although it is an open office, I have never worked anywhere as quiet as this. Everyone wears headphones, and although we’re often less than five feet away from each other, we still communicate tasks and requests through email, as if to force a paperless paper trail to hold one another accountable.

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Cory Arcangel, Permanent Vacation, 2008, two Apple iMac computers, keyboards, mice, SMTP server software, POP server software, Apple AirPort router, IKEA table

One of the first pieces in the exhibition is Cory Arcangel’s Permanent Vacation of 2008. Comprised of a set of two computers, keyboards, mice and an IKEA table, Arcangel has set up two email accounts with vacation responders. The vacation response bounces back and forth between the two inboxes, each time sounding a horrible tinny alert announcing the arrival of another email. Permanent Vacation considers our reliance on email, as a repository of information, as a record of our past, and as an impersonal avatar of ourselves while we are away.

 

I often think about how tied I am to my computer. In the office at the museum, we all stare at the computer for 8 hours, every day. I think, as I scroll through art blogs and do crossword puzzles in windows that I can easily hide should anyone in the office come over to my desk, what it would have been like to work for 8 hours WITHOUT a computer. Would I have to bring paper crossword puzzles? What is the real life analogue for closing out a conspicuous tab?

Reconfiguring a nostalgic mid-century modern office ideal, Mika Tajima’s A Facility Based on Change III reappropriates Action Office furniture from Herman Miller and a Balans chair of the artist’s design.

Action Office, first introduced in 1964, was the first cubicle system. Designer Robert Propst championed the Action Office, arguing that the environment of the office must encourage the mental activities of the worker. Initially encouraging an open, colorful, modern and flexible workspace, the first iteration of the Action Office didn’t catch on quite as Propst intended.

Designed for adaptability, Action Office II (2.0) focused on those three hallowed walls which would eventually become the bane of the office environment, the cubicle. The walls of the original Action Office were heightened, leaving the worker trapped in one sightless cell amidst a labyrinth of sameness.

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Mika Tajima, A Facility Based on Change III, 2010, Herman Miller Action Office I panels, canvas, acrylic, silkscreen, paper, pins, clips

In A Facility Based on Change III, Tajima plays on the notion of the cubicle, arranging the walls with no entry or exit points. Creating actual cubes, and reintroducing a midcentury modern color palette that reflects the concept initially intended by Propst, Tajima creates an alternate office space, one which blocks entry. Tajima hangs her own silkscreened images on the Action Office walls with pins and clips, allowing a brief glimpse of individuality within the mass-produced office environment and using its own tools to subvert its anonymity.

 

Precariously balanced near the cubicle walls is a Balans chair of the artist’s design. The Balans chair was initially developed in the 1970s in Europe from alternative seating positions conceptualized by a Danish surgeon. However, the strange contortions made by the body in order to fit into the sloping curves of the chair, in Tajima’s work, speak to the unnatural mental and bodily contortions made by workers in the office environment.

During my visit, one patron attempted to seat themselves in the chair. A gallery guide assured me that this happens “ALL of the time.” The comfortability with which white-collar workers view office furniture reveals the thin masking of designed environments meant to somatically manipulate employees in hopes of efficiency and productivity.

The late-20th century move toward immaterial labor has created a distinction in capitalism’s subject; because the work-day is not tied to material production, the divide between work and home life is non-existent. Office workers find themselves in a constant labor-loop that is not bound by the physical constraints of the office– evidenced by the migration of work-space to the virtual, where access is continuous and constant.

Further collapsing home/work divisions, in late-capitalism, the value of labor is determinant upon cognition rather than manual labor, and as such, a worker’s value is determined by their very subjectivity. Individual traits, the way in which the worker thinks, are monetized.

Bea Fremderman, Kafka Office, 2013, video, color, sound

Bea Fremderman’s 2 minute video loop, Kafka Office, renders the office environment as a branching maze comprised of dead ends. Looping lighting and shadow to create an endless void of time in a digitally-rendered cubicle structure, Fremderman accompanies the video with deeply affective bass tones. The soundtrack tracks time in concert with the lighting effects of the video, creating a somatic response not unlike being trapped. Although the setting is filmed from an angled birds-eye-view into the office, the quality and tone of the soundtrack encompasses the viewer and leaves them with a deep sense of appurtenance and subordination.

Installed in YBCA’s gallery, the piece is on a monitor placed on the floor, which allows the viewer a skewed perspective, like gazing into a nihilistic circus mirror. The sense of captivity and infinitude resonates, still, as the viewer is unconsciously absorbed into the space of the video and its sound.

A discussion of the office space would be nothing without a dissection of office supplies, one of the dubious perks offered to the late-capitalist subject.

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Haegue Yang, Office Voodoo, 2010, drying racks, casters, CDs, paper clips, headphones, mouse, mini tripod, drafting compasses, stamp, stamp pad, bell, bulldog clips, hole punch, ballpoint pen, compass, metal chain, metal rings, safety pins, mobile phone charger, set square, cable, string, fake surveillance camera, paint grid

Haegue Yang creates an altar of office supplies in Office Voodoo, hanging lightbulbs, ballpoint pens, CDs, bulldog clips, stamps and stamp pads and other office detritus from drying racks positioned in a semi-symmetrical pentagram. Repurposing the sterile tools of the office environment into an occultist prayer object, the piece is a reliquary, a politically incorrect subterfuge constituted of the aseptic, soulless objects that enable immaterial labor.

Taking immateriality beyond its logical limits, Julien Prévieux’s What Shall We Do Next? (Sequence #1) projects hand movements onto a wall using an overhead projector and a Polaroid Polaview 3000. [1]


Julien Prévieux, What Shall We Do Next? (Sequence #1), 2006-11, video

On first glance, the hand movements look like a two-dimensional rendering of sign language. They are, however, human movements that have patents filed in the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Speaking both to the official bureaucracy of patent filing and the absurdity of trademarking human movements, What Shall We Do Next? (Sequence #1) illustrates gestures which may have a familiarity to users of Apple products. Extending the bureaucratic reach to the very body, the piece “speaks to capitalism’s pervasive reach.. how something so benign as a pinching finger becomes private property.” [2.]

Further asserting the tech sector’s bureaucracy (a topic near and dear to fellow San Franciscans), Andrew Norman Wilson’s Workers Leaving the Googleplex exposes the inherent caste system at play in office politics.

Wilson was employed at Google in 2007, during which time, he secretly filmed workers leaving buildings with differing security clearances. The taping was discovered by Google security, and Wilson was fired.

Andrew Norman Wilson, Workers Leaving the Googleplex, 2009-11, seven channel video, color, sound

The revelation, to me, was that employees at Google are given colored badges which denote their level of security clearance. Of course, the colors correspond to the brightly colored branding of the Google logo. White badges, for instance, are assigned to full-time Google employees, while red badges are saved for contractors, and green badges for interns. The color-coding of corporate hierarchy engenders an embodied ranking system, which bars workers entry to spaces within their work environment. Not unlike the complex caste systems created on the basis of skin color in colonial Brazil, these colors regulate and differentiate the bodies within the Google campus.

The exhibition taken as a whole fluctuates between mimicking/mocking the sterility of modern offices and exposing the subterfuge that flows beneath them.

The contemporary office, especially in an economically volatile city like San Francisco, seems to me a place of utter instability, a capricious agreement between workers, desperate for employment and fair pay in an untenable environment (made so, in large part, by Silicon-Valley tech companies like Google) and offices who aim for the highest profitability, efficiency and productivity for the lowest possible wage.

I realized the paradox inherent in spending my day off from my office in a museum to go to museum replete with mock-offices, but the removal was just far enough that I was able to see both spaces critically and with the sarcastic humor that makes me really ~*fun and likable*~ back at the office.

Office Space is on view at YBCA through February 14, 2016 and has a comprehensive exhibition catalogue available for $5, which comes with digital files (including almost all of the images reproduced here) on a USB stick that is also a handy pen. Office supplies, hooray!


 

  1. Side note: this discontinued product from Polaroid is the coolest. It is an LCD screen designed to be used with an overhead projector to project video/presentations. I would like this so much more than the cumbersome projector/screen/laptop set-up that we use in my office. Studying it during my visit to YBCA was akin to sorcery– it is the magic screen as prophesied by PeeWee’s Playhouse.
  2. Ceci Moss, Office Space Extended Wall Labels, 2015.

 

banana republics, the way things go.

“This article is about the retail chain. For countries dependent on a single, limited-resource export, see ‘Banana republic.’”[1]

See also:
Banana Republic (album): a live album by Italian signer-songwriters Francesco De Gregori and Lucio Dalla
Banana Republic (song): a single by The Boomtown Rats

It does roll off the tongue. Ba-na-na re-pub-lic. Syllabically rhythmic, it conjures fruit trees and easy elegance—khakis and seersucker tops, cotton… but that’s another story. The overlap between the colonial safari aesthetic of the Gap Inc. brand Banana Republic and the actual lived horror of political instability dependent upon a singular primary export is a startlingly close disambiguation.

Although banana republic is a pejorative term, it aptly describes the thinly veiled colonialism that characterizes these impoverished nations. The term began, of course, with the exploitation of banana exports from Central America under the United Fruit Company (a merger consisting of US fruit enterprises Chiquita Brands + Boston Fruit Company.) The UFC bought huge tracts of land in Honduras and the Caribbean Basin, displacing native peoples through a policy of legalistic dispossession[2], and then employing them to work their own land for extremely low-wages.

When the trumpet sounded
Everything was prepared on earth,
And Jehovah gave the world
To Coca-Cola Inc., Anaconda,
Ford Motors and other corporations.
The United Fruit Company
reserved for itself the most juicy
Piece, the central coast of my world,
The delicate waist of America.

It rebaptized these countries
Banana Republics,
And over the sleeping dead,
Over the unquiet heroes
Who won greatness,
Liberty, and banners,
It established a comic opera:
It abolished free will,
Gave out imperial crowns,
Encouraged envy,
Attracted the dictatorship of flies…

Pablo Neruda’s “La United Fruit Co.” in Canto General of 1950. [3]

The terms co-optation into a multinational retail chain with high brand recognition is a classic win-win in capitalism’s unyielding optimism; the lifestyle brand of a successful neocolonial plantation owner appeals to middle class Americans enough to overwrite history and place a store in every indoor mall in the United States.

Consequentially, Banana Republic and parent company Gap have production in factories in New Delhi and Bangalore, which, as recently as 2007, were employing children as young as 10. The Gap also settled from a lawsuit for using sweatshop labor in Saipan, a US territory in the South Pacific. Despite claims to the contrary [4] Saipan may very well also be classified as a banana republic.

The ever expanding nodes of history, exchange and imbued postcolonial energies makes the banana republic an analogous port to access the works in Rikrit Tiravanija’s curatorial project The Way Things Go through May 24, 2015 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. The project traces the global flows of commodity exchange, often through the cipher of food. The Way Things Go subtly hints at the shared experience that food provides, while also tracing the cultural ruptures of globalized trade as it relates to food as a commodity.

The exhibition consists of thirteen artists/artist-groups unpicking and untangling the multi-fibred net of postcolonial trade and cultural exchange. The objects are all imbued with a narrative essence; they weave together forgotten truths and slippery fictions to expose the agency and power of objects in a history of imperialistic exchange.

Maria Thereza Alves, detail from Wake in Guangzhou, 2008
Maria Thereza Alves, detail from Wake in Guangzhou, 2008

The work opens with a literal journey tracing the life and migration of seeds and plants from the Guangzhou district of China, as it was the lone port city through which foreigners were allowed entry into China. Maria Thereza Alves, a Brazilian artist working in Berlin, painstakingly delineates the network of travelers and options for migration of single seeds (she lists the mud-caked wheels of bicycles and traveling entertainers as well as various conquests) in Wake in Guangzhou: The History of the Earth (2008.) The viewer walks through this web around a constructed circular wall, and feels dizzy and dazed by the end of the proposition, having done exactly what the title suggested— traveling the history of the earth through a very specific lens.

Similarly, the Museum of Gourd in the central gallery of YBCA offers a look at the permutations of one specific object through its iterations in different cultures. A curatorial project by Chihiro Minato with works by Terri Friedman, Daizaburo Harada, Reiko Ogura, Shiro Takahashi, Victoria Wagner and Chihiro Minato and objects from the California Gourd Society, Museum of Gourd ranges from historical artifacts and archival traces to loose associative works. Reiko Ogura, an archivist, maps the usage of gourds in mythology; Terri Friedman and Victoria Wagner, two Bay Area artists, use the gourd as a springboard into deeper imaginations of their distinct practices. An anthropological assortment of objects both made of and influenced by the shape of gourds rest under plexiglass vitrines while two gourd shaped contraptions by Terri Friedman circulate water colored with glitter and light.

Victoria Wagner
Victoria Wagner

If the circulation of the gourd, and the range of its influences seems oddly specific to Native American cultures of the American West, it may surprise you to find that The American Gourd Society has chapters in 26 states, and there are brick and mortar Gourd Museums in Angier, North Carolina and Sautee, Georgia.

A secondary look through the intertwined distribution of product and politic is evident in Lonnie van Brummelen and Siebren de Haan’s Monument of Sugar. Rows of thick bricks made of refined white sugar lie in a grid on the floor. The narrow spaces between the bricks are dusted with erosion– some bricks have suffered vertical fractures leaving free standing columns of condensed sugar sediment.

Lonnie Van Brummelen and Siebren de Haan, Monument of Sugar

While some blocks retain the opalescent white of refined cane sugar, others have experience browning and discoloration. Warm taupe colors radiate from the centers of the blocks, result in a gradation, which could be photographed and formatted to become a quality control test.

Van Brummelen and de Haan are based out of Amsterdam, and as such, their work had to be imported from the European Union. Currently, the European Union controls sugar imports by Tariff-Rate Quotas. These limitations force EU countries to meet their own sugar demands through the production of sugar beets and limit the amount of sugar that can be imported from abroad.

The Netherlands has a storied history with sugar import. The Dutch East India company first supported an international network of sugar exportation from the Brazilian sugar industry in the mid-1600s, creating their dependence upon South American supply. Trying to ease this dependence, trade restrictions have created a complicated web for the transport of sugar across international borders.

Lonnie van Brummelen and Siebren de Haan, “Monument of Sugar” 16mm film still
Lonnie van Brummelen & Siebren de Haan, Monument of Sugar, 16mm film still
According to the Institute of Sugar Beet Research, two Netherlands-based companies, co-op Royal Consun and CSM Sugar, produced 865,000 tons of white sugar from 14,000 sugar beet growers in 2005[5]. Despite these numbers, the EU is currently facing a supply shortage of sugar, due, in part to its tariff limitations. Between 2010 and 2011, the European Commission allowed for 500,000 tons of sugar to be imported duty-free from African, Caribbean and Pacific suppliers.

Van Brummelen and de Haan bypassed these restrictions by naming their piece as a monument, which is subject to an entirely different system of import. The United States Harmonized Tariff Schedule classifies works of art and monuments, regardless of material, as duty-free, liable to be imported and exported without overbearing tax penalties and restrictions.

Co-curator Bettie-Sue Hertz says of Monument of Sugar, “circumventing international trade regulations by converting a valuable commodity (sugar) into a work of art, their project exposes the complex sugar trade between the European Union and other countries while also exploring the larger intersection of social and political issues with artistic and aesthetic practices.”

The work is paired with a 16mm film, which is projected daily in the space at 3pm. The silent film hauntingly grazes over images both of the artists preparing the blocks of sugar which have arrived in the gallery, and of the landscape of sugar production in Nigeria, charting the labor intensive process of both international projects.

The piece has traveled to Brussles, Shanghai, and the Palais de Tokyo, spreading its network through different cultures and receptions.

The projects in The Way Things Go fold together with time. It may take more than one viewing to absorb the nodes they weave together and unwrap apart, but each work at the least wraps the viewer into a deeper understanding of the way goods move, and the politics that engage in the movement of product. Like the dual meaning now implied through the vast reaches of the Banana Republic brand, we can think more of the global implications of seemingly benign commoditization.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Banana_Republic
[2] Dan Koeppel (2008). Banana. The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World. London: Hudson Street Press. pp. 281, p. 68. ISBN 1-594-63038-0ISBN 978-1-59463-038-5.
[3] http://www.writing.ucsb.edu/faculty/dean/Upload501B-Fall06/PabloNeruda.pdf
[4] http://www.forbes.com/sites/muhammadcohen/2014/07/16/no-banana-republic-us-owned-saipan-acts-it-in-casino-battle/
[5] http://applicaties.irs.nl/ccmsupload/ccmsalg/sugar%20beet%20growing%20in%20the%20netherlands%20.pdf
[6]http://ybca.org/the-way-things-go