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.
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.
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 (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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’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.
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. 
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!
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.
Ceci Moss, Office Space Extended Wall Labels, 2015.
“This article is about the retail chain. For countries dependent on a single, limited-resource export, see ‘Banana republic.’”
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, 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
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,
Attracted the dictatorship of flies…
Pablo Neruda’s “La United Fruit Co.” in Canto General of 1950. 
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  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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
There’s a geneology of writers puritanically chastising the Gesamtkunstwerk– the total work of art – from Adolf Loos’ essay, “Ornament and Crime” of 1913 doing some serious hand-wringing over Art Nouveau, to Hal Foster’s revisitation, Design and Crime of 2002, and all the infamous weigh-ins from Benjamin and Greenberg and recently, on the other side of the coin, John Seabrooks’ Nobrow: The Culture of Marketing, the Marketing of Culture published in 2000.
For Loos, Foster, Benjamin and Greenberg, to consider a completely designed subject is to end its potential. By combining the totalizing design of both the environment in which one lives and one’s own (postmodern, remixed, Megastore) identity, the absolute intention of both acts precludes the subject of escaping his constructed prison. As Loos writes, “…this is what it means to learn to go about life with one’s own corpse. Yes indeed. He is finished. He is complete!”1
Author Boris Groys tackles the fully-designed in his recent book, Going Public. Throughout, Groys toys with the notion of self-design, the loss of the autonomous artwork to the allure of the fully designed persona, the artist as artwork. He concludes with an exploration of the final option for a complete integration between art and life. Invoking Michel Foucault’s biopower2, Groys unearths a group of revolutionary thinkers that formed during Russia’s Bolshevik Revolutions.
The Russian Biocosmist-Immortalists (right?!) argued for a very specific notion of progress; one in which the future of society would not be limited or obstructed by the constraints of time or space. The basic tenets of the Biocosmist-Immortalist manifesto lobbies 1) that there is a basic right to exist, and 2) that the body has the “freedom to move in cosmic space”3. Dissatisfied with the limitations of time and space in which human bodies naturally occur, the Biocosmist-Immortalists argued for the production of a technology of immortality and for cosmic exploration. The exploits of this misfit group arguably inspired advancement for Soviet scientists during the space race.
The Biocosmist-Immortalist philosophy can easily be misread as a science-fiction or fantasy ideology. However, keeping in toe with the philosophies of communism at the time in the Soviet Union, the Biocosmist-Immortalists had to contend with some serious paradoxes. 1- that communism cannot truly exist unless all people are inherently equal. death creates individualized segments of time which each person lays claim to, owns. you own your time on this earth- and only if people are immortal can the central government agency create a total claim on its civic body. The ability to move through space is the culmination of a teleological evolution, wherein human ability reaches its aggrandized perfection. But what the ability to travel through space would ultimately grant the Russian Biocosmist-Immortalists is freedom from the structured hegemony of the built-environment (and more space for the ever-expanding and never-deceasing population.)
Where the Russian Biocosmist-Immortalists’ utopia was a theosophical dive into the potentiality of communism, science-fiction’s obsession with both immortality and anthropocentrism in exploring distant planets yields intriguing DIY strategies for space-exploration and corporate parlance into the world of immortality.
99% Invisible, my favorite podcast produced here in the Bay Area, recently spoke with Cameron Smith, who is building his own DIY space-suit out of household materials. The suit is largely influenced by Russian space suits- Smith references the fact that the Russian space program had less money and therefore had to be more creative with materials. I’m reminded of Russian Constructivist fashion- of Vavara Stepanova’s uniform designs and textiles, and, of course, of the Biocosmist-Immortalists. If we don’t have to rely on our government for space travel, we can forego the communist reconciliation, and rely on a completely anarchic teleology- we’ll conquer on our own.
Conversely, Google’s world-domination continues with the launch of its new health research group, Calico. Interest snowballed from its vague press brief; Apple CEO Tim Cook is quoted as saying, “For too many of our friends and family, life has been cut short or the quality of their life is too often lacking.”4 And although it seems abundantly clear to the unimaginative that this is just a foray into health research, one can easily read immortality between those lines.
Which is to suggest that the imperative march toward a totalized biopower is advancing- the complete design made for the subject by way of economics and politics. However, the struggle to maintain autonomy and self-design will always be there, as evidenced by Cameron Smith and his moves toward autonomous space exploration.
post-script: I’ve written this essay as a means of understanding both Foster and Groys’ arguments in terms of a totalized design environment, but ended up being fascinated by the twists and turns and rabbit-holes through which I was led. I hope you can enjoy the read despite some blatant jumps in logic and unexplained associations.
footnotes 1Adolf Loos, “Ornament and Crime” in Ulrich Conrads, ed., Programs and Manifestos on 20th Century Architecture (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1970), p. 20 2Michel Foucault, History of Sexuality (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978) 3Bernice Glatzer Rosenthal, The Occult in Russian and Soviet Culture (New York: Cornell University Press, 1997), p. 195 4http://googlepress.blogspot.com/2013/09/calico-announcement.html
In order to attend the opening reception of Electronic Pacific (July 12-August 17 at SOMArts Cultural Center in San Francisco) I had to take two busses, cross congested one-way streets, and hoof past leather shops and infamous gay bars to finally arrive in the garden courtyard of SOMArts Cultural Center. While en route, I conjured an internalized map of San Francisco from memory storage, since the digitized map of San Francisco queued up on my cellphone had sadly died. The protruding shape of San Francisco, wedged between the bay and the massive expanse of the Pacific Ocean, serves as one potential node of activity and transcultural exchange among the matrix of cities and nations that pepper the Pacific.
These two modes of thinking, of cartography and of the digitalized world, and of one’s effect on the other, proved a clear way to chart the courses of Electronic Pacific; each work builds off of the changing space of the cartographic in the electronic age and vice versa, in terms of cultural, mercantile, and linguistic exchange.
Three converted shipping containers separate the large open floor plan of SOMArts. Offering potential docking harbors to experience the video works of artists Laura Hyunjhee Kim and Marya Krogstad, the shipping containers cleverly carve the isolation necessary to sync/sink in to time-based video work and cement a visual marker for the theme of the show. Utilized by Jenny Odell in her collage photography, the shipping container is an iconic image in the Bay Area; huge ships containing multicolored lego blocks of these containers sail underneath the Golden Gate Bridge everyday, and the shipyards in Oakland are unforgettable otherworldly landscapes of cranes and stacked containers. The containers serve as a symbol of our prolonged mercantile and commodity exchange route along the Pacific Ocean. Odell uses images culled from Google Maps to create landscapes populated entirely by shipping containers, ships, and trains, highlighting the beautiful but archaic leftovers of the industrial age, still used to transport the majority of our goods. Pilfering from the watchful eye of Google Maps as they trace the movements of our goods throughout their trade routes, Odell presents a very literal cartography of the trade route, plucking and tracking the shipping containers en route and divorcing them from their trajectory to be static next to one another on a plane color field.
Stretching across the back wall of the gallery, Juan Luna-Avin’s silhouettes of 60 dislocated countries along the Pacific Rim appear jumbled upon the open face of the wall and littered with highlighter-neon color blocks, which list the chaotic names, logos and characters of punk bands that appeared throughout the region. Masking the expansive separation of countries as culturally diverse as Mexico, Japan and Indonesia by creating a localized guessing game, (who is that band? I know them! Who knew China had such a vibrant punk scene?) suggests a tracing of influences, a track-back history detailing the type of independent, DIY exchange that occurs within subcultures and gives new relevance to the notion of the punk “movement” towards diaspora. His mapping of space is extremely personal, linked to the type of identity-as-collection practice of fandom, hitched to the universality of music-genre affiliations beyond apparent cultural disparity. Liberating countries from geographical subordination to an all-knowing West, this style of mapping marks value through subcultural capital, rather than through accounts of trade, political power and capital investment.
An Xiao’s work on the adjacent wall maps temporality and the relative half life of media objects of the digital age. Inviting viewers to create their own paleolithic cave drawing on awkward pieces of cut stone, the artist prompts the monumentalization of cultural catalysts in the form of cat .gifs. During 6-9pm on the opening night, viewers wielding a selection of primary colored paint-markers designed and drew on rock shards which would accrete to a wall installation, each stone hung by the artist (in attendance) over the course of the night. Tracking the immediacy of representation in cultures of the past (Xiao cites the paleolithic practice of using torch-light to animate ancient cave-paintings) to contemporary culture, Xiao creates a humorous map of differentiation in the understanding of time and in the relative incongruity in cultures along a historic timeline.
With an altogether more committal approach to the participatory, the consistent electric buzz of a tattoo gun charged Electronic Pacific’s opening night with anticipatory anxiety. This was attributable to Sam McWilliams’ performance of Vaimaila Urale’s piece Typeface. Urale created pieces of tattoo flash to be applied permanently on willing visitors. The tattoo designs consisted of patterns of non-alphanumerical keyboard characters: backslashes, forward-slashes and parentheses, referencing the rhythmic visual patterning of Polynesian tribal tattoo compositions. What is incredible (in addition to the way that a tattoo gun changes the gallery space entirely) is the ease with which the comparison is made: the designs transition between their references of tribal tattoos and early ASCII compositions with incredible smoothness. The language of body decoration and the language of ASCII similarly use symbols to represent more universal ideologies.
Trans-oceanic cultural exchange becomes mapped through Electronic Pacific and it’s exhibiting artists by way of their literal shipment between and amongst countries on a broad, nebulous, mercantile/commodity/capital level, through levels of communities by the tracing of fandoms of punk bands throughout regions far flung and seemingly culturally disparate, and through the hyper-local accession of bodily design, relating, too, to a larger cultural ideology, but an incredibly personal arrangement of symbology on the skin, and through the haptic embodiment and relay of emotion felt through the collaboration and corroboration created by the works in the show.
Electronic Pacific will be on view until August 17 at SOMArts Cultural Center in San Francisco, 934 Brannan St. (between 8th & 9th). The show is curated by SOMArts curator and gallery director, Justin Hoover and features artists Juan-Luna Avin, JD Beltran, Thom Faulders, gal*in_dog aka Guillermo Galindo, Lynn Marie Kirby, Allison Leigh Holt, Laura Hyunjhee Kim, Marya Krogstad, Scott Minneman, Jenny Odell, Lizabeth Eva Rossof, Vaimaila Urale, Ai Weiwei, An Xiao, Li Xiaofei and Huang Xiaopeng.
when i received my acceptance letter to the San Francisco Art Institute last spring, I was buzzing with the prospect of my potential proximity to filmmaker George Kuchar. Unfortunately, as I arrived for my first semester of grad school last fall, George had been admitted to hospice, and less than a week later this legend had passed on to the great beyond. (i imagine him now in a whirling kaleidoscope of UFO’s, nudity, bizarre weather patterns and brightly colored starlights.) On the bright side, his brother, Mike, took over his classes and continues to teach “Electrographic Sinema” in the infamous Studio 8 at SFAI.
Anyway, i created this blog as a way of exploring micro-issues that occur in the chasm between high and low art. if any one person could embody that collapsed divide, it is George Kuchar.
In the 1960s, George Kuchar created artistic, critical films via vernacular means, carving a place in the canon for like-minded cineastes. From the 1980s to his untimely and tragic death in 2011, Kuchar taught others to do the same. His egalitarian approach to film epitomizes the style of participatory culture in which consumer becomes user.
Inspired by Hollywood melodramas, George Kuchar began making 8mm films with his brother Mike at the age of twelve. I like to think of Kuchar sitting in a theatre with 3D glasses over his black-rimmed spectacles. I like to think of his process as he translated the cinema on the silver screen into his own environment, casting his friends and putting garish makeup onto his sidekick-cum-starlets.
Kuchar would exaggerate the melodrama and styling typical of Hollywood films, reveling in extreme excess.
“The faces, bodies and gestures of Kuchar’s actors and their environments may seem bizarre, even outrageous in their failure to live up to the standards implied by the filmic forms Kuchar is using; but these are in fact the real people and places Kuchar knows, and the stories they enact are based on Kuchar’s experiences.” (MacDonald and Kuchar, George Kuchar: An Interview 1985).
Molding Hollywood tropes inspired by the silver screen into low-budget DIY versions, Kuchar was able to translate the models of big-budget filmmaking into a vernacular form.
Kuchar’s greatest success is his ability to digest cultural industry, from didactic and unilateral Hollywood mass culture films, into a democratic form.
Underground films such as Kuchar’s fit in the interstice – where the distinctions between producers and consumers become blurred. Devoid of the Hollywood production values, anyone with a Super 8 and a vision could produce a motion picture.
“One of the more provocative developments of the 1970s was the use by a group of filmmakers in New York of inexpensive Super-8 technology to reject both the big-budget, mass-entertainment assumptions of Hollywood and the artistic pretentions of the formalist cinema that fascinated and frustrated many critics and viewers during the late 1960s and the 1970s.” (MacDonald, A Critical Cinema: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers 1988).
The idea of “picture-making” (over directing, producing, or writing) democratizes the form, leaving it open to anyone. It serves to deconstruct inherent cultural hierarchies and class structures wherein the director or writer or producer of the film is in some way better than its viewer. The culture industry becomes less mystical. It is less of an industry, more of a job, and therefore something anyone can participate in. Kuchar recreates the unilateral cultural mode into a participatory model.
Liberating film from its Hollywood cage and liberating the 8mm film format into the feature-length realm, “in Kuchar’s world anyone can, and should, be a movie star; everyone can use movies as a vehicle for self-expression and interaction.” (MacDonald and Kuchar, George Kuchar: An Interview 1985).
His individualized aesthetic, coupled with the accessible filming format, proved galvanizing for many would-be picture makers. This democratized cinema process was later adopted by ingénue filmmakers like John Waters and Andy Warhol to create feature length films like Pink Flamingos and Chelsea Girls. Inspired by Kuchar, these consumers became successful users and producers.
Kuchar later joined forces with the San Francisco Art Institute, to teach a series of semester long classes, titled “Electrographic Sin-ema”. The goal of the class was to transmit Kuchar’s unique knowledge of DIY picture-making.
By virtue of the class, Kuchar transferred his knowledge, allowing every student to have direct insight into his working process. Kuchar enacted a version of participatory culture that allowed for immediate and direct interaction and collaboration.
Each class collaborated with Kuchar to make its own picture. The students act simultaneously as producers, actors and writers, inventing plot turns and scripts, characters and lighting combinations. At the end of the class, the picture is screened for the students, who serve as the audience. Given a copy of the film to keep, the class is then in charge of distribution, dispensing the film among friends and family. As the controls of the circulation methods of the film, the students are able to manipulate the films reception from the immediate class members to a wider array of viewership.
I hope not to valorize Kuchar’s work in some utopic realm where the concerns of production, commodity exchange, consumerism and capital do not exist, where they can be seen as merely overlapping qualities. I hope instead, to show Kuchar as a working alternative, where producer and consumer collapse and unify. Scott MacDonald, in the preface to his interview with George Kuchar, says, “I would contend that Kuchar’s approach to film is essentially an attempt to humanize and democratize a medium which conventionally has been for the people without being of them or by them” (MacDonald and Kuchar, George Kuchar: An Interview 1985).
The active viewership necessitated by Kuchar’s electrographic sin-ema is one of community engagement and formation of inspiration. The life of his films are prolonged indefinitely, to inspire future filmmakers and future productions ad infinitum. By working in the valleys between cultural consumer and producer, the argument follows that Kuchar also created a bridge between the islands of high and low art. Such an act illuminates the incongruity between the artistic elite and forms of easily digested culture, while still allowing for criticality.
Alright, enough with academics. Let’s just bask in the radiant gel colored lights and titillating titles and props forever and ever, amen.
here’s to color, here’s to light. Here’s to UFO’s and weather diaries; to mongreloids and mothers. here’s to the underground, the aboveground and the middle ground between. here’s to trying and failing, trying and flying; here’s to Thundercrack!, The Fury of Frau Frankenstein(2005), The Devil’s Cleavage(1975), I Was a Teenage Rumpot(1960), and here’s to Hold Me While I’m Naked(1966). Here’s to George Kuchar and every life he touched, saved, inspired or just made more colorful.
MacDonald, Scott. A Critical Cinema: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.
MacDonald, Scott, and George Kuchar. “George Kuchar: An Interview.” Film Quarterly (University of California Press) 38, no. 3 (Spring 1985): 2-15.