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.

action_office_II_in_action.jpg
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.

Cory Arcangel_Permanent Vacation, 2008
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.

Mika Tajima_A Facility Based On Change, III, 2010
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.

Haegue Yang_OfficeVoodoo_2010.JPG
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

review: Untitled (Just Kidding), Jesse Malmed at ATA

To translate the visual, coding it (back?) into language, into appropriate symbols, symbologies, typographies, topographies, and tying it to contextual quotations and corollary concepts, is a puzzle I profoundly enjoy and one of the only things I can say that I do well without hesitation. Jesse Malmed’s recent screening/performance at Artist’s Television Access on August 13th, 2013, beginning at 8:13:13pm, titled Untitled (Just Kidding), is rooted so deeply in linguistic interfacing with visual artistry that it is nearly impossible to find the correct language in which to code it, recode it and decode it; it is already perfectly codified. It needs no cipher.

The program consisted of five films and several performances. The films were particularly adept at stitching the selvages of visual art imagery and text/linguistic artistry. Screened that night were Malmed’s films, Thimberlig, Flick/e/r Film, Goth Movie (chemirocha), Supernym and Wreading. Some tread lightly upon the wave of Sea-punk Net 1.0 aesthetics, all blend beautiful linguistic experimentation with images that simultaneously evoke the complete and totalized alter-reality of Internet culture with the partiality of language; a suggestion of metonymy wherein the partiality created by naming becomes substitute for the whole of an idea.

Because of this, the sections which seem most available for discussion or decoding, are the spaces between, the set-up and breakdown, the participatory and the performative. These quick interstices between video spaces charged an expectant audience in the small space of ATA’s screening room.


Conversational Karaoke, a participatory game of associative poetry, recruits two audience members to a stage set-up with two microphones. Video plays on a monitor, where bright text announces the title “Conversational Karaoke!”, bouncing across the screen. The two participants, distinguished by magenta and green font colors, then alternate reading bits of language from the monitor. The room is dark, and the audience is unable to see the faces of the participants having the crafted conversation, giving the experience the odd effect of floating… of the associative free-thought that occurs in the brain, usually narrated by your own voice, but once removed as in the voice of a conscience. As the text rolls across the screen, highlighted, as in conventional Karaoke, to suggest pace, the readers slowly ignite linear linguistic fuses, which detonate payoffs in the form of punch lines. The readers, instinctively, arc the tone of their voice, with a high, inquisitive inflection as the lines trail off the screen and fade into the next. Creative wordplay such as the line,

“Do people like lunch poems? Lets do something more brunchy. Lets do Seinfeld meets Garfield, lets do Garfeld, Seinfield, but less urban”

becomes entirely more hilarious given the speaker’s confusion as to where the line will end. I am reminded of Richard Serra’s video Boomerang wherein Nancy Holt wears headphones which repeat her own voice back to her in echo. The sound is disorienting and causes her to speak deliberately, as she describes her own reaction to the constructed situation. The disoriented and delayed feedback between conversationalists and their speech is, as Richard Serra describes, “being formed and revealed as they are organized”1 in real time.

Continuing with the style of psuedo-extemporaneity, Malmed’s performance of Duration consists of the artist giving a speech on durational performance by spelling out each word in the speech. (i-m-a-g-i-n-e r-e-a-d-i-n-g t-h-i-s p-a-r-a-g-r-a-p-h a-l-o-u-d l-e-t-t-e-r b-y l-e-t-t-e-r) As soon as the brain is able to catch up and reconnects a word from the chain of letters, the next word has already begun and ended like rapid fire, and the audience is left puzzling and piecing together fragments of speech, wherein we can fill in the blanks if possible, but mostly are left guessing and feeling incapacitated (although I am sure M-a-r-i-n-a A-b-r-a-m-o-v-i-c was definitely spelled out.) Most disorienting was the lack of space between each word; leaving strings of speech unwoven, drifting fibers not yet plaited on a linguistic loom.

Paul Sharits, film strip from T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G (1969)
Flick/e/r Film was presented as part of a series called Mic Check. This minute long experiment drifts into discourse with structuralist film veins pioneered by Paul Sharits. Sharits’ structuralist films, known as flicker films, also had strong ties to linguistic play, semiotics and the deconstruction of language. Sharits produced films with titles like N:O:T:H:I:N:G (suggesting a relationship between each letter) and T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G (suggesting separation between letters in this haptic word.) The quick separation in the titles is similar to Sharits’ filmmaking style, wherein rapid sequences link together distinct colorscapes and anarchic imagery. The rapid sequencing of bright color contrasts in flicker films were linked to epilepsy, and the endurance of the audience watching the long duration of blasting bright colors become a necessary completion to structuralist works like Sharits’ and Michael Snow. Malmed’s Flick/e/r Film sets in rapid sequence an image of the homepage for photo sharing site Flickr.com and a sub-site from hi-beam.net, a film and video artist collection also entitled Flicker and featuring a google search box directly beneath the craft-like design of the title (link: hi-beam.net/cgi-bin/flicker.pl) Riffing on the word “flicker” as it denotes both a style of filmmaking and an inherent quality of film and photography, Malmed updates the form to include specifically computer-based moving image making technique. Flick/e/r Film consists of pasted together screenshots which begin with Apple’s application choice, and then sifts between the two websites in rapidity. A perfectly tailored pun, which is endlessly referential, Flick/e/r Film takes on semiotics and film history as rapidly as it switches between images.

The screening ended with Wreading, a film which flips through images of clouds culled from Getty Images, Cory Arcangel’s 8-bit Clouds from 2002, posed questions in Jeopardy! form, and an extended text which invites the viewer to read and question the nature of their reading. In the end, we had been questioning our ability to read the entire time; to code, to decode, to deconstruct, to construct language, to attach language to visual and to distinguish between authored languages and our own interpretations.

A bio for Jesse Malmed and a sample of his works can be seen here: http://www.jessemalmed.net/
For more information on Artist’s Television Access, check out their website here: http://atasite.org

1.Richard Serra, in response to his film Boomerang; available here: http://www.ubu.com/film/serra_boomerang.html

review: electronic pacific

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.

Jenny Odell, Shipping Containers
Jenny Odell, Shipping Containers

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.

Video work by Laura Hyunjhee Kim
Video work by Lauren Hyunjhee Kim

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.

Juan-Luna Avila
Juan-Luna Avin

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.

Works ready for the .gif paleolithic wall conceived by An Xiao
Works ready for the .gif paleolithic wall conceived by An Xiao

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.

Setting up in Vailala Urale and Sam McWilliam's tattoo booth
Setting up in Vaimaila Urale and Sam McWilliam’s tattoo booth

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.

review: proximities 1

Entering the gallery that houses Proximities’ first installment, What Time is it There?, is like emerging for air after diving into a deep pool. The gallery is sandwiched between the Korean and Japanese portions of the Asian Art Museum’s permanent collection, which spans 6,000 years and offers a “panorama of Asian art and culture”1. Dripping from the resonances of a deep expanse of complicated histories, Proximities offers an interstice, a moment to sit and consider the present condition of the encompassing water.

Andrew Witrak, Trouble in Paradise #2, 2013
Andrew Witrak, Trouble in Paradise #2, 2013

This is particularly evident with Andrew Witrak’s Trouble in Paradise #2, constructed from thousands of cocktail umbrellas, which envelop and coat a swimming pool float. Reminiscent of a tropical version of Meret Oppenheim’s Breakfast in Fur, the effect is overwhelmingly haptic and surreal, eliciting an implicit desire to touch the pointed toothpick ends (which jut into space in equally distributed densities and directions, like quills) with the tacit understanding of the impossibility and danger of the object’s physical use. The umbrellas, which alternate in sunny hued clusters of pink, yellow and green, are a standard garnish for tropical cocktails, and standard issue symbols for exploitative tourism and exoticism in the West. The float is paired with a video screen, which mimes cliché tropical resort hotel TV channels (i.e.: a golfer tees off on a perfectly coiffed green, a spa with crisp white towels offers relaxation, a tropical blue drink with a pineapple garnish sweats in the heat) suggesting a tropical utopia, devoid of any of the cultural specificities which would tie it to a distinct place. Together, the work is enticing and off-putting, evoking the potential pleasures and dangers inherent in the tourism industry.

James Gobel, You've Gone Away... ,2013
James Gobel, You’ve Gone Away But You’ll Come Back Some Day,2013
A counterpoint to the overt criticism of tourism and exoticization, James Gobel’s You’ve Gone Away, But You’ll Come Back Some Day, makes use of perfectly pieced together bits of felt and yarn to create the effect of an imploded postcard. Text cut from felt in the bottom right clearly reads “Love Me…” and punctuates the work with the same desire as the post card platitude: “Wish You Were Here”. The artist mentions his reflections on national flags as a starting point for imagining journeys, resulting in lines of blue, orange, red and acrylic painted felt that cross the center of a tan background, conjuring the geometry of a national flag. This loving tribute to a voyage not yet taken acts as a counterpoint to the damage of cultural tourism proposed with Witrak’s Trouble in Paradise #2.

Lisa K. Blatt, People's Park, Shanghai China, May 10, 2007, 9:35 PM, 2007
Lisa K. Blatt, People’s Park, Shanghai China, May 10, 2007, 9:35 PM, 2007
Lisa K. Blatt’s night photographs explores a landscape completely transformed by darkness. Depicting the cityscape of Shanghai with its natural landscapes, punctuated by manicured palm trees and lighted, eerily, with an incandescent pink, the photographs manipulate color and space, changing Shanghai, one of the world’s fastest growing cities, into a prehistoric forest bathed in an other-wordly glow.

Other artists of Proximities: What Time is it There? include Elisheva Biernoff, Ala Ebtekar, Tucker Nichols and Larry Sultan. Proximities 1: What Time is it There? will be on view until July 21, the next installment, Proximities 2: Knowing Me, Knowing You will run Oct 11-Dec 8.

1 from the asian art museum’s website: http://www.asianart.org/collections/collection