Exhibition text: Broadside, October, 2014

An exhibition based on modern reinterpretations of the one-sheet broadside. This body of work finds its place between the ephemeral, commercialized object and something more lasting, tactile, and intimate or conceptual. The artists investigate a range of interests including aesthetics, politics, humor, cartoons, poetics, and social issues.

Of its many variations there are several elements of the broadside that have remained constant throughout its history. Whether manifested in an 18th century ballad or a notice for a public hanging, a 1960’s social activist leaflet or today’s illustrated poem, the broadside’s consistent traits are that it is a portable, accessible, and affordable form of communication.  It is not surprising that these pieces of street literature have been a useful tool for artists and artist activists looking to reach the larger public without limits placed by editors, curators, and other art market gatekeepers.

Yet long before these modern uses, broadsheets were a popular form of advertising in emerging market economies.  From the 16th century to the early 19th century broadsides promoted business, shared news, and decreed laws. Intended for posting in public places, such as town markets, or to be read aloud, such sheets paid little attention to visual details. The ephemeral nature of the broadside meant that most of its history has gone un-archived or otherwise documented. The ones that survived are typically authorless and align themselves in some ways with oral storytelling traditions, where information would get lost and altered as it moved from place to place. Although the printed sheet attempted to nail down facts, it was not until the advent of newspapers and the novel that one could read the exact same thing as someone living in another country. Here we can see another constant in the broadside, that of having space within a given community. Although an instrument for mass communication, the broadside until the Industrial Revolution was essentially a local form of expression, contained within a particular community, social network, and cultural discourse.

In the early 20th century the significant transformation of mass media technologies reduced the traditional value of broadside communications. Instead of being products of the industrial print shop, artists used broadsides as a form of self-publication.  They became a favorite medium for the artistic avant-gardes of the time, in particular the Dadaists, Futurists, and Russian Constructivists. These artists looked to advertise their performances, publish their poetry and make known their manifestos for a new art. The broadside gave the avant-gardes a means to exchange information outside the scrutinizing eye of established schools of art and their supporters. While providing a platform for the subversive and sometimes illegal acts of artists, broadsides also became a platform for the respective groups’ sense of design aesthetics.  The avant-gardes pushed the broadside far away from its popular and commercial distribution of prior centuries.  Their community of followers remained small, but their networks became global. Now an entire “ism” might be communicated in a letter with a broadside enclosure, uniting avant-garde communities in Poland, for example, with comparable communities in Japan.

In the hands of the avant-gardes the broadside was a highly aesthetic object, even if it remained firmly within the realm of ephemera.  These sheets were props for the artists’ messages, but few considered them works of art in themselves.  Only with conceptual art did street ephemera acquire the cachet of high art object, as in the work of Jenny Holzer in the 1980’s.

Conscious of the power of advertisement and frustrated with Reagan-era politics, artists/activists like Holzer, Barbara Kruger, Robert Indiana, collectives like the Guerilla Girls and Gran Fury, to name a few, looked for new ways to tackle such issues. They utilized the broadside as a text-based image outside and inside the gallery to infiltrate mass media’s langfuage with their own messages. For these artists the word becomes the material, the line of text the composition. The result would often be that the look of the message became more important than the message itself. With this new preciousness applied to the text, they caught the eye of the art world and began a process of popular canonization; which included a retrospective reevaluation of works such as those produced by the Surrealists.

Sign painting and hand lettering by street artists working outside the gallery circuit also began during the time that conceptual text-based work was gaining momentum. The advent of the copy machine made it possible for artists to acquire the now antiquated letterpress printer for cheap and combine letterpress typefaces with their illustrations and cartoons. This direction, as expressed by groups such as the Mission School artists in San Francisco, marks a definitive interest in work that could be easily produced and exchanged. Here the idea of a gift economy within artist communities is important to consider in our contemporary, and now multifaceted, perception of what a broadside can be.

For artists throughout the past century, “broadside” may not have been a frequently used term, however, today we can see its influences on self-published sheets made by artists, activists, and poets. It is a combination of avant-garde propaganda, social activism, and interest in the material qualities of text that make up our contemporary definition. All of this, coming together in our now completely digitalized age, marks a continued interest artists have in the tactile and immediate nature of the broadside. Currently other types of self-published material like chapbooks, zines, and artist books are enjoying a renaissance of sorts. This can be read as a need to react to our visual-heavy Internet culture. In essence the ephemeral nature of early broadsides has been replaced with the fast-paced scroll of a social media or news webpage, and the object fills a desire for a lasting product that can still be produced cheaply.

The broadside’s “object-hood” has been exaggerated since its early days, but it remains a way to establish one’s community through printed material that can be shared and posted. In that sense contemporary broadsides are reactions to the universal connectivity of our digital culture. We are constantly sharing and performing versions of ourselves online yet caught in a strange web of anonymity that occurs with an overwhelming flow of users. Perhaps the allure of the self-published object comes from the immediate declaration of self resulting from the act of its physical exchange.

 

Review: Ragnar Kjartansson: The Visitors, August 19, 2014

 

“There are stars exploding…and there is nothing you can do.” So goes one of the lines from Ragnar Kjartansson’s video installation The Visitors, currently on view at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. Sung over and over, this verse is a perfect expression of the urgent undercurrent that runs through this evocative work. The Visitors is simultaneously a sorrowful lament over the loss of time and place, and an ambitious endeavor to momentarily suspend the viewer’s experience of either. In considering physical displacement and the search for community, the work explores concepts of geography and identity that increasingly characterize 21st-century culture. Through the temporal aspects of performance and video, the work examines the nature of physical and psychological distances as expressed in language, music and environment.

The Visitors was recorded in 2012 at an elegantly rundown 19th century estate in upstate New York. The nine-channel HD video installation captures a sweeping choral arrangement performed by the artist and a group of his fellow Icelandic musicians. Running for 64 minutes, the performers continuously sing several lines of identical verse from multiple locations throughout the estate. The piece swells in complexity through serial repetition, the evolving staging adding new layers of possible meanings, from faint murmurs that echo between singers to a grand collective orchestration, conveying an emotional range from quiet acceptance to desperate longing and joy. The insistent melody of the score derives from the folk/pop backgrounds of the musicians, but the work also borrows from gospel music, giving the pop rhythms a deeper resonance.

Although the musicians are all Icelanders they sing in English, as many contemporary Scandinavian singers do (members from several Icelandic bands–Múm and Sigur Rós –perform in this piece). Inevitably the video invites reflection on potentially adaptive and alienated aspects of contemporary Icelandic culture, further contributing to The Visitors’ themes of dislocation and loss. The performers, however, do not allow the process of translation to define them. In the drawn out way they sing the lines, the English intelligibility of the words fade simply into sounds. This too reflects contemporary Icelandic music: Sigur Rós has composed an entire album sung in a wholly made-up language. By shredding a single line of speech into multiple strands of sound, the music explores the more universal power of phonetic sound over the limitations of textual meaning.

Read more at Art New England

 

 

Echoes in Our Gaze

Accordion Issue 1, June 2014

“An echo, while implying an enormity of space, at the same time also defines it, limits it, and even temporarily inhabits it.”1

In the dark an echo is an anchor to reality. A space that for all you know goes on forever can be realized by one call reverberating off some distant barrier. Ironically echoes often bring up associations of the unknown. Probably because the spaces that create the clearest ones - caves, tunnels, churches, wells – link to spirituality, ritual, wishes, ‘moving towards the light’, etc. But really an echo is a reaction against the unseen. We project ourselves out into the dark and are rewarded by the comfort of our own bodies reaching out and filling the space, making us temporarily at home there.

In astronomy there is something called a ‘light echo’ that occurs when a star becomes exponentially brighter and from this eruption light reflects off dust particles surrounding the star. This reflection of light continues for an ex- tended period of time, before eventually fading. It allows scientists to track the changing paths of the dust and gain a clearer image of the space around the transmitting star.2 I wonder if you could translate the idea of this natural phenomenon into a way of discussing our line of vision and how we orient ourselves physically while absorbed in the process of looking. In particular the manner in which our gaze falls within a place specifically designed for visual contemplation, the art gallery.

The typical modernist gallery is a sterile vacuum. It sucks our gaze completely into the artwork on display, while at the same time wiping away our physical presence from the space. For each new show the walls are carefully patched, sanded and painted, erasing what came before, pretending like it never happened. Every installation appears as if it has always been thereand always will be. When we enter this ‘sacred’ space of the gallery we are intruding upon the purity of the world created by the images. The viewer must immediately start editing their normal behavior so as to not disturb this frozen moment. The gaze must be adapted so as to focus completely on each carefully placed object that demands a particular attention, one that has no patience for say lingering thoughts of lunch or awkwardness over your ratty t-shirt. No, instead we must become the ideal viewer who transforms into something other than what our physical bodies announce, something eternal.

In a way it is a stalemate situation between the pristine gallery rejectingthe messiness of our bodies and the artworks magnetic pull on our eyes to enter its world. Within these two separate outputs of gaze we are stuck ona two-dimensional plane, as if positioned between two opposing mirrors forever reflecting each other. As we attack this space with a look that carries the weight of our lived experiences we are met with the unyielding eye of the object. However, there are additional paths of vision going on here. Rather than stay frozen in this in-between state of being, the body fights to orient itself. Think of the star and its ‘light echoes’ and substitute the viewer’sgaze for the transmitting star reflecting off the scattering of stellar dust. Our peripheral vision and memory of where our gaze rested upon just moments before are both present at the same time. These blurred and rememberedacts of looking combine with the one directed ahead. All of this happens almost simultaneously, multiple gazes overlapping and readjusting towards the objects that they perceive. This could be seen as adding multiple traps to the original one of our two mirrors, yet memory and barely comprehended peripheral clips infiltrate our vision in a more ephemeral manner than those constantly reflecting oppositions. Like the light echo off the stardust these gazes come to an end eventually, after succumbing to ones that are constantly being regenerated.

This more ephemeral gaze allows the messiness of our bodies a place in the white box that not only rejects our physicality but also has a history that is fundamentally oriented towards a very particular body.3 Instead, let us enter such a space with an awareness of how the mirrored standoff between viewer and object is a more layered experience than it is often presented to be, we can carve out a space for ourselves there. Rather than the inherent narcissism of the mirrored look that bolsters the concept of the work against the viewer and builds a façade of an unending connection that our egos might like to believe in; the echoed gaze processes the temporary, transient nature of the actual body. It means the information coming back to me might not necessarily become mirrored in me (the viewer), and this does not mean I have no place there.

 

1. Mark Z. Danielewski, House of Leaves, (2000), p. 46 2. http://hubblesite.org/newscenter/archive/releases/2005/02/ 3. “Who is this Spectator, also called the Viewer...? He – I’m sure its more male than female – arrived with modernism, with the disappearance of perspective. He seems born out of the picture and, like some perceptual Adam, is drawn back repeatedly to contemplate it. The Spectator seems a little dumb; he is not you or me. Always on call, he staggers into place before every new work that requires his presence.” - Brian O’Doherty, “Inside the White Cube”, 1976, 1986, p. 39