NOW CURATING: YOMI
s t r e e t a r t i s t
When Julius asked me to curate content for Curate This I knew I’d have to have an article about how terrible the murals in Philadelphia are, because 1) he works for Mural Arts, 2) the murals in Philadelphia are emotionally empty, poorly rendered, politically naive ugly shit, and 3) I’m an asshole. Fortunately, I have a friend, Josh McIlvain, who views mural “arts” the same way. I met Josh when we both wrote for an evil non-profit; we used company time reserved for boosting the profile of the chemical industry to set up a series of literary anthologies. Josh is artistic director of Automatic Arts, information manager for FringeArts, and an all-around good guy and fellow asshole. He’s my favorite playwright in Philadelphia, and his plays are pretty good too.
-Christopher Munden, curator
MANNY A: male, 50s., glasses.
MANNY B: female, 30, glasses.
A and B are playing the same person, MANNY, side-by-side. While they share the same space and story, they should be played by very different types: different genders, different ages, different style of dress. They should not try to both act like the same character, but individually show the character as two different possibilities. They share a belief in the same essential truth, and they exist side-by-side in the same set of circumstances.
A community hearing about the Murals Project, attended by community leaders, local government officials, and interested neighbors. The audience plays the role of those gathered at this meeting, and MANNY is speaking directly to the audience as if they were characters gathered for this purpose.
A long banquet table is set out, with a black cloth covering it. Two folding chairs are behind the table, facing the audience, for A and B to sit in. In the manner of government hearings, there is a bottle of water, a plastic cup and two bar napkins to place the cup upon, one set of these items for A and one set for B. At a larger venue, they should have microphones with table microphone stands.
MAKING the WORLD a BETTER PLACE through MURALS
MANNY A and B walk out to the table and take their seats. They open their water bottles and fill their cups with water, screw the caps back on, take a drink, place cups back down, move napkins towards them, and place the cups on one of the napkins. These actions should be in unison, though the movements do not need to be perfectly synced up—they should appear natural. However, only at two other spots in the play do they take simultaneous action. They should not be imitative of each other otherwise.
A: I painted murals because I wanted to make the world a happier place. My specialty were paintings, several stories tall, of proud, contented men and women, shoulders squared, looking up at the sunshine, a new dawn, some shit, a collage of types—the farmer to the social worker to the medical doctor, young and old, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, mixed-race, every once in a while a Native American. I thought, we all thought, that positive, uplifting images, especially of those who persevered against great odds, people on the street would look up at these happy, positive images and maybe think happy positive thoughts? Where there had been an ugly gray spackled façade now you had a colorful picture of people working a garden, coming together as a community, celebrating their heritage. We were communicating in images—what message did a blank, gray wall make?
(B turns her head, looking at A.)
What did that say to people? Our pictures could make that little difference which maybe could make all the difference—a gleam of hope when you’re feeling down, an extra push as you face a challenge, a bright light of encouragement to help support your dreams, the fight against discouragement. Look, we changed this wall, you can change your life.
B: But the strange thing, I later came to think of, [turns back to audience] is why would all these people, these giant humanoids we painted on the sides of buildings, why would they be looking around at these decrepit, run-down, bleak and depressed pot-holed streets and crumbling sidewalks, with smiles? If they could see, their faces would be full of rage at what the hell did you drop me in this neighborhood for?
A: The murals ran the gamut of scenarios—they still do. Some are landscapes and farming scenes, some are manufacturing tableaus for neighborhoods that once had manufacturing and now have squat, nature scenes with animals and people—peaceable kingdom stuff—in neighborhoods that have no nature except for the spindly trees growing out of decay and the alley cats and stray dogs. Kids like the ones with animals. I once got a commission for an animal mural, but it didn’t work out. I painted a giant house cat playing with a ball of yarn. I thought it would be comforting, but it actually freaked people out to see this four-story house cat staring down at them. Made people feel like mice. Lasted two months before it was whitewashed, and another mural went up, this time of wondrous children observing a sundial, touching it, touching a sundial—what they hell does touching a sundial do? Truthfully, I thought the cat was a little scary too. If a house cat really were that size no doubt they would bat you around like a cat toy, get you caught on his claw and then fling into a wall, you know, on the third try, because it would take a few times to get you off his claw.
B: This shift in perspective, a cute thing made large—suddenly becoming a thing of terror—was the beginning of my dissatisfaction with the murals. Before then I had been a true believer. Save the world, one mural at a time. Paint over your blight with positive images and colorful hues and downtrodden folks can look at those murals and become uplifted and it’s a brand new day, by golly I will pull myself up by my bootstraps, and go out and change my life for the better. And suddenly, instead of the same old same old, it’s a neighborhood of opportunity zone—jobs are made, enterprise is created, the mercury-poisoned earth in the abandoned lots suddenly yields a golden crop and the people rise up singing, all because we transformed a gray wall into an image of hope and pride.
A: Like putting a new coat of paint on a prison. I bet in a prison there’s a lot of talk about a new paint job, I bet everyone has an opinion about it, because there’s nothing else to talk about.
(A and B remove their glasses. They clean them with a napkin from the table in silence. They put their glasses back on.}
People would come up to me, tell me what a nice job I was doing and that felt good. It’s nice to see someone finally starting to clean up the neighborhood. But at the end of the day, the sidewalks are still cracked and everyone still slumps by, going back to their shitty lives. Sure there are shitty lives everywhere, but in a shitty neighborhood, there are more shitty lives.
B: We had community help, making the community part of the process, teaching them, I don’t know . . . the way to paint over their troubles with images of hope and pride and perseverance. The funny thing is, if you see a mural like that, you just assume it’s a shit neighborhood, right? They don’t put uplifting murals in neighborhoods where people are already uplifted, right? In the neighborhoods where someone doesn’t have to commute on a stinky bus two hours for a minimum wage job at a drug store, you don’t have murals. In an uplifted neighborhood, they’d be like, hey, don’t put that shitty mural there.
A: But they learned to paint, sort of, learned team building. There’d always be a couple people who got laid because of it, so that was a plus. Everybody feeling good about themselves, good time to get in on that.
B: But what did they do really—the wall’s still a wall. You can’t do anything with a mural, can’t even walk on it. It’s still just a wall. There’s something brutal about a wall, especially a wall that tells you everything that you’re not.
A: There was one I worked on where one of the central figures was a blacksmith, hammering on his anvil, a proud figure. It was a mural about the pride of craftsmen, and the blacksmith also symbolized the forging of strong neighborhood bonds. You know, a metaphor, subtle as a hammer. Doesn’t matter that aside from a renaissance fair, the craft of blacksmithing is extinct. There’d been a foundry in the neighborhood at one time. But seriously it had been gone for thirty years. And it had been an incredibly dangerous place to work. This old guy was talking to me about it. One moment he’s saying, when the factory shut down, this neighborhood went to hell, that it was a damn shame, and the next moment he’s telling me what a terrible place it was to work. That every three months someone was either maimed or died on the job. And somehow it was always employee carelessness, and people got burned all the time, sometimes badly. But nobody was there hammering an anvil. Wasn’t a bunch a metalworkers with their individual workshops making horseshoes. Plus the whole neighborhood smelled like poison when the wind blew the wrong way. But people seemed to like that one. Workers pride. Now that’s work, real work, I like that. We got to have more of that. I began to question the people who I worked for, like what are we doing painting these images of things that people don’t have, I don’t think visualization is going to turn things around, I think the problems may be deeper than that.
B: We’re starting a discussion, is what Bronson would say. Bronson was the mural guru. We give people something to talk about, and maybe that can be a starting point for an idea. People need ideas, people need to be empowered by the power of their own ideas. And then what? It’s an entry point, it’s a beginning.
A: They’ve been painting these things for like 20 fucking years and it’s always a beginning.
B: The last one I did was a farm, harvest time, the fruits of labor spilling out of baskets in a neighborhood where everyone was living off of food stamps. Think about it, here’s a big basket of apples. Each apple is bigger than your head. You could feed an entire family with one of those apples. Don’t they look delicious? Sorry, not for you! Why not, instead of paintings a picture of a garden do you not build a garden? Maybe the soil is so full of toxins that anything you’d grow would be poisonous, if you were lucky enough to grow anything at all. I once knew a guy who talked about living on the beaches of Mexico and eating thistle. You can survive off of thistle, he’d say.
(A turns his head, looking at B.)
So instead of the farm, I painted an empty lot full of thistle, big thorny thistle plants, a three story building covered in thistle, made your skin crawl just looking at it. People would ask me, what the hell is that? And I’d say thistle! You can live off of thistle.
A: I got about three-quarters done before they took me off the project. [Turns to audience.] They said I needed a break, and gave me a month of paid leave. I mean, they’re very considerate, they were concerned with my feelings, and the stress. They were upset that someone who had been with them for so long could go off the deep end. Only I didn’t go off the deep end, I had woken up. Sure, there was stress, but I had woken up.
B: I couldn’t tell them, they still have a dream, and you can see it in their eyes, and the way looked at me, so caring and concerned. A casualty in the war. Your whole thing is bullshit, I wanted to say. But it would be like telling a creationist that no, the world is more than five thousand years old. Because people choose fantasy over reality. Because every objection is always met with, well, it’s true that there is still much work to be done. Still a long road to go down. We’re just one organization. But these murals, we’ve established a legacy, people think they’re great—I tell people what I do, and they think it’s so great. We’ve come so far, but we’ve got so much further to go . . . and I’m seeing this long, long path through shitty block to shitty block with these stupid murals like guide posts, guide posts to what? To each other. That’s all it is—it’s a path for itself. It’s the insanity of not facing a problem.
A: Took me a while to find a job, a year or so, wasn’t sure what to do. They put me on unemployment. So thoughtful. I spent a lot of time indoors, watching TV. Then I decided I needed to get out so I started taking long walks about town, but I’d always see the murals and seeing them didn’t make me happy. First they pissed me off, but then I just stopped caring, and then I started seeing them the way I think most people see them, something you don’t care about, another wall, that’s it. Another fucking wall in the city.
B: Thank you, no questions.
(A and B rise from table, give a slight nod of acknowledgment, and exit room. The end.)
MAKING the WORLD a BETTER PLACE through MURALS premiered November 1, 2013, as part of Nice and Fresh performing arts series at Moving Arts of Mount Airy in Philadelphia, PA. With Steve Lippe as A and Emily L. Gibson as B. Directed by Josh McIlvain.
Photo by Said Johnson
For whom do we make things, and what do they represent? This is the question posed by More Stately Mansions, an art exhibition currently running at Kitchen Table Gallery. My contribution to the exhibition, Window of Enlightenment, explores the contradictory relationship between the Gilded Age elite and the American wilderness. Camp Santanoni, a sprawling estate built in 1892 by an Albany banker, serves as a lens through which we examine wealthy industrialists’ excursions into the woods and their underlying motivations. Five miles down a dirt road outside an isolated village, Camp Santanoni epitomizes the rustic style of Adirondack Great Camps. Its story and ethos are uniquely manifest in its design, representing the conflict of American expansionism and an emerging public interest in experiencing and preserving the wilderness.
As cities boomed at the turn of the twentieth century, the wealthy sought respite from urban living. The New York elite invested in family camps upstate—private destinations to be enjoyed by their owners and invited guests. In contrast to the grand homes of big cities, the Great Camp was designed to blend into its setting, and employed local materials and craftsmen in its construction, featuring rough hewn logs and granite fieldstone chimneys. Though designed with rustic ideals in mind, Great Camps, like any country homes, were still an expression of status and privilege.
Camp Santanoni is distinctive from other Great Camps in its design. Considered “more understated” than similar camps, Camp Santanoni embraces a Japanese aesthetic, specifically the concept of shibui, meaning “tasteful in a rustic manner.” Robert Pruyn, Santanoni’s original patron, valued Japanese tradition as an alternative to the “fragmentation of modern life” reflected in urban American architecture. Evidently, the year he spent living in a repurposed Buddhist temple in the suburbs of Edo (now Tokyo) would significantly inform his vision for an ideal wilderness retreat.
Interior walls were paneled with tatami mats, and guests were called to meals by the strike of an antique temple gong. But the components reminiscent of Japanese temples at Camp Santanoni reflected more than just aesthetic preference. Robert Pruyn and his wife Anna sought a communion with nature intrinsic to eastern architecture. In Pruyn’s own words, “It takes time to make a comfortable place to live in this great wilderness. You cannot merely buy land and build a house. A patient contest with nature is necessary.”
Pruyn commissioned renowned architect Robert H. Robertson to design his Camp. Intentionally integrating indoor and outdoor spaces, Robertson prioritized enjoyment of the landscape. The Japanese-inspired arrangement of spaces comprised backswept wings of freestanding structures linked by a promenade. Robertson designed a walkway in eight segments, punctuated by scenic outlooks offering panoramic vistas. One critical text described a traverse of the verandas as constantly shifting compositions: “slivers of lake appear and disappear through a colonnade of trees, the forest dappled with sunlight.”
At his Camp, Pruyn’s “patient contest with nature” manifested as ordered control over the land. An ambitious farming operation sustained his guests, who enjoyed ample luxury despite their remote location. 35 bedrooms spread across four complexes housed the staff, which included butler, chef, chauffeur, and Mrs. Pruyn’s personal maid, who traveled with the family from Albany. According to Charlotte K. Barrett’s A Visitor’s Guide to Camp Santanoni, “staff was expected to create an illusion of rusticity that allowed the Pruyns and their guests to adventure in the wilderness but return to the formal rituals of upper class life.”
Enthusiasm for the great outdoors reflected a burgeoning, distinctly American perspective on The Wilderness and how one might best experience it. Pruyn’s guests expressed profound connection with nature, which they experienced in the comfort of the extravagant Camp. Huybertie Pruyn Hamlin, cousin of Robert and frequent guest, wrote:
It would be hard to express all I feel about those Santanoni parties . . . They were a very bright spot in our lives, not only giving greatest pleasure but also showing us another kind of life—that to me at least was absolutely new.
In the early 1890s, as Pruyn developed his estate, a newfound movement for wilderness conservation spurred national debate. Large tracts purchased by private individuals, including the Santanoni Preserve, strategically shielded lands from excessive logging. Camp Santanoni was built seven years after the establishment of the Forest Preserve, and the same year as the creation of the Adirondack Park.
By the mid-twentieth century, public perception of wilderness, and the question of how and by whom it should be experienced, had shifted. A 1935 article celebrated the opening of a highway nearby Whiteface Mountain as a progressive step towards inclusion. The highway, the article appeals, symbolized a transformation: once the “spiritual possession” of an exclusive elite, the outdoors should serve as recreation grounds for all citizens.
The Pruyns owned Santanoni preserve until 1953, when it was purchased by the Melvin family of Syracuse. Camp Santanoni evolved into a more casual experience, as the new owners and their guests sought a different sort of encounter with nature. In 1972, the Santanoni Preserve title passed to the Nature Conservancy and then to the State of New York. The Pruyns’ Adirondack home is now maintained by the Adirondack Architectural Heritage. Many of the buildings are in disrepair or no longer standing; those that remain have been restored for public access. Visitors can lunch on the broad porches and take boats out on the lake.
“Adirondack,” from the Mohawk word meaning “bark eater,” recalls a primitive wilderness experience, when natives ate buds, roots, and bark to survive harsh winters. In the Main Hall at Camp Santanoni, bark becomes a decorative motif. In my work, Window of Enlightenment, the viewer looks through a birch bark paneled “window” at a party of Camp Santanoni guests wandering down a road on the preserve. Images and surfaces are made with naturally and locally sourced materials—charcoal, iron oxide, and natural inks. Not shown are the workers who made this casual stroll in the wilderness possible.
More Stately Mansions inquires: for whom do we make things, and what do they represent? What are the power structures necessary to build these objects and spaces? In my work, Window of Enlightenment, I investigate these questions by contrasting the grand private estate with the publicly accessible trail, lean-to, or campsite.
While the estate represents an extension of the individual’s social stature, the campsite and trail serve as vehicles for public experience and appreciation of nature. At the forefront of Window of Enlightenment is the tension between these two modes by which we strive to experience the American wilderness.
Windows are literally framing devices, revealing scenery to be contemplated. An ancient Buddhist temple in Kyoto, Genko-an, features one circular and one square window. The circular window expresses harmony and enlightenment while the square symbolizes the suffering of human life. The bark-paneled architectural form of Window of Enlightenment is a square, with the image revealed through a circular opening. The woman, seen walking with two companions, is young Huybertie Pruyn, enthusiastic naturalist and privileged intruder. Whatever our contemporary interactions with the American wilderness, our experience is mediated by the structures, usually designed and built by others, which allow us access but are frequently marred by transgressions not perceived, and shaped by values we no longer share, or even have the ability to understand fully.
I met Sequoia when we attended Moore College of Art and Design, an undisclosed amount of time ago. She holds a BFA for Fashion Design and Art History and was the first student at Moore to earn this dual major. We reconnected through her project Art in Bars, where she gave me one of my first shows, at a Salon in Northern Liberties. Through this initiative she sought to promote emerging artists, alternative exhibition spaces, and art outside of the gallery scene. I chose Sequoia to write for Curate This because she knows something about everything. She can talk jive about everything from pop culture, to Julia Child’s recipes, to Native American art history, all while kicking your ass at Settlers of Catan. Enjoy her commentary on public art!
-Kelly Kozma, curator
There is an icebreaking game I play at parties: What’s your least favorite piece of public art? It’s an excellent conversation starter; people love to hate, and the responses come quickly—The Franklin head on The Parkway and the lumpy figures atop Society Hill. Someone names a mural they find trite, and another will dismiss the proliferation of Zagars. The holographic columns at Broad and Washington and the Comcast figures are among some of the unpopular public art pieces.
Without fail, William King’s Stroll will be mentioned.
You are aware of Stroll, perhaps. If you’ve found yourself at the terminus of South Street, or looked up at the right time while speeding down I-95, you’ve seen the stiff steel stick figures lumbering atop the pedestrian bridge, and the large and inconsequential sculptural installation attempting to bridge the city to the river. You know it, generally, but the details are imprecise. The number of figures. The proportions.
Why does it matter? Stroll an old work, in a style not currently in fashion. The artist is dead. It’s innocuous. It’s not even hateable, truly, because of its stifling mediocrity. How can one passionately argue against something that has nothing to say for itself?
Public art is an expression of a city, a visual of its pride and priorities, where the powers that be put that One Percent. The casual visitor or citizen often only interact with our public art, and only when said public art—sanctioned and “street”—presents itself in their path. These accidental encounters form the subconscious opinion of the creative capital of a city.
It is easy to despair and disparage the top grossing echelon of the contemporary art market, the dizzying sales commanded at art fairs and auctions. To argue about the demerits of artists who don’t craft their own work, the lazy, self-devouring orobus of art coopting the images of advertising, brands, popular culture, and regurgitating the pantheon of art history. Who deserves placement in the hallowed halls of our prestigious museums? But what of the creep of the insidious mundane, the bland and flat that is given the meager funds, the casual eyeballs?
It’s the flatness that niggles. Even under the rationalization of simplification Stroll is a failure. The stick figures are rigid in their stride, negating the implication of motion, emotion, and opinion. The material is pragmatic and inexpressive. The scale of the sculpture is off, neither comfortably visible by pedestrians, nor does it impress by dwarfing the viewer. The arrangement is inconsequential and uninspired.
It is easy for the layperson to trot out the tired cliche of, “I could have done that” when belittling a work of art, yet that argument is never presented when Stroll is being debated. It’s never, “I could have done that,” but just “why?” Stroll elicits a shrug.
King is capable of other similar figurative work that at least achieves whimsy—which, while not challenging concept, would be an improvement on the heavy humorlessness of Stroll. Stroll is a street sign, bereft of statement, heft, insight, or joy. It is utilitarian without the satisfaction of good design. Stroll is an irritation because it fails as an expression. It exists, large but uncommenting, stating nothing. Despite the scale of the work, it frequently fails to register with public audience, who pass through it unawares, and depart without it having made an impression.
Think of all the sculpture in Philadelphia that is just lousy with interaction. The area around City Hall and the Parkway is teeming with people actively living with their public art—adults passing by murals mid-commute, children clambering about and around sculptural installations. And then think of the joylessness of Stroll hovering at the edge of the city, above the freeway. The lack of play. The lack of awareness.
I think of the stumbled-upon works of all styles from the past hundred and fifty years hidden away in the recesses of Fairmount park, those with plaques frequently indicating their relocation from previous places of importance. Stroll can’t be discretely shuffled off in a future round of public improvement—where else could it possibly exist? It is site-specific to the point of dullness.
Interesting new work is constantly being added in the public sphere, yet Stroll will remain in the public eye as example of what Philadelphia views as fundable, always mentioned when quizzed as to the worst piece of public art.
Wouldn’t it be lovely to struggle to play that party game?
Photo by Christopher William Purdom.
Nicole Bindler and Gabrielle Revlock, known together as The Dance Apocalypse, are dancers and choreographers who work together frequently in Philadelphia and abroad. Nick Stuccio has curated them here, in part, because of their unusual approach to audience interaction and audience building. We are very happy to present, here on Curate This, an original piece about what Gabi and Nicole hate.
-Julius Ferraro, co-founder
Nicole: I hate it when the presenter doesn’t let us bring our chickens.
Gabrielle: They’re not our chickens, they’re my dad’s.
Nicole: I hate it when a male choreographer’s female alias modeled after a porn star harrasses me on Facebook about my leg hair.
Gabrielle: I don’t have any leg hair because I went through a waxing phase and it never grew back.
Nicole: I hate it when the festival curator tries to charge the dancers in our piece $155 to perform with us because the festival is broke.
Gabrielle: Or when he schedules us to teach classes and we find out by browsing the festival website.
Nicole: Or when he threatens to sue us.
Gabrielle: I hate it when people put change in our donation jar.
Nicole: I hate it when my makeout partner* in our dance bites me so hard I bleed.
Gabrielle: I’m afraid of blood. That’s why in middle school I wouldn’t play dodge ball.
Nicole: I hate it when I see a previous makeout partner from our dance at a comedy club and they pretend they don’t know me.
Gabrielle: The worst date I ever went on was with a guy who called my parents’ community garden the “rape garden.” The second worst was with a nuclear engineer from a Birthright Israel trip.
Nicole: I told you not to go on Birthright, it’s funded by Sheldon Adelson.
Nicole: I hate it when a woman follows me into the bathroom after a performance, sits in the adjacent stall and tells me about her feces play-by-play.
Gabrielle: Not cool! Did you know Orthodox Jews never pee with the door open? I think that’s a good policy for maintaining romance.
Nicole: I hate it when one of our cast members can’t dance full out because his primary form of income is donating blood.
Gabrielle: And he’s not able to do a plié because he’s in the colorectal health study.
Nicole: I hate it when the body builder goes into a roid-rage, doesn’t show up for the performance and we have to replace him with the lady on crutches.
Gabrielle: I hate it when a famous choreographer is pitching a piece he just made to a presenter that’s like the one we made four years ago, and he’s gonna get the gig, not us.
Nicole: I hate it when my mom never comes to our shows and Gabi’s mom always brings cookies.
Gabrielle: My mom just texted me: “the cat is dead.”
Nicole: I hate it when the funder comes but doesn’t laugh at our jokes.
Gabrielle: I don’t laugh at our jokes either–it’s only you who thinks things are funny.
Nicole: I hate it when the presenter doesn’t let us drive the scooter in.
Gabrielle: I don’t know how to drive and I type with two fingers.
Nicole: I hate it when I get onstage and realize I forgot to bring the taxidermy fox hat.
Gabrielle: I hate it when we have a dead cat in a bag and you’re like “I’ll wear it if you take it out” and I’m like “I’ll wear it if you take it out” and we get nowhere.
Nicole: I hate it when a man tells us we have white, female privilege and I’m like, yeah we have white privilege, but what is female privilege? And because the comment was anonymous, we’ll never know the answer.
Gabrielle: I love that card. The writer was so full of passion. He wrote all over that tiny scrap of paper.
Nicole: I hate it that unison choreography makes people happy.
Gabrielle: I hate it that we don’t have three ears.
Nicole: We’d have a more accurate sense of where sound is coming from. Stereophonic hearing is decent but not as precise as tri-phonic.
Gabrielle: Yeah, three is more stable. You can’t have a chair with only two legs. We need a third ear!
Nicole: I hate it when people ask us to do things for free, like this article.
Gabrielle: If you would like to make a donation to The Dance Apocalypse follow this link: http://newyorklivearts.org/artist/gabriellerevlock, or come to our show, November 13-15 at AUX (Vox Populi) 319 N. 11th St. #3, Philadelphia, PA 19107.
Nicole: I hate it when my makeout partner makes me….
Gabrielle: Jeez Louise! How many makeout partners do you have??
Nicole: I hate it.
*Makeout partner is the person Nicole kisses in “I made this for you” for four and a half minutes.
Photo Credits: (top) The Dance Apocalypse. Photo by Kathryn Raines. (bottom) I made this for you. Photo by Kelly Strayhorn Theater.
The Dance Apocalypse (Gabrielle Revlock and Nicole Bindler) is a Philadelphia-based company that makes dances with you and for you that transcend the border between audience and stage. Their work is fiercely feminist, wild, and genre defying. They are particularly interested in the Q and A format as performance; critiquing spectacle and competition in contemporary dance; collaboration as a practice and lifestyle. www.TheDanceApocalypse.org
When I met Luke Leyden four years ago he was really into full frontal performance art. In the face of inspiration Leyden has always been fearless. He graduated with a BFA from Rowan University, is an adjunct professor at Moore College of Art and Design, and a member of the art collective Little Berlin.
-Amanda V. Wagner, co-founder
I follow Richard Prince on Twitter, which is the reason I am still experiencing “New Portraits,” rather than forgetting about it like most of the New York art scene. “New Portraits” is made up of screen shots of people’s Instagram photos that Prince comments on and prints on 6×4 foot canvas. Prince works almost exclusively in appropriated imagery. He takes images that aren’t his and makes them into his own work with very minor changes. In his “Cowboy” series he took Marlborough advertisements, cropped out the logos, and blew them up into giant artist prints.
If you do not have a background or education in art or art history, you have been taught that “art” should be original and unique. This work questions the artist as unique creator. Andy Warhol used a similar practice. He was not interested in originality.
I don’t disagree with Prince—although I do think he’s an asshole. I make work with appropriated imagery. I’ve found old illustrated instructionals and textbooks, and edited them to find my own meaning. I’ve created zines by taking black-and-white photos from pamphlets and old advertisements I’ve found in the trash. I enjoy looking at a number of artists who work in similar practices, like Sherrie Levine’s “After Walker Evans” and Hank Willis Thomas’s “Unbranded” series. These artists were specifically using the method of appropriation to critique. Levine was critiquing the idea of a photographic print as an original. Thomas was critiquing the exploitation of black Americans in advertisements.
Prince’s “New Portraits” work much better in an academic setting. He has taken a ubiquitous smartphone app and used it in a way that 99% of its users are not going to understand or agree with, and started a debate. Where can digital art go from here? What other parts of internet-culture can be raised to the level of art? But for anyone not part of this academic discussion the pictures are nothing more than stolen images. Some are exceptionally exploitative because of their sexual nature.
It is not Prince’s work that makes him an asshole. Prince gets off on people being pissed. Each day I scroll through my Twitter feed, as he posts new screen caps of teenagers and retirees on Facebook telling him he is scum and that he’s a thief. Prince has made his whole art making process public (he leaves a comment on the photo prior to screen capturing it) and he continues to retweet and repost angry responses.
I can’t think of an artist in history who has so wholly turned against the public. The biggest problem is that the line between art world and non-art world has been crossed. Prince has stepped into others’ territory far beyond appropriating the work of the guy (Sam Abell) who made advert photos for a cigarette company.
At Artscape 2015 in Baltimore I was introduced to the work of Kaita Niwa. One of her pieces consisted of a Fiji-water-bottle-shaped piece of acrylic and a photo of Constantin Brancusi’s Bird in Space. This piece caught my eye immediately. I felt like I was in on the joke! “I love Bird in Space. What a great reference!” I don’t know anything about the legal implications of taking both a brand and a famous piece of work and putting them together. I never worry about that when I’m creating work. I have a feeling this artist doesn’t worry about it either.
This is where Richard Prince differs. He is a world-famous artist who has left his ivory tower to interact with the common folk in a way that they are not ready to accept. This is not someone using the Fiji water bottle logo, a Campbell’s soup can, a photo from a newspaper in a town no one has ever heard of. This is people’s faces. Their bodies. Real people with real Instagram accounts. They posted that work with the (however unrealistic) expectation that the photos are theirs. To find out that someone calling themselves an “artist” is selling these photos for tens of thousands of dollars is something unbelievable. The most important thing that can come from this body of work and all the controversy surrounding it is the understanding that privacy online is not real. Prince has used appropriation offline for decades. Artists have used it forever. With the introduction of the internet the attention simply shifts and is heightened.