Jun 26, 2009

The Pirate Utopia, Fiume

The notion of a pirate utopia is poignant these days and is discussed at length by anarchist philosopher, Hakim Bey in his seminal text, "Temporary Autonomous Zone" which was published in 1985. Here is his description of Fiume and the painter-pirate, D'Annunzio.

Gabriele D'Annunzio, decadent poet, artist, musician, aesthete, womanizer, pioneer daredevil aeronautist, black magician, genius and cad, emerged from World War I as a hero with a small army at his beck and command: the "Arditi." At a loss for adventure, he decided to capture the city of Fiume from Yugoslavia and give it to Italy. After a necromantic ceremony with his mistress in a cemetery in Venice he set out to conquer Fiume, and succeeded without any trouble to speak of. But Italy turned down his generous offer; the Prime Minister called him a fool.
In a huff, D'Annunzio decided to declare independence and see how long he could get away with it. He and one of his anarchist friends wrote the Constitution, which declared music to be the central principle of the State. The Navy (made up of deserters and Milanese anarchist maritime unionists) named themselves the Uscochi, after the long- vanished pirates who once lived on local offshore islands and preyed on Venetian and Ottoman shipping. The modern Uscochi succeeded in some wild coups: several rich Italian merchant vessels suddenly gave the Republic a future: money in the coffers! Artists, bohemians, adventurers, anarchists (D'Annunzio corresponded with Malatesta), fugitives and Stateless refugees, homosexuals, military dandies (the uniform was black with pirate skull-&-crossbones--later stolen by the SS), and crank reformers of every stripe (including Buddhists, Theosophists and Vedantists) began to show up at Fiume in droves. The party never stopped. Every morning D'Annunzio read poetry and manifestos from his balcony; every evening a concert, then fireworks. This made up the entire activity of the government. Eighteen months later, when the wine and money had run out and the Italian fleet finally showed up and lobbed a few shells at the Municipal Palace, no one had the energy to resist.

D'Annunzio, like many Italian anarchists, later veered toward fascism--in fact, Mussolini (the ex-Syndicalist) himself seduced the poet along that route. By the time D'Annunzio realized his error it was too late: he was too old and sick. But Il Duce had him killed anyway--pushed off a balcony--and turned him into a "martyr." As for Fiume, though it lacked the seriousness of the free Ukraine or Barcelona, it was in some ways the last of the pirate utopias.

The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism by Hakim Bey; Autonomedia Anti-copyright, 1985, 1991. http://www.hermetic.com/bey/taz_cont.html

Jun 22, 2009

The Institute for Social Research

Just about this time last year I was deeply enmeshed with a group of artists called the Institute for Social Research. I'm remembering our time together with reverie.

The ISR grew out of a pedagogical initiative at CCA that aimed to rethink notions of "the commune" through collaborative art practice. Brian Conley, who was then the chair of graduate fine arts at CCA, invited the conceptual artist Christian Jankowski to the Bay Area, along with his 12 students from an art school in Stuttgart. The international students (as well as several of those from CCA) lived together for 90 days in a communal house on Ocean Beach and there made a tremendous amount of work that blurred boundaries of artist and audience, author and actor, cause and effect, individual and group, art and life.

The ISR produced numerous "projects" everyday. These projects were often organized by one artist, but required the group's involvement to complete, use, enact, or demonstrate the project. There was a dinner party during which everyone wore ear plugs, enjoying food for the sound it makes inside the head. There was a single breath passed from mouth to mouth, through the entire commune as it lined the Golden Gate Bridge. When street-scrounged couches were no longer desired for the group's living room, they were turned into a jacuzzi that served as the centerpiece for a debaucherous Halloween party. The artists slept for a night with their heads at the center of a circle to see if such close proximity would affect their dreams.
Some artists recorded in minutia, the workings of the house -- the decision-making processes, the household objects collected over time, the sleeping patterns, the money matters -- while others scoured the urban landscape in search of utopian leftovers. At one point during the semester, the artists ventured into the outer reaches of the Bay Area looking for examples of communalism. One found a commune in the naval shipyards while another found a commune in northern California amidst a group of Midwestern redneck refugees. Over and over, the ISR's approach to communalism, art-making, collaboration, and California was fresh and vital.

I met the group towards the end of their 90-day stint in San Francisco and was immediately enthralled. I was fascinated by the way they perceived the Bay Area and its hippie legacy. I was intrigued too by the way they made decisions, even conversation. Everything happened by consensus which was difficult given that more a dozen language were spoken by the group collectively. From the start I sensed their fascination with communication and miscommunication, happy slippages and poetic misreadings. Moreover I was captivated by the incredible spirit of the group. They immediately took me in, seduced me. I went to their house to give a lecture on Drop City and to learn about their project and ended up joining a jam session in the music room. I stomped out a rhythm on the floor while pianos and tambourines vibrated together in the dark.

A storm of magical events, a bunch of German art money and the ISR's enduring quest for the ultimate collaboration made possible a set of exhibitions and a massive catalog that were produced over the subsequent 9 months. It feels inaccurate to call myself the curator of these shows. Basically, I helped to organize a bunch of logistics and communications (particularly harrowing was the challenge to find free housing for 8 artists -- turned out to be 24! -- in the East Bay near public transportation for three weeks, but it came together beautifully). What happened during our exhibition-making time together was indescribable, yet left lasting impressions on all involved. Without going into too much detail, I should note a few basic ways that working with the ISR has contributed to my thinking about Red Legacy.

1) Curating a project like the ISR is not about directing or even about art. It's about creating opportunities for things to happen. Nothing goes very far without some level of facilitation, nor does anything happen in the face of too much planning or too many rules. I'm constantly learning about this delicate balance of control and freedom.

2) Most institutions have a hard time with on-site experimentation. It's hard to argue full freedom for artists, and even harder for institutions to follow through with letting this happen. Schools, underground gallery spaces, parties, and foreign soil are some great places to experiment; museums or public non-profits are not. My main job as the curator of these projects was to fight for the artists to have access, freedom, money, time, and respect.

3) Incredible things happen when groups of people are put together for extended periods of time. When a group loses track of the beginning and end of their time together, the middle becomes extremely potent. It's important to get lost in time, but to have a limited amount of time in which to allow oneself to get lost. It's also nice to have repeated periods of togetherness. I loved how the ISR had 90 days of uber-togetherness in San Francisco, six months of quasi-togetherness in disparate parts of the globe, 3 weeks of togetherness in the East Bay, a month apart, and 2 weeks more-or-less together in Stuttgart.

4) Limitations allow things to blossom. Some amount of struggle brings a group of people together. The ISR thrived in the face of their limits and on numerous levels they subverted poverty, language barriers, lack of private space with their innovative adaptations.

5) One of the most important things I did for the ISR, aside from providing occasional food, beer and shelter, was to be a sounding board for their collaboration. Most of my ideas were rejected or ignored (this was life under group-rule after all), but my ideas were material for the group to react against. I asked a lot of questions and made a ton of proposals, but never had the last word about anything. I have learned a lot about choosing battles.

6) As a curator working with a group like the ISR, it was imperative that I serve as some sort of translator between the sponsoring institutions and the artists, as well as between the audience and the presented work. Many people asked, "why is this art?" and although I have a personal aversion to this kind of conversation, it was really important to have an open exchange about the value of making and of doing.

7) Place has everything to do with potent collaboration. The foreign students thrived in San Francisco, because they were not subjected to their daily lives. The local students could not participate at the same level due to jobs, apartments, relationships, and classes. This is one of many instances when I've seen the power of physical removal in empowering a developing group process.

A blog is the not the proper venue to unload my tales and observations of this group. There is much I could say about the experience of working with the ISR and about their work itself. I'm in the process of writing a chapter about the ISR for a forth-coming anthology on California communes and I've written an essay in the ISR's 447-page catalog; more of my ISR-related ramblings can be found there.

The artists involved in the Institute for Social Research include: Michelle Blade, Luke Butler, Donna Chung, Dina Danish, Christina Empedocles, Martina Geiger-Gerlach, Patrick W. Gillespie, Kamil Goerlich, Robert Goerlich, Tanor Hudson, Jana Jacob, Anita Kapraljevic, Byung Chul Kim, Florian Klette, Paul Kramer, Travis Joseph Meinolf, Nicholas Meyer, Helena Rempel, Cristina Rodrigo, Rosa Rücker, Marco Schmitt, Ines Lilith Schreiner, Gareth Spor, Kestutis Svirnelis, Sara Thacher, Christoph Trendel, and Pablo Wendel.

"The Institute for Social Research and the Discovery of Art God" were a set of experimental exhibitions made possible by Ministry for Science, Research and Art, Baden-Württemberg; Rectorship of the State Academy of Fine Arts, Stuttgart; Friends of the State Academy of Fine Arts, Stuttgart; DAAD German Academic Exchange Service; California College of the Arts, San Francisco; Staatlichen Akademie der Bildenden Künste Stuttgart; Württembergischer Kunstverein Stuttgart; The Richmond Art Center, Richmond, CA; The German Consulate of San Francisco; Lobot Gallery, Oakland and many more!

Jun 18, 2009

Drop! in Trinidad this weekend

If I weren't throwing a yard/bake sale this weekend, followed by a BBQ and a futuristic farewell party, I'd most certainly be in Trinidad, CO for an event celebrating the history of Drop City. My friend Tom McCourt and his film-making partner, Joan Grossman, have received a Graham Foundation grant to finish shooting interviews for their documentary film about Drop City an d an event sponsored by History Colorado and HessArts (a local art space) welcomes their initiative to Trinidad.

Drop City was an extraordinary place built by artists in 1965. It sat on the outskirts of Trinidad, just off I-25, for nearly seven years. The community was made of salvaged junk and countercultural intentions and was stimulus for one of the largest communal movements in the US. While this event seems (from the press release I dug up online) to be rather celebratory and warm, it's worth noting that many people remember Drop City as shaded by failure. The commune ended in kaleidescopic ruin -- meth labs and a murder -- and became a sign-post for the downward spiral of Sixties idealism.

The event is on Sunday, June 21 and will involve a screening of Tom and Joan's trailer and an appearance by former Dropper artist, Clark Richert. The event is called Drop! and promises to draw a good crowd, especially given the fact that Trinidad Brewing Company will be serving up their Drop City beer at the event. I wish I could be there to see what promises to be a complicated and lively debate. I'd hate to for Drop City to be framed as anything less than a cantankerous, colorful experiment that was impetus for Robin-Hood-style-thievery, ruined friendships, unprecedented openness, and amplified art practice. Drop City has undoubtedly inspired countless commune and art projects -- it should certainly be documented and celebrated -- but deserves also to be remembered in all its ruinous glory. I believe this documentary may do justice by presenting Drop City in all its complexity.

Tom was recently asked by a reporter from the Denver Post the following question:
Where do you see counterculture in America today? Could a place like Drop City exist in 2009?

Tom answers:
Counterculture is a lot tougher these days. The ability to live off the fat of the land has diminished significantly. It's harder to drift from job to job until you figure out what you want to do. The biggest change in the last 40 years is the ascendance of marketplace fundamentalism, in which society serves the needs of the marketplace rather than vice versa. This seems to be changing somewhat in the last few months, but there's still a long way to go. People involved in counterculture seem a lot more realistic these days, which may be a good thing. Counterculture today operates more off the radar -- there's no central organizing point, as there was with the draft in the '60s. But counterculture continues to thrive in myriad ways. Kids today are much more media-savvy and aware of the dangers of cooptation. Important work is being done; it's just not getting as much attention, due to the fractal nature of media as well as concerns about exploitation.

There's a long chain of resistance to the established order in America, and Drop City is a major link in that chain. Yet what could be more American than striking out for the West and trying to build a civilization from scratch? Drop City had no leaders and no dogma. The early residents were artists, trying to live their lives as art. They wanted to create their work, have adventures and not get stuck in menial, laboring jobs -- but they lived in utter poverty. I think they saw their community as an existential adventure.

One of the most important things the Droppers have taught me is how to remain true to one's ideals over time. All of the Droppers I've met continue to produce films, paintings, novels and poems that are vital and engaging. I hope this film will show that what the Droppers created is an ongoing project, not a brief period enveloped in an elegaic haze of nostalgia. It is a process that will continue as long as there is hope for possibility in America. We tend to think of the "American Dream" as attaining wealth, but the real American Dream is the possibility of rejecting the slots that are created for us in favor of a productive and meaningful life that we create ourselves.

Go Tom!
Check out the Drop City documentary here. Learn more about the event, Drop!, here.

Jun 15, 2009

Lloyd Kahn

Last week I had coffee with Lloyd Kahn, a 74-year old shelter guru who has helped to change the way that people live and build. He is a man that lives to build and builds to live but also lives in the buildings that he has built from a deep passion for life; this cycle of activity and integration most certainly accounts for his youthful vitality.

I was interested in talking to Lloyd for a number of reasons. First of all, he knows lots about the southwestern communes that have so entranced me. He published two how-to manuals about domes before renouncing them as a good way to live. Lloyd was also the shelter publisher for Whole Earth Catalogs and was most likely a regular visitor at Libre and Drop City and maybe even the Alloy conference. Needless to say, he was at the center of it all.

Our time together was short but I was lucky to hear a bit more about his time as Faculty of the uber-alternative Pacific High School (more about that in a later post), about the successes and failures of the hippie generation, and about the on-going project of expanding consciousness. He shared this short film with me. It's made by a Stanford student named Jason Sussberg and captures Lloyd's persona, perspective, and hand-made house. Check it our here. http://jasonsussberg.com/SHELTER.mov

Lloyd's recently come out with a new book, Builders of the Pacific Coast. You can buy it and others of his books at http://www.shelterpub.com

Jun 12, 2009

Ecoshack and Cul-de-sac Communes

One of the more interesting initiatives out there now is Ecoshack and the many projects that grow out of it. Their work is geared towards environmental masterminds, commune builders, neo-bohemians, and futurists and has a heavy dose of SoCal glitz mixed in there too. Their work bridges architecture and design but has also been including in several recent art exhibitions. While I love the Twin Teepees and the glow-in-the-dark yurts, I'm particularly interested in thinking about cul-de-sac communes. I was born and raised in a city that's become a living exhibition of suburban sprawl; therefore, I'm invested in re-purposing poorly functioning housing developments, particularly during this unprecedented wave of foreclosures.

Ecoshack, led by design guru Stephanie Smith, will soon launch a new initiative called Wanna Start A Commune? and I'm interested to see what happens. Will it go beyond drawings and blueprints? Will it manifest in long-term intentional communities or be more of a conceptual, temporary experiment? Will it result in yet another product or brand? What about the previous cul-de-sac dwellers; what do they want and how will they be involved? How can the manifestations respond to uber-local conditions? Is it a network or a service, a business or a proposal, brilliant or no? As always, only time will tell... http://www.wecommune.com/

Stanley Marsh III

"Art is a legalized form of insanity, and I do it very well," states Amarillo, Texas millionaire and art patron Stanley Marsh III. For well over three decades Marsh, an 81-year old oilman now interested in wind power, has commissioned work by artists on his large panhandle ranch.

Most famously, Marsh commissioned the art collective Ant Farm to create a site-specific project on his land which resulted in the immensely popular Cadillac Ranch.

Marsh commissioned a project by Robert Smithson, who died that same year ('73) while surveying his site from an airplane. Smithson's wife Nancy Holt and others worked to complete the work, entitled Amarillo Ramp.

Other Marsh commissions include Floating Mesa (artist and year unknown) as well as a fleet of faux street signs with obscure messages.

While I'm certainly appreciative of the great works Marsh has commissioned, I'm most interested in the way he has become an institution of sorts that has helped to fuel the art careers of several generations of Texas panhandle youth. Here are images of two emerging artists (Mad Dog and Larry Bob Phillips) who grew up experiencing and making art via Stanley Marsh's encouragement and personal eccentricity. If you've been to Amarillo you know that art is not necessarily synonymous with its landscape and history, yet Marsh has in his own bizarre (and at times reportedly illicit) fashion, created an institution for art making. I've always wanted to do a project about the artists Marsh has influenced but have so far been derailed by other things. I have a hunch the Marsh story is much darker, more complex, and interesting than the one I find online.

Jun 3, 2009

Experiments in Environment

I've recently learned about an extraordinary set of events initiated by post-modern dancer Anna Halprin and her husband, Lawrence Halprin, a landscape architect, called Experiments in Environment.* In 1966 and again in 1968, the couple hosted four-week workshops at their Mountain Home Studio in Marin, CA, testing ideas about how space and movement influence one another through a month of experiential experiments in communication, participation, and collaboration.

The experiments took place outdoors on the coast at Sea Ranch (a community that Lawrence was commissioned to design in 1963), in the Marin woodlands near their home, and in the urban environs of San Francisco. These activities, directed by faculty recruited from the Halprins' artistic community and included architects, cinematographers, lighting specialists, and others, aimed to trigger environmental and self awareness among participants (who were primarily dancers and architects). The activities ranged from exercises in kinesthetic movement and "light happenings" to blind-folded walks during which participants would lead each other first by arm, then using only back-to-back contact, then by leg, then by cheek. One of the later activities asked participants to redesign San Francisco's Union Square on the beach using driftwood. There was also unscripted time when the creative process was explored abstractly or personally. Following each of the activities, participants debriefed their experiences. All together, the workshops brought attention to the process of making while rethinking the nature and value of what is produced.

The founding philosophy for the workshops was what the Halprin's dubbed as the RSVP Cycles. The acronym stands for Resources, Score, Valuaction (feedback, essentially), and Performance. For the Halprins, the Experiments in Environment workshops were a vital testing ground for this system which remains central to their understanding of and continued work with creative process.

Numerous accounts are recorded by artists and designers who participated in the workshops. Chip Lord of the Ant Farm collective attended the 1968 workshop and recalls, "The workshop was a catalyst, was an education, was a trip into my future, was an art form, was a lifestyle, was a freestyle race, was groove."** For many, it seems a pivotal experience in working creatively with people, space, and movement.

* Eva J. Friedberg gave a compelling lecture on this topic at the CAA conference in LA during February 2009. She presented this work during a session called The Countercultural Object that focused on art practices of the 1960s. Eva is a PhD student in Visual Studies at UC Irvine. I wish I could publish some of the images she presented here. Alas.

** San Francisco Museum of Performance and Design, Anna Halprin archives, Box 11 Folder 66.

Extraordinary Nothingness

"Young artists today need no longer say, 'I am a painter' or 'a poet' or 'a dancer.' They are simply 'artists.' All of life will be open to them. They will discover out of the ordinary things the meaning of ordinariness. They will not try to make them extraordinary but will only state their real meaning. But out of nothing they will devise the extraordinary and then maybe nothingness as well."

- A. Kaprow, "The Legacy of Jackson Pollock, " Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1958.

Jun 2, 2009

Cape Farewell

Last month I attended the Rising Tide conference* sponsored by CCA and Stanford. The keynote speaker was David Buckland whose work I saw a few summers ago in an exhibition at the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo, Norway. I had not heard about his project Cape Farewell until his lecture at CCA; I am deeply inspired by this model organization.

Cape Farewell came into being when the artist David Buckland was gifted with a scientific seaship. Since 2003 Cape Farewell, funded by British art and science dollars, has led seven expeditions to the Arctic, taking artists, scientists, educators and communicators to experience the effects of climate change firsthand. The project aims to "provoke and evoke a cultural response to the true scale of how the earth’s environment and climate are changing."

While the expeditions are comprised by a mix of artists, research analysts, scientists, and even youth, these teams ford the northern seas with hi-tech research equipment and aims to capture immense raw data, yet the focus of these expeditions is on cultural production. As the Cape Farewell website states, "one salient image, sculpture or event can speak louder than volumes of scientific data and engage the public's imagination in an immediate way." Indeed, climate change is so large and so devastating that the basic facts are too abstract for most people to understand. We need artists and poets and musicians to help make the invisible visible, to make the unimaginable slightly more tangible.

I appreciate that artists are not necessarily encouraged to make art on site. Rather, they aid with the scientific mission and let themselves be affected by the journey. A journey to the Arctic is certain to inspire and terrify, and the organization has faith in its artists (whom include figures like Feist, Sophie Calle, Amy Balkin, Ian McEwan and Laurie Anderson ) digest the experience and respond to climate change in their own timely manner.

I believe this kind of cultural practice is so important. To bear physical witness to the struggle of the planet, of people, of places is so valid and provocative. I want to be involved with artists who travel to the tipping point, the hotbed, the hinterlands to see what is there and let it move them to make culture differently. www.capefarewell.com

* this was a great endeavor too. Learn more about it at: www.risingtideconference.org

Jun 1, 2009

Divisadero -- the art of appearing and dissolving

I spent New Year's Eve of this year with extraordinary people at Libre. One of the people there was an architect named John. John had recently finished reading Michael Ondaatje's latest book, Divisadero. It was special to him because he knew Ondaatje well. In fact, John had designed an artist's retreat or residency center in northern California where Ondaatje wrote the majority of this book. As John expounded on the incredible artistry that is Divisadero, he explained the unique joy he feels in creating a place for artists that then surfaces in their art. He could see the influence of his architecture and of the place in the setting of the novel and felt accomplice to it. This conversation profoundly affected me, especially at Libre on the dawn on a new year.

Here is an excerpt from the novel; it doesn't necessarily speak to John's architecture, but to the terrific quandry of art-making.

(pg. 78-79)
What night gave Rafael was a formlessness in which everything had a purpose. As if darkness had a hidden musical language. There were nights when he did not bother to even light the oil lamp that hung in the doorway of his trailer. He reached for the guitar and stepped down the three laddered steps into the field, carrying a chair in his hand. 'I don't work, I appear' -- he remembered the line of Django Reinhardt's and imagined the great man slipping out from the shadows grandly and disappearing efficiently into his craft. The alternative was to arrive, as most musicians did, like an eighteenth-century king entering a city, preceded by great fires on the hills that signaled he had crossed the border, and then by the ringing of bells. But Rafael was not even appearing. Dissolving perhaps, aware of night bugs, the river on the edge of his hearing. His open palm brushed a chord that was response, just response. He had not yet stepped forward. This was the late summer of his life, the year he met Anna, and he had no idea whether he would ever be able to return to the corralling work that art was, to have whatever he needed to make even a simple song. Dissolving into darkness was enough, for now. Or playing from memory an old song by a master, something his mother had loved or his father had whistled, when he accompanied his father on a walk, for there was one specific song his father always muttered or whistled. In the past Rafael had traveled from village to village, argued a salary, invented melodies, stolen chords, slashed the legs off an old song to use just the torso -- but he had come to love now most of all the playing of music with no one there. Could you waste your life on a gift? If you did not use your gift, was it a betrayal?