Title welcomes your thoughts about art in Philadelphia, as well as your comments on our reviews and articles. We will publish a selection of letters each month that are of general interest. Letters may be e-mailed to email@example.com, please include your full name. Title Magazine reserves the right to edit letters before publication.
By Nathaniel M. Stein
I write to offer a brief response to a recently-posted review of Picture This: Contemporary Photography and India (Philadelphia Museum of Art, on view through April 3, 2016).
Picture This is not a survey of contemporary Indian photography. Nor is it a show exclusively about the work of photographers who are Indian by birth or nationality. The exhibition presents a focused selection of works by four contemporary photographers whose careers are international in scope. All of the work in the exhibition reflects upon India in some way, and all of the artists explore concepts and strategies fundamental to post-conceptual photography as currently practiced across the globe. Importantly, each artist’s sensibility is shaped by a complex, sometimes transitory sense of belonging in many places — a salient position in the sphere of contemporary art, and in the present moment more broadly speaking. Curatorial texts that accompany the exhibition make this framework clear.
In contemporary life, artists, scholars, and members of the general public frequently negotiate social and cultural intersections in their own communities and beyond. A unique confluence of history, politics, and personal experience shapes every one of these encounters, and indeed, every work of art. The four photographers featured in Picture This are shaped by broad experience of the world. From four distinct, but similarly complex perspectives, they look across social boundaries relating to India. Some of the artists featured in the exhibition are Indian by both birth and nationality, others are not.
Museums have an important responsibility to serve as spaces for discussion, including debates about the representation of non-western contemporary art in western institutions. In recent years, several such institutions have presented both thematic and survey exhibitions of contemporary and historical South Asian photography. These projects are needed and productive. Yet, if an exhibition of contemporary artwork that engages with South Asia must always and only include artists of South Asian descent and/or residence, then the parameters of the discussion will be in some way artificial.
We live in a world in which points of view, cultural texts, and some individuals circulate to an unprecedented extent. The borders of an insider or outsider point of view are not always obvious or simple. This is indeed an unsettling and risk-laden situation. It raises questions about the politics of artistic expression in a post-colonial context, and it may also be productive of new ideas and perspectives. I believe we have a responsibility to grapple with that possibility.
I hope members of the arts and academic communities will visit the exhibition and form their own opinions about the tone of curatorial texts, the ideas implicit in the selection and installation of works, and most importantly, about the artwork on view.
Nathaniel M. Stein, Ph.D., is the Horace W. Goldsmith Fellow in Photography at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He is the curator of Picture This: Contemporary Photography and India.
Claes Oldenburg Does a 180
By Jason Rusnock
Skateboarders are resourceful. The very nature of skating is rooted in realizing the potential of one’s surrounding environment, whether it’s an ignored public park, a vacant lot under a highway overpass, or a towering sculpture affectionately nicknamed the “paint glob.” Previously known for his public sculptures Clothespin and Split Button, artist Claes Oldenburg’s latest public artwork, Paint Torch, has recently been placed at the center of Philadelphia’s grudge with skateboarding. After being removed from its installation site to be repainted, the glob was reinstalled, and spun 180° to face away from the sidewalk in an attempt to deter skateboarders. The misconception here is that skateboarders are inconsiderate vandals – an idea that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Skateboarders are creative. Just as a sculptor transforms paint and metal into art, so does a skater transform the urban environment into a place of activity. Do skateboarders realize what they’re doing? In short, yes and no. In skateboarding, one’s perception of what is a skate-able obstacle and what isn’t becomes fairly democratic due to the empowering sense that anything is possible. In this case a glob isn’t just a stagnant public sculpture, but a new opportunity to test one’s physical and mental capabilities. Oldenburg’s Split Button, found on The University of Pennsylvania’s campus, is similarly enjoyed not only by skaters, but also by pedestrians. Whereas skateboarders are escorted off the premises and fined, those treating the giant button as a jungle gym certainly aren’t deemed public nuisances.
Skateboarders are not criminals. Not only does a recent proposal by Philadelphia’s Mayor Michael A. Nutter identify the glob in the same category of cultural significance as the All Wars Memorial, it also puts skateboarders in the same category as felons. Under new legislation by Mayor Nutter, those skateboarding on a monument or public artwork are subject to a punishment of up to $2,000, 90 days in jail, and confiscation of equipment. By making skateboarding a felony, Councilman David Oh, who presented the plan alongside Mayor Nutter, hopes to protect “these precious assets that are meant to be enjoyed by those who call Philadelphia their home as well as visitors to our great city.” Despite this action, skateboarders are persistent. Could you imagine people still wanting to run up the “Rocky Steps” if the city began passing out fines to offenders? After all, there are plenty of other places to run, right?.
For two decades, skateboarders near and far have regarded Philadelphia’s Love Park as a must-visit destination. Even since its ban and haphazard renovation in 2002, skaters continue to visit Love Park solely due its historical significance within the community. If the city were truly interested in preserving its landmarks, wouldn’t it have been wise to accept a one million dollar gift by DC Shoe Company to reopen Love Park to skaters? Not only would the city have covered the cost of renovations (approximately $800,000) but would have also given skateboarders the safe-haven they need. New York City, for example, has recently provided not one, but two of its public parks to the skateboarding community: Flushing’s Corona Park and downtown Manhattan’s Brooklyn Banks. The latter is a cooperative effort between skateboarders and the Parks Department, which initiated annual volunteer events to help keep the park clean.
The city of Philadelphia has gone from a major destination for skateboarders to a place of hostility – a characteristic that has become customary for Philadelphia (see the television program, Parking Wars). With this proposal, Mayor Nutter and Councilman Oh follow blindly in the footsteps of Philadelphia’s officials by ignoring the significance of skateboarding’s worldwide, multi-billion dollar community and what it has to benefit the city. Above all, skateboarders are independent, Though subject to constant scrutiny and despite any support from the city, skateboarding remains a thriving component of Philadelphia’s culture and history.
Jason Rusnock is a photographer currently living in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His work can be seen online at http://www.jasonrusnock.com.
The Developing Medium of Interactive Technology
A letter responding to Daniel Gerwin’s Have You Ever Been Experienced? The Paradox of Interactive Art
By Kim Brickley, co-founder Create In Situ
I agree with a lot of what was written in Daniel Gerwin’s April 10th article, Have You Ever Been Experienced? The Paradox of Interactive Art, but I feel that there is more to be said about interactive technology’s 1) newness, 2) accessibility, 3) gadgetry, and 4) relationship to place.
Technologically interactive art is on the newer side of media, so of course it is going to get a lot of criticism thrown its way, while canvas and sculpture keep churning and turning out a relatively high level of production and appreciation, most often offered up to the discernment of people who already have an intimate and sophisticated understanding of it. If interactive art is marginalized too early, we could lose opportunities to open up the art world to people who might not be interested otherwise.
Do paintings and sculptures get more of a break simply because they are the accepted form dictated by thousands of years of history? I think so. For example, my creative partner and I recently applied with video work (not even interactive) to two shows at contemporary art galleries, one on each coast, and both said we would have to supply our own video equipment. How can a gallery consider itself to be contemporary and not have readily available video equipment, not even a TV with a DVD player? I consider it medium discrimination. It’s like a gallery saying it will accept no paintings unless the artist provides the appropriate lighting.
Many people have access to digital technology and computer programs. It doesn’t necessarily make them good artists, but it allows them to make what often passes as art. How do artists make their work more culturally cohesive and interesting using an interactive or digitally enhanced medium? Critics and artists alike should take this into consideration and carefully watch this technology as it develops, because although it offers a multitude of creative avenues, it could easily be dismissed by critics or used carelessly by artists, becoming just a trend rather than anything more significant or game changing.
Part of the problem with interactive art, which I think is complementary to its accessibility (as Gerwin implied in his article), lies in the interest in technological gadgetry overtaking any original creative commentary. Or, on the other hand, new technology is often used to merely reconstruct old ways of making art, but with gadgets, which doesn’t really offer any new ideas. The art sometimes gets lost in the fun of the new toy, resulting in a sort of culturally amped Please Touch Museum for adults.
The Idea of Place
Perhaps part of the solution is to get out of the gallery. Interactive technologies may thrive in more public places, where they can be more or less site-specific and conceptually layered. One good example of this is an upcoming project at the Inter-Symposeum for Electronic Arts in New Mexico: http://www.agneschavez.com/xtreeproject. The Tree Project, by Agnes Chavez, Jared Tarbell, and Allesandro Saccoia, creates a virtual “light forest” of trees using data visualization from twitter feeds associated with nature, and it can be installed anywhere and everywhere. It can be programmed to switch words so that the data visualization changes. The piece recreates digital feeds to mimic nature in an almost holographic, ghostly way, reminiscent of the empty space remaining after a forest is cut down. The fact that you can add to the information being processed and watch it change underscores how humans affect their natural surroundings.
A lot of technology is about place, or the lack thereof, or the combining of places, which is an idea I find interesting. We are now living in a digital placelessness, similar to Edward Relph’s idea of placelessness. A white cube is good for static objects, or even square screens, but it is contained. What happens in the gallery with forms that are holographic, based on wind data, or lacking shape, or that take their shape from random coding on the internet, or motion, or heat? The gallery is not always the wrong place for this type of work – I have seen interesting interactive work inside of a gallery space, but I am simply raising a question about the relationship of form to content.
Create In Situ was founded in 2009 by interdisciplinary artists Sarah Zimmer and Kim Brickley. Together they continue to explore the dynamic layers of perceptual experience, place, and time.
The Disney-fication of Bill Walton
My congratulations to Lauren McCarty on her thoughtful, original, and accurate examination of Bill Walton’s Studio in her review. To my knowledge, no one other than Lauren and myself dared question the strategy employed by the ICA in building a simulacrum of Walton’s studio in their gallery.
Bill Walton and I were friends for over thirty years. Knowing Bill as well as I did, I am certain that he would have been horrified by the Disney-fication of his studio space. Walton was quite vocal in his objection to the inauthentic in art and the system that surrounds it. As I point out in my brief essay (http://historywillabsolvemike.blogspot.com/search?q=bill+walton%27s+studio), the transported studio was reproduced backwards; when one entered the studio the loft was on the left hand side, not the right. Unfortunately, the positioning of the entrance was not the only thing that ICA got backwards in their approach to honoring one of the most important and influential Philadelphia artists of his generation.