When 1960s Sci-Fi and Surveillance Collide in 21st Century Sculpture: Björn Schülke Vision Instruments at bitforms gallery

Above: Björn Schülke, Beam Engine #1, 2016, Brass, mirror, paint, electronics, solar cells, motors, laser, 7.1 x 15 x 9.9 in / 18 x 38 x 25 cm

This article was originally published in Whitehot Magazine

Would there be world peace if aliens attacked Earth? After all, doesn’t everyone get along better once they share an enemy?

In the divisive global political environment confronting us, I find myself wishing for the aliens to appear.

I started thinking about this after learning about Raumpatrouille Orion, or, “Space Patrol Orion,” (1966), the first ever German science fiction TV series, which inspired Vision Instruments, a collection of sculptures by Björn Schülke currently on view at bitforms gallery on NYC’s Lower East Side. According to bitforms gallery, Raumpatrouille Orion reflected a certain Cold-War era global attitude of idealistic utopianism, and the mentality of conquest and emphasis on space travel, which is also present in a lot of Schülke’s work.

Schülke was born in Cologne, Germany in 1967. Perhaps as an artist he was drawn to exploring the collective psychology of the environment into which he was born, utilizing Raumpatrouille Orion as his case study. But, what can we learn from Raumpatrouille Orion now? I think that some of the answers might lie in what else Björn Schülke focuses on in his sculptures.

Björn Schülke, Vision Machine #8 , 2016, Brass, steel, wood, mirrors, paint, camera, display, sensor, electronics, 15.75 x 11.8 x 14.2 in / 40 x 30 x 36 cm, Edition of 3, 1 AP (variant)

The other central theme of much of Schülke’s work is questioning the ways in which we interact with technology. To us in 2017, the “technological frontier,” its own universe without borders, can be compared to the physical universe within which exploration was idolized during the Cold War. At that time, we worshipped astronauts like rock stars. Today, we worship tech innovators like rock stars. That is absolutely not to say that we have stopped revering our astronauts, but rather to say that when it comes to astronauts versus tech innovators, the media has switched their “it girl” over the decades and the technologists are their latest sweetheart.

So, how are we interacting with technology, this thing that we worship? I think that one thing that Schülke is trying to say with his art is that we are giving it too much power.

His shiny, white, mechanical, stick bug shaped kinetic sculptures range from about the size of a football to the size of a refrigerator, and are mounted on the walls, floor, and ceiling of the gallery, surrounding viewers from all sides. They each have unique sleek, futuristic designs, but are futile in function, clearly separating them from the product design prototypes of the tech world and setting them firmly in the art category.

Although futile, they each beckon us to interact with them. For example, we look to find our reflections in the tiny circular mirrors that some of them have, and look to see our images picked up by their cameras, even though their cameras are operating in connection with a surveillance system. This evokes the Privacy Paradox, in which we are tempted to upload mass quantities of information about ourselves onto the Internet, almost like a mirror of ourselves, even if it is at the risk of our own security – which we then express simultaneous concern about.

drone9

Björn Schülke, Drone #9, 2016, Fiberglass and epoxide, wood, mirrors, aluminum, display, camera, electronics, sensors, video transmitter, 43.4 in / 110 cm, height, 118.2 in / 300 cm, diameter

In addition, many of the sculptures are equipped with small solar panels that take in light and charge the small batteries within them. Once the charge of the battery reaches a certain level of fullness, the sculpture moves, and is brought to life, like a little anthropomorphic creature that we created, but that now has a mind of its own and operates without our assistance, catching us off guard.

This is not the first time I have seen the issue of surveillance explored in art. In fact I have seen it utilized many times, and have written about it on several occasions as I consider it one of the interesting current themes that the global creative community is having an active discourse about. You can see some of my prior explorations of this topic in my articles about The Privacy Paradox 2016 group show at Reverse Gallery, the artist Joel Holmberg at New Museum, the artist Lorraine Oades and her project TV Tracker (a part of a 2015 group show of artists from Quebec at Knockdown Center). To note, there is also a radio show on NPR right now called The Privacy Paradox.

unnamed

Björn Schülke, Supersonic #3, 2008, Fiberglass, plywood, steel, motion sensors, theremin, woofer, tweeter, amplifier, paint 22 x 46 x 15 in / 56 x 117 x 38 cm

So, back to my original question, what can we learn today from Schülke’s revival of ideas from Raumpatrouille Orion? I think that the obvious conclusion is that while it was the first German sci-fi television show, from over fifty years ago, those same issues in the show apply now. Today it seems that it might still require this threatening, alien outside force to attack for all of us humans to band together to achieve peace on earth. What shape and form would that “force” take if the show were remade today? Could it be something like climate change, or related to technology?

Björn Schülke, Drone #9, 2016, Fiberglass and epoxide, wood, mirrors, aluminum, display, camera, electronics, sensors, video transmitter, 43.4 in / 110 cm, height, 118.2 in / 300 cm, diameter

Finally, it is this issue of surveillance resurfacing in both the outer space universe and the technology universe. During the Cold War era of Raumpatrouille Orion, sci-fi fear of aliens was this major allegory for xenophobia, fear of other countries, and fear of apocalyptic nuclear disaster. Sound familiar? At that time, a person might have asked, who are the aliens from outer space who are watching us, spying on us, maybe ready to attack? Today, we could think in those same terms, but digitally. Who is watching us, spying on us, maybe ready to attack, replete with our data?

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Women Photographers in Exile: A Conversation With Curators Christina De León and Michel Otayek

Images by Kati Horna, “Bombed! Shelled! Besieged for two years – but Life goes on!,” The Weekly Illustrated, December 3, 1938 [author unknown]. Private collection, New York.

This article was originally published in Whitehot Magazine of Contemporary Art.

I had had this event on my calendar for weeks, looking forward to unofficially celebrating the election of our first woman president at the NYU Institute of Fine Arts, coinciding with this wonderful panel discussion on the topic of women photographers in exile. When the night of November 8th turned into the morning of November 9th , and election results were in, there was a different somber attitude across New York City than I’d ever seen before. As shocked and devastated as I was about the results of the election, I decided that I needed to go to the event that I had been looking forward to for so long. When I headed toward the subway to go uptown, the weather outside was grey, drizzly, and dark, and then the energy inside the subway car felt like that of a funeral. But when I got to this panel event put on by Americas Society in the gorgeous ornate colonial building of the NYU Institute of Fine Arts on 5th Avenue, celebrating the work and accomplishments of these incredibly powerful women photographers during wartime during the earlier parts of the 20th century, I was absolutely uplifted and inspired again in a way that I really needed to be at that moment. It was a night of applauding courageous and creative women who broke boundaries, fought for what they believed in and revealed acute insights on dark times with their art and activism.

In the following interview, I sat down with the curators of both the panel discussion and the exhibition, Michel Otayek and Christina De León, to speak about their motivation and inspiration behind shining the spotlight on incredible talents Kati Horna (Hungary), Lee Miller (United States), Grete Stern (Germany), and Margaret Michaelis (Austria-Hungary; Poland), among others. Each have such an incredible story that I have linked to their Wikipedia pages, but in short, from what I’ve gathered, all of these women, in face of the political turmoil of Europe mostly in the 1930s including the rise of Nazi-ism and the Spanish Civil War, fled from and moved between different countries, in regions including Europe, Latin America, Africa, Australia and the U.S., to take action photographing in often treacherous zones. They produced images for everything from mass publications like Vogue, to activist anarchist propaganda in Spain, to art photography which also sometimes included shared common interests in both surrealism and architecture.

8_-helen-escobedo-1960

Kati Horna, Helen Escobedo, 1960; gelatin silver print, 8 x 8 in. Private collection, Mexico City.  © 2005 Ana María Norah Horna y Fernández.

Artifactoid: What led to your focus on Kati Horna? What most intrigued you about her work at the onset, and what were some of the most interesting things you discovered about her through your research putting this show and panel together?

Michel Otayek: Kati Horna’s work during the Spanish Civil War was the subject of my master’s thesis at Hunter College a few years ago. My doctoral dissertation at New York University, currently in progress, takes a more expansive view at her trajectory by means of a comparative analysis between her work, before and after exile, and that of Grete Stern. Early on in my research about Horna, it became clear to me that the meaning of her images was inextricable from their circulation in print. Throughout her career, she produced work specifically for the press. In a way, the true medium of her practice was the printed page, rather than the photographic print. In the pages of print materials, text and design bring to bear on what we are to make of photographic images. At the same time, one must also consider of the specificity of the audience (for whom is this magazine crafted?) when thinking about the sense-making power of images. Our exhibition at Americas Society stays close to these ideas. By presenting a rather eclectic array of print materials in dialogue with a selection of vintage prints, we argue that Horna was keenly aware of how circulation determines meaning—a circumstance she was sometimes able to exploit to great effect.

Christina De León: I was familiar with photographs by Kati Horna’s that were mostly taken in Mexico, however I was not aware of her earlier career in Spain with anarchist publications and through research for this exhibition I came to discover the story of a deeply complex and fascinating photographer. What most intrigued me about Horna’s work were her portraits, specifically of women, because she never relied on sensationalism or angst.  Her photographs invited viewers to look deeper into their own reality and served as a reflection of human conditions that encompass all of us. She also displayed an extraordinary depth of field for real-life phenomena generally viewed as banal or otherwise routinely overlooked, which she often captured with a clever sense of humor. Our archival research uncovered an incredibly diverse amount of photographic work, much of which will probably never be seen, because it is not associated with her formal production, but it’s an interesting insight into her practice and how she maintained herself financially. For instance she took wedding photographs, society portraits, images for popular photo-novela magazines, and she took innumerable picture of animals—there are many amazing photographs of cats.

Artifactoid: For the panel presentation, you discussed Horna’s work in the context of several other female photographers from the perspective of mobility and exile, including Lee Miller, Grete Stern, Margaret Michaelis, Marianne (Gast) Goeritz. What would you say is the single most outstanding quality about each of these artists, and what would you characterize as some of the most important threads between them that connect and amplify each of their bodies of work?

MO: I try not to reduce a photographer’s practice to a single, characteristic trait. I think there’s more to Henri Cartier-Bresson, for example, than the decisive moment, or to Robert Capa than battlefront intrepidness. As a remarkably versatile craft, photography gave women such as Kati Horna and Grete Stern a great deal of mobility—across national borders, most obviously, but also across communities of artists, intellectuals, and political activists. There are significant commonalities in the work of these two Jewish women, including the fact that both learned their craft from photographers specializing in advertising work (József Pécsi and Walter Peterhans), which I think gave them a sense of photography as a tool to construct images rather than just document reality. Having lived in Berlin in the final years of the Weimar Republic, both were led to exile by the rise of National Socialism. But whereas Stern left Europe for Argentina in 1936 and was celebrated early on as a pioneer of modernist photography in her adopted country, Horna’s involvement with the anarchist fringe of the Spanish Civil War resulted in a much more precarious exile to Mexico, where she arrived in late 1939—and into which culture she struggled to assimilate for a long time. For a variety of reasons, while Stern has long been part of the canon of modern Argentine photography, Horna’s work continues to be, in my opinion, unfairly underappreciated, even in Mexico.

CDL: It’s difficult to point to a single outstanding quality for each of these photographers, because there are so many! But an interesting commonality among all of them was their ability to seize the opportunities offered by the growing field of photography as a means for personal, political, economic, and artistic emancipation.

Artifactoid: Since you focus on foreign female photographers active in Latin America during the postwar period, I wanted to ask you, what are some of the biggest risks and dangers that these women faced in doing what they were doing, during the time they were doing it? What were some of the biggest challenges they had to overcome that may not be obvious at first glance?

MO: In addition to Horna and Stern, I am also currently researching the work of Bárbara Brändli and Thea Segall, both of whom arrived in Venezuela in the late 1950s. Though a generation younger and having arrived in Latin America two decades later than Horna and Stern, Brändli and Segall also had to carve out their own spaces, as émigrés, in an occupational field still largely dominated by men. Something I find in common among all four is somewhat of an inclination towards the countercurrent. What I mean is that in their trajectories one notices either an engagement with themes ignored by the greater culture or, conversely, a disinterest in some of the topics most conspicuous in the work of other photographers in their adoptive countries. For example, between 1958 and 1964, Grete Stern committed herself to the production of an extensive photographic record of the indigenous communities of the Argentine Great Chaco. Driven to photograph the living conditions of these communities by a personal desire to help improve them, Stern was later greatly disappointed by she perceived as a generalized indifference towards the plight of Argentina’s indigenous cultures by the country’s elites. Meanwhile, it is noteworthy that in Mexico, a country with a robust tradition of folklorist photography, Horna should have remained largely unconcerned with popular and indigenous traditions—themes that have fascinated generations of photographers there, from Hugo Brehme to Graciela Iturbide.

12d_-un-mariage-chez-les-oeufs-a-marriage-of-eggs-1936

Kati Horna, Un mariage chez les œufs [A Marriage of Eggs], 1936; gelatin silver print. Private collection, Mexico City. ©2005 Ana María Norah Horna y Fernández.

Artifactoid: What are some of the most surprising photographs taken by any of these artists?

MO: Much of Kati Horna’s work speaks to her refined sense of humor. The more of it one looks at, the more sensitive ones becomes to her penchant for infusing even the soberest or most mundane series with an understated layer of comicality. Oftentimes, the humorous streak of her work is not immediately apparent. But on occasion, she produced series that were downright hilarious. Such is the case of a delightful photo essay about city fashions such as bulky mini-skirts, published in July 1962 in the Mexican weekly Tiempo, in which every photograph is taken from the ground looking up, monumentalizing the subjects’ rears while keeping most of their upper bodies invisible. We were not able to include this series in our exhibition at Americas Society but it is certainly one of my favorites. While we are in the subject of personal preferences, one of the works by Bárbara Brändli I like the most is her 1981 book Los páramos se van quedando solos, in which photographs and interview transcripts document the vanishing rural communities and linguistic patterns of the Venezuelan Andes. While not a bold statement of design such as the celebrated 1975 photobook Sistema Nervioso (produced collaboratively by Brändli, John Lange and Roman Chalbaud), Los páramos se van quedando solos manages to convey the melancholic allure of agrarian life in the highlands of Western Venezuela. It is a visually austere but surprisingly sublime photographic pastoral.

CDL: I think I would say I was more inspired than surprised by the photographs taken by these artists.  In viewing these images it’s obvious that they did not hold back and you can see the urge to push further and go beyond conventionality. Their work reflects a raw individuality and a complexity that mirrored their lives.

Artifactoid: What were some of the biggest curatorial challenges that you faced when putting this presentation together, and how did you overcome them?

CDL: When organizing an exhibition it’s always a challenge conveying a person’s life’s work through a small and subjective selection of pieces. The goal is always to highlight key moments in a manner that is both engaging and thoughtful, but when you enter an artist’s archive the decision process can be daunting. While our exhibition is focused on Kati Horna’s relationship with the illustrated press, it was important for us to show her professional and personal transitions, as well as her vast networks in Europe and in Mexico, which was something we kept in mind throughout the entire process. Conveying Horna’s images within a framework that spoke to her political ideas, artistic curiosities, and deft eye was crucial to understanding the work we selected. In addition, it was essential to show the circulation of her images and their ever-changing contexts. For us the exhibition design and the display devices played a paramount role in helping to create a dialogue among the images and publications on view. The design was especially important because many of the images were printed in a small format and we wanted visitors to engage with its intimate nature. In many museum and gallery settings there is a tendency to keep a distance from the work, but in this case our intention was for the public to get close and become familiar with Horna’s images and her photographic practice.

Artifactoid: What new meaning, if any, is added to how you view these photographers and their work, in the context of our current, intense global political situation right now? Is there anything about their work that you see in a new light, due to current events? And, which current artists, if any, would you say could be considered modern equivalents of the photographers you focused on in this exhibit/panel?

MO: Perhaps we should put it the other way around. Thinking about what a handful of truly remarkable women were able to do with their cameras as they traversed some of the great upheavals of the 20th century has given me solace as we wake up to a global state of affairs in which, suddenly, it seems acceptable again to disparage minorities, and influential figures feel emboldened to express their contempt for the equal dignity of women. As you know, our panel at the Institute of Fine Arts about women photographers in exile was held the day after the presidential election in the United States. Many of us in attendance were shocked and deeply pained by the election’s results. The timing could not have been more apt for an evening of serene, almost therapeutic conversation about talented, courageous women and the challenges they had to overcome in their own times. Their careers can be looked at from so many different angles that one could establish pertinent comparisons with numerous artists working today. Someone that comes to mind in regards to Kati Horna is Zoe Leonard, whose phantasmagoric photographs were recently on view at an exquisite show at Hauser & Wirth, just a few blocks from Americas Society. Although conceived to operate within very different parameters of public display and circulation, Leonard’s work is concerned with preoccupations that come through in some of Horna’s most personal series: the condition of statelessness and the need to reconstruct personal history.

CDL: In light of the current political unrest, I think its clear that although there has been significant progress, women continue to face many of the same challenges and prejudices they did seventy or eight years ago. Nevertheless, women are still pushing ahead and working to defy stereotypical notions about what kind of work they should or shouldn’t be doing. This defiance has been happening throughout centuries and endures today. The objective for us as a society is to continue to shed light on their work and integrate these women within a greater canonical narrative and not refer to them just as historical anomalies.

View the exhibition of works by Kati Horna, “Told and Untold,” at Americas Society through December 17th, 2016.

About Christina De León and Michel Otayek:

Christina L. De León is a doctoral candidate at the Bard Graduate Center: Decorative Arts, Design History, Material Culture. From 2010 to 2016 she was the associate curator at Americas Society where she worked on modern and contemporary art exhibitions and publications. She co-curated the shows For Rent: Marc Latamie (2012), Cristóbal Lehyt: Iris Sheets (2013), and Told and Untold: The Photo Stories of Kati Horna in the Illustrated Press (2016). She contributed to the catalogue Moderno: Design for Living in Brazil, Mexico, and Venezuela 1940–1978 and has written articles for Review and Americas Quarterly periodicals. De León held previous positions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Cloisters Museum and Gardens. She holds an M.A. from New York University and a B.A. from Hobart and William Smith Colleges.

Michel Otayek is an art historian and doctoral candidate at New York University’s Department of Spanish and Portuguese. He holds a degree in Law from the Universidad Católica Andrés Bello in Caracas, and an M.A. in art history from Hunter College in New York. Otayek’s research addresses the role of practices of visual culture, including photography, in the articulation of discourse. His work is particularly concerned with collaboratively produced cultural artifacts such as illustrated periodicals and photobooks. Currently in progress, Mr. Otayek’s dissertation undertakes a comparative analysis of the work in exile of photographers Kati Horna in Mexico and Grete Stern in Argentina. As part of his interest in foreign female photographers active in Latin America during the postwar period, he is also at work in research projects pertaining the work of Bárbara Brändli and Thea Segall in Venezuela.

What Makes a “Keeper”? New Museum Curator Natalie Bell on Collecting as Art

Original article published in Whitehot Magazine of Contemporary Art

The New Museum’s current show The Keeper, curated by Massimiliano Gioni, pushes the boundaries of the definition of art by exploring practices of collecting and preserving objects as the subject of a museum exhibition.

The Keeper features expansive collections of items compiled by artists, scholars, collectors and hoarders over the past century which provide viewers with opportunities to muse on how the things that people amass and safeguard speak to their identities. How does what we decide to keep reflect upon who we are? Themes of memory, struggle, loss, the need for comfort, and the passing of time also pervade the four-story exhibition.

keeper2Installation view of The Keeper, featuring a sculptural installation by Carol Bove and Carlo Scarpa, and paintings by Hilma af Klint

Included are works like Canadian artist-curator Ydessa Hendele’sPartners “The Teddy Bear Project” (2002), which comprises more than 3,000 antique portraits of people and their teddy bears, Shinro Ohtake’s manic collaged scrapbooks (1979-2016), and Susan Hiller’s “The Last Silent Movie” (2007-2008), an audio work sounding the voices of the speakers of twenty-five extinct or dying languages.

While many of the collections of items included in the show are impressive and thought provoking, it’s not difficult, as a viewer, to wonder: Is simply compiling a quantity of something enough to call it art? Jose Falconi, postdoctoral fellow at the Department of History of Art and Architecture at Harvard University, critiques:

“Some of the pieces, most notably Ydessa Hendeles’s “Partners (The Teddy Bear Project)” are pieces which do not have much more merit than the mere act of collecting itself. An act that is, as we all know, one of the most basic tricks in the artist book: any object starts acquiring new meaning when they are collected — just as any object starts acquiring a new meaning when they are rendered in a different scale (very big, very small). In that way, The Keeper does very little to show that there is anything beyond putting into motion such a trick and conflating many different possible readings of the works gathered in it. What is, for example, the critical difference between hoarding and collecting? Is one simply the result of an impulse gone astray?

keeper3

 Installation view of Ydessa Hendele’s “Partners (The Teddy Bear Project)” (2002)

Supposedly the show is about showing that behind such repetitious acts there is something else lurking around, but I didn’t see it; the exhibition almost presents as mere celebration of collecting without any criticality. In other words: it suffers from what it is trying not to show.”

The answer to the question of the validity of collecting or amassing objects as art may certainly be up for debate, but one idea that seems to be paramount in understanding the value of a show like this, according to Writer and former New Museum Technician Matthew Blair, could be considering curating as the art form itself:

The Keeper either raises the status of curating to a form of art-making, or blurs the lines between collecting and creating; between curating and art-making. The curators at The New Museum have always had an interest in mounting shows that tend to [utilize] more than just content and juxtaposition. They organize shows that put more of the onus on the curators — changing the role of curating to being the dominant mode of exhibiting.”

Therefore, in part, it could be said that it is The New Museum’s commitment to allowing for experimental curatorial practices that is one of the elements most on display in The Keeper, more so than any individual work.

keeper4Shinro Ohtake, “Scrapbooks” (1979-2016)

keeper5Reproduction of drawing from “The Sketchbook from Auschwitz” (original drawing included in the collection of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum), (ca. 1943) 

In the following interview, New Museum Assistant Curator Natalie Bell, who collaborated on The Keeper with Mr. Gioni provides further insight on collecting, identity, and explorations of preserving and protecting as art.

Artifactoid: From your perspective, what do you think are some of the most important things that The Keeper reveals in regards to how collecting objects relates to our identity? Are there any works that you think make some of the biggest statements? Which ones and why?

Natalie Bell: Well, almost by definition, any collection is going to reflect its collector, whether it’s merely a matter of taste or representative of a unique philosophy or set of beliefs.  In this show, of course we were interested in collections that tell a story about someone’s beliefs, or an unlikely faith that certain objects and images could prove or validate an otherwise irrational or obscure idea, which is not true of everything in the exhibition, but is a significant recurring feature of many of its “keepers.” The first that comes to mind is Roger Caillois, a French theorist who collected rare stones because he believed they could reveal a shared cosmic history — which is not such a far-fetched thought if you think about the cosmic scope of geological formations. Or Wilson Bentley, who pioneered microphotography and amassed over five thousand negatives of snowflakes to prove his hypothesis that no two snowflakes are alike. But these are instances in which collecting relates to identity, if identity is understood as one’s beliefs, which is not always how we think about identity.

keeper6Oil on canvas paintings by Hilma af Klint (1914-1915)

Which works make the biggest statements? An important footnote to Hilma af Klint’s luminous abstract paintings from 1914-15 is that she had stipulated, at the time of her death, that they be withheld from the public, or basically kept secret until twenty years after her death. So essentially she believed that her work, which was not so well received in her lifetime, would only be truly appreciated in the future. But maybe the most powerful work for me is one that combines a belief in a future discovery and an enormous moral imperative to bear witness, which are the drawings from an author known by the initials “MM,” which were found hidden in a bottle in the barracks near the gas chambers at Auschwitz and are among very few images made in Auschwitz that actually depict the atrocities of abuse, torture, and mass extermination. Clearly, the artist who made these knew the severity of punishment he would encounter if he was caught making these images, and he took enormous risk to document what was so impossibly horrific and was otherwise being assiduously hidden by the Nazis.

Artifactoid: In what ways is the idea of collecting and quantity important in art? When we call a collection of things art, what, in your opinion, are the effects or significances of that?

NB: Personally I don’t think quantity or collecting are virtues in themselves, but one way to think about how collecting or quantity have importance in art is that a dedicated accumulation of anything reflects someone’s passion, and maybe at times, their obsession — and alongside that, we tend to regard an artist’s zealousness or compulsiveness as a creative virtue. In a sense, this exhibition is maybe guilty of exploiting the legacy of romanticism, but the effect is perhaps visitors come away from the show with a new way of thinking about what it means to be creative. But it wasn’t a particular agenda of ours to anoint these bodies of work or collections as “art,” but rather to reflect on what is essential and universal about our emotional attachment to things, and how forming bonds with things helps us cope with our mortality.

keeper762 consecutive annual studio portraits of Ye Jinglu, collected by photography collector Tong Bingxue, (1901-1963)

Artifactoid: When considering the compiling of objects as art (which I was speaking about with Jose Falconi about), are there some important distinctions in your opinion about the practice of collecting versus hoarding?

NB: There are important distinctions, some of them arguable, but first of all I think you could call collecting a practice in the sense that it’s intentional and a collector might have to make decisions about what to acquire and what not to acquire, what’s worth keeping and what’s not worth keeping. Hoarding, on the other hand, is regarded as a pathological condition, and people who hoard have a compulsion to keep everything and suffer enormous anxiety about parting with anything. In other words, it comes down to being judicious about what you surround yourself with and having a capacity to refine one’s collection, rather than just keeping everything.

But in the framework of our thinking about the show, maybe the matter of preserving and protecting opens up something more contentious — which is that people who hoard often believe that they’re preserving the things that they keep for some future opportunity, and that their guardianship is essential. And there’s also maybe a shared psychological impulse in which amassing things can be a way of coping. But the arguable difference in my mind is that if you hoard, you’re constantly compromising your capacity to actually take good care of the things you have. That, and the fact that no one wants to become a hoarder. It’s considered a condition for good reason!

Artifactoid: There was a connection of several of the works to World War II and the Holocaust. Who decided to include multiple of those works, and why do you think that the idea of “collecting” is important related to that period in history?

NB: There are a few works that may stand out because of their relationship to the Holocaust, but I don’t think the idea of “collecting” is more related to that period in history than to others. Of course, it’s interesting generally to think about people’s relationship to material culture vis-a-vis larger historical events. It can manifest as a pragmatic approach, like how many Americans who came of age during the depression and remember the rationing of WWII have a tendency to reuse and salvage things that we might otherwise consider disposable. But this is more a trauma of poverty or scarcity that spurs collecting as a preventative measure. In other words, is my grandpa’s drawer full of golf pencils the product of his emotional attachment to these objects? Not really, considering that he has the same attitude toward saving ketchup packets from fast food restaurants.

keeper8Detail from Henrik Olesen’s “Some Gay-Lesbian Artists and/or Artists relevant to Homo-Social Culture Born between c. 1300–1870″ (2007)

keeper9The 387 Houses of Peter Fritz (1916-1992), Insurance Clerk from Vienna, preserved by Oliver Croy and Oliver Elser (1993-2008)

But, that said, in this exhibition we weren’t so interested in the idea of collecting in a broad sense, but in something quite specific, which is a desire to preserve and protect and care for certain objects and images, so rather looking for instances where there’s a certain desire or love that’s motivating someone to action. This is a very different sort of mandate — and one that’s as subjective as it is emotional. But to return to the parts of the show that touch on the Holocaust, I think that there are potentially a lot of connections to collecting. Obviously, collecting as a form of bearing witness takes on a real urgency when there is a genocide that attempted to leave no evidence of mass exterminations, but on an emotional and psychological level, forging emotional attachments to objects is a common way of coping with the trauma, so it should be no surprise that WWII and the Holocaust stand out as something of a focal point in a show whose historical scope includes the last century.

Floors 1-3 of The Keeper will be on view at The New Museum (235 Bowery, New York, NY 10002) through Sunday, October 2nd, 2016. The fourth floor of the exhibit will be open through Sunday September 25th.

Reflections on Manus X Machina at the MET: Fashion and Technology, Couture to RTW

While Yves Saint Laurent once quoted, “Art is a very big word for couture. It’s a métier like any other, but a poetic métier,” it was difficult for me to look at the pieces on display at the MET’s Manus x Machina exhibit and not see many of them as wearable sculptures.

img_3268-1Dress featuring both hand-embroidered and 3D-printed elements, by threeASFOUR, 2014

If you didn’t get a chance to check out the recent fashion and technology exhibit before it closed this Labor Day weekend, I wanted to give you an opportunity to see some of the beautiful pieces that were featured, and consider the topic of fashion and technology.

dressIris van Herpen dress including polyurethane resin and iron fillings hand-sculpted with magnets, Autumn/Winter 2014

One thing that really struck me about this Apple-sponsored, Andrew Bolton-organized exhibit was that, for a fashion and technology exhibit, it didn’t feel very high-tech. It was more like a retrospective of how high fashion has kept up with and experimented with the tech of its time over the last century. For instance, many of the 3D-printed pieces which were presented as some of the more technologically advanced of the show were created several years back. I’d even previously seen the Iris van Herpen 3D-printed corset in early 2014 the Bass Museum in Miami.

vanherpenIris van Herpen, 3D-Printed Dress (far right, 2010)

The lower-tech vibe of the show, on the positive side, can be viewed as a testament to how well some of the show’s participating haute couture designers have been integrating new technologies into fashion – allowing couture to retain its handmade look while keeping up with some of the latest technologies available. According to The New York Times, this has always been the case, i.e., with the invention of “the sewing machine (used to make a Paul Poiret coat in 1919) and machine-made lace (Coco Chanel, in the late ’30s).”

diorGowns, Dior (left, center) and Alexander McQueen (right)

There also seems to be a limiting factor in regards to the marriage of high-tech and haute couture: since a lot of technology is created to be utilitarian, and by its nature haute couture seems to be the antithesis of utilitarian, will the applications of technology in haute couture be limited to purely the aesthetic?

Even when considering Hussein Chalayan, whose fashion designs have included robotic, LED, and remote controlled technologies, the tech provides a visual wow-factor but no practical benefits for the wearer. Then again, no one ever looked to haute couture for its practicality.

Has it been frowned upon in the fashion world for couture to incorporate practical technology? Is there this consensus that the wearer of couture wouldn’t need high-tech life hacks woven into her ensemble at the moment of wearing it because its presence might reveal her earthly needs in her moment of being a goddess? I wonder if any designers right now are experimenting with pushing what those limits seem to have been.

chalayan“Kaikoku” Floating dress, Hussein Chalayan, 2011-12

Breaking from those limitations, the ready-to-wear fashion industry on the other hand is using technology to transform clothing itself into wearable tech smart devices. For instance, Google’s “Project Jacquard” recently debuted a partnership with Levi’s for a smart commuter jacket made of tech-connective denim that you can swipe like a smartphone screen to answer calls, control your music, and more, while remaining alert riding a bike. Antonio Cerruto, an engineer working on Project Jacquard, notes, “What I find exciting is that the people working on fashion tech now are the people who will be defining a vocabulary and mode of interaction for this area.”

It’s interesting that while tech is being integrated into both haute couture and ready-to-wear fashion in different ways, the core principles of the two categories – one as essentially wearable art and the other as utilitarian – seem to remain the same. And, the most “cutting edge” of the tech seems to be applied to the most common of the clothing: a denim jacket.

Culture Beach: There’s More to See at Fort Tilden than Katharina Grosse’s Painted House

The Rockaways: Your friends might all be going to The Hamptons or Fire Island – hey, maybe you are too! But you might also be stuck thinking (like I am many times), the only way I’m getting to the beach this weekend is by taking the subway and bus. And you know what? I’ve learned it’s pretty darn awesome. Especially when your day can be filled as filled with arts and culture as it is with seashells and waves. And that’s what brought me to Fort Tilden.

Fort Tilden is an historic district next to Jacob Riis Park. Its initial building was constructed during the War of 1812 as a part of the “2nd system” of defense to protect the area from the possibility of British attacks coming from the ocean. The fort wasn’t expanded and reactivated again until World War II, and remained active during the Cold War, but was officially deactivated in 1974 when it became an official national recreation area.

While Jacob Riis Park is now a lot of fun with eclectic food stands, live music, a bar or two, and a diverse family-oriented crowd, Fort Tilden beach is more like a quiet, hipster, adult beach where (ladies) you can freely go topless without anyone bothering you as if you’re in Europe, and check out a variety of artistic interventions thanks to MoMA PS1’s Rockaway!, the Rockaway Artists Alliance, the Jamaica Bay-Rockaway Parks Conservancy, the National Park Service, the Central Park Conservancy, NYC Parks & Recreation and Rockaway Beach Surf Club.

MoMA PS1’s Rockaway! has become a known program in New York City over the past couple of years since its inception in 2014, and deservedly so. It came to life as a collaboration between MoMA PS1 Director Klaus Bisenbach and Patti Smith, a Rockaway resident who has been visiting Fort Tilden beach since the 1970s with Robert Mapplethorpe. Rockaway! celebrates bringing the area back to life after it suffered destruction caused by Hurricane Sandy, two weeks prior to which Smith had bought a house there (queue Alanis). The debut of Rockaway! included a large-scale, site-specific work by Smith titled, “Resilience of the Dreamer,” along with projects by Argentinian artist Adrián Villar Rojas, Canadian artist Janet Cardiff, and a Walt Whitman poetry reading performed by Smith together with James Franco (a friend of Bisenbach).

Warehouse

This year’s main attraction is the site-specific project created by Katharina Grosse, a mid-career German artist with a hefty CV whose painted post-Hurricane Sandy ruin is generating ubiquitous buzz this 2016 summer season. So much so, that it appears to have sealed the deal making her the latest addition to the Gagosian Gallery‘s roster (which looks like it could be confused with a hall of fame of sorts but could seriously use a few more female artists in the mix). Grosse’s Rockaway! exhibition will be on view through November 30th, 2016, and her first commercial solo show with Gagosian is expected for early 2017.

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If you aren’t yet aware, Grosse painted a similar dilapidated house in New Orleans’ 9th Ward following Hurricane Katrina as a part of their 2008 biennial, so this Fort Tilden installation following Hurricane Sandy can be viewed as the second in a series. According to the New York Times, Grosse’s 2008 project actually humiliated one of the hurricane’s survivors. I have yet to find more details on that story, but learning that that happened piqued my interest. I wonder how that individual felt about the art, and what his or her perspective was.

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To me, something that was important while visiting was to pay attention to the fact that PS1’s Rockaway! is not the only cultural attraction to participate in in the Fort Tilden beach area. There are additional cultural centers and installations to check out that have a beautiful local vibe and help you feel the soul of the community and more intimately connect with it.

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These include The Rockaway Artist Alliance gallery, and The Rockaway Theatre Company, a thriving center for the performing arts which was awarded a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts this June.

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Dan Guarino, president of the Rockaway Artists Alliance, was kind enough to give me a great tour of the space and a special peek into a rehearsal for “La Cage aux Folles,” which opened at the theater last weekend to great success.

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John Gilleece, Artistic Director of the Rockaway Theatre Company and Director of “La Cage aux Folles,” notes:

“Rockaway Beach, New York is a beach community with a summertime feel. Sun and surf take precedence over many other pursuits.  But, what makes the Rockaway arts community unique is that the art does not begin on Memorial Day and stop after Labor Day.  The two major arts groups, the Rockaway Theatre Company and the Rockaway Artists Alliance, offer year-round shows, exhibits and events. Nineteen years ago, when the RTC started, Rockaway Beach was very much underserved in the area of local, live theater.  But endurance and hard work bore fruit. Today, our reputation for Broadway-quality musicals has enlarged our audience base so that we have people coming from all over the New York area.”

At the Rockaway Artists Alliance art gallery, you can currently enjoy an indoor/outdoor art show including a display of sizable paintings from the exhibit, “Forbidden Fruit: Street Art in a National Park,” and enter the large abandoned locomotive repair space where Patti Smith’s 2014 project was staged. At the theater, “La Cage aux Folles” has three upcoming performances on August 19th, 20th, and 21st, and you can get tickets here.

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The Austrian Cultural Forum New York: A Hidden Treasure near the MoMA

For the first time, I recently visited the Austrian Cultural Forum in New York City’s midtown. Situated on 52nd Street and 5th Avenue, it is close to the MoMA and is a special cultural site in an area filled with mainly retail stores and corporate offices. If you are in the area shopping, visiting the MoMA, or the south side of Central Park, I would recommend stopping in at ACFNY.

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The ACFNY is a multi-faceted destination that offers many more than one reason to visit. First of all, the physical building stands at 24 stories and is a unique and known architectural achievement in the city. It is a very deep yet narrow building that soars high with walls of windows that provide a sweeping view of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, which will remain, because the air rights between the two structures are privately owned by a prominent New York family. To note, the building was originally a smaller, townhouse-style structure but was eventually re-done. Co-curator Prem Krishnamurthy of current ACFNY show “DIS – PLAY / RE – PLAY” comments,

“The ACFNY is a sliver of Austria inscribed within the complex real estate relations of Manhattan. The building is significant architecturally, as it negotiates a narrow 25-foot wide site and multi-tiered program. It’s the particularities of this architecture — both positive and challenging alike — that inspired the specific approach of the show I worked on there.”

Secondly, the ACFNY was founded in 1942 by Austrian Jewish families who fled Austria during World War II and were seeking to establish an institution to preserve Austrian culture in a place where it could flourish. In addition, there are a network of Austrian Cultural Forums globally, and the one in New York is a member of this group. I personally feel strongly about the survival of the arts during World War II, specifically the perseverance of Jewish artists who were persecuted or the recuperation of artworks seized by Nazis, like Austrian painter Gustav Klimt’s “Woman in Gold” which I mentioned in my previous article about Jewish Czech artist and concentration camp survivor Jan de Ruth, of whom I own a work titled “Daydream.”

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But, the ACFNY is anything but a cultural relic from the 1940s. The institute is currently showcasing two contemporary art exhibitions, including Ulrike Königshofer, “Sense and Record,” on view until 7/28, and the previously mentioned “DIS – PLAY / RE – PLAY” put together by internationally revered curators including Krishnamurthy (of P! and Project Projects) and Walter Seidl, on view through 9/5. And, believe it or not, the next concert being held in the ACFNY’s petite, clean and modern theater will be a house music performance in September.

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Additional features of the ACFNY institution include a full library filled with preserved Austrian literature (if you are a lover of “old book scent” like I am, this is the place for you!), and a friendly, engaging and passionate staff led by ACFNY Director Christine Moser. For a free guided tour of the space and current exhibits, stop by on a Wednesday at 4PM.

Marks of Permanence on Paper and Skin: In Conversation with David Sena

In NYC’s Little Italy, nestled into the west side of Centre Street near Grand Street, you’ll find one of the neighborhood’s cultural gems: David Sena’s tattoo parlor and art gallery, Senaspace. Sena, a world famous tattoo artist and fine artist known for using pyrotechnic techniques to create large-scale wall pieces, recently invited Artifactoid to his workshop at Brooklyn Art Studios to catch a glimpse of some of his latest projects and techniques. Check out our Q&A with exclusive video footage below, and stop by Senaspace for the latest show or some fresh ink.
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Artifactoid: Tell me about your background using pyrotechnic techniques in your art. How did they evolve and lead to “Colored Smoke?”

DS: I began using the pyrotechnic techniques in my art work about 20 years ago… I was in art school at The Cooper Union and one day was at a gallery in SoHo where I saw an artist that had done some “paintings” or drawings on canvas with candle soot.  For one of my 2D Design assignments we were to do a self portrait using the grid system to breakdown the image into small squares and then assign a value to each square. Then, the portrait was made with the collection of values in the grid, similar to a Chuck Close painting.  Remembering the candle soot drawings, I thought to use a lighter to burn in different values from light to dark on the grid layout.  This was my first experience using fire to make art.
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The following year I was in a drawing course, and was looking for new ways to make marks on paper.  Traditional mediums such as pencil, charcoal, and ink weren’t giving me the look or aesthetic I was looking for and my thoughts went back the lighter portrait.  As a child I had a big fascination with fire and always loved lighting off fireworks.  I remembered from experiences how the fireworks would sometimes leave behind burnt marks on the concrete or wooden surfaces I would light them off on.  So I had an idea to get some fireworks, light them off on a sheet of paper and see what happened.  I acquired some fireworks in Chinatown, did some experiments, and right away had found what I was looking for.  Since then I have built a large selection of techniques using fireworks and other volatile materials to make my art.

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Artifactoid: Describe how you created the mechanism you developed to make the “Colored Smoke” pieces. 

DS: The “Colored Smoke” pieces  were created by using a few different tools, i.e, a compass, which the colored smoke bombs can be mounted on, then used to draw lines on the paper with.  The smoke bombs emit colored smoke and saturate the paper when directed at the surface.

Artifactoid: What are some of the biggest challenges that come along with making this type of art, and how did you overcome them?

DS: I would say constantly being cautious and safe with using fire in a controlled environment is one of the biggest challenges.

This is constantly on my mind – to be aware of what I’m doing and not let any particular process or fire get out of hand to where an unwanted fire is started. Fire can obviously be dangerous, so I rigorously remain alert to any prevent any accidents.

Artistically, the challenge is to make art and not wind up with simply a burnt piece of paper. I am exerting different amounts of control over the process but not everything can be foreseen so I have to be open to the marks the fireworks make and use them to best accomplish the desired design and composition.  The process builds upon itself and I am always finding new techniques as I work with different pyrotechnics and tools.

Artifactoid: How does your career as a tattoo artist influence your additional artistic practices?

DS: My career as a tattoo artist has coexisted well with my studio work. I feel they are very similar in their very direct and permanent means of making marks on paper or skin,  just as I cannot erase a tattooed line, I cannot undo a burnt line on paper.  The tattoo imagery I work with has also come to be included in some of the more illustrative subjects of my fire drawings.  Luckily my career as a tattoo artist has provided me with the time and resources to keep making my fine art, all the while keeping my hand and mind in creative practice.

Artifactoid: What are some other ideas and techniques for pyrotechnic art you’re looking forward to testing out in the future?

DS: I would like to start doing larger-scale projects and installations with my pyrotechnic techniques.  I would also like to incorporate light and video projections as I did in some early work.

Tonight, Thursday, July 14th 2015 from 6PM-9PM, is the opening reception for “New Amsterdam, Photographs by Richard Koek” at Senaspace, 229 Centre Street, New York, NY. Look forward to seeing you there!