Elektra KB has two solo shows up now, and they are amazing. In her work, she creates a mythology in which she plays both the theocratic ruler of an imagined land, and the entire insurgent guerrilla army rising against that ruler. Spanning across photography, collage, sculpture, book art, and even performance, her work creates an all-encompassing vision, where life in this place mirrors our own, somehow both absurdly and succinctly.
In conjunction with these shows, there is a free performance that she is staging. The flyer is below:
I’m the kind of person who plans everything, all the time, down to the tiniest detail; running different scenarios in my head over and over, so that going into any given situation, I have a Plan A, Plan B, Plan C (and sometimes all the way to the end of the alphabet). It occurred to me recently that the one area of my life that I haven’t obsessively ran a million different versions through in my head, is when it comes to teaching. What do I want my “teaching career” to be? Where will I be in ten years, or twenty?
I fell into teaching very naturally. Well, actually – first I tried and tried to get a teaching job and failed miserably, gave up, moved on, and then years later was offered first one job and then another. And since then, I haven’t overthought it; I’ve just taken what’s come my way, proposed what has been of interest to me and had it accepted, and learned by doing. It’s been an overwhelmingly positive experience, to the point where I really get shocked by it all when I stop and think about it. Somehow, eight years have zoomed by.
And so, the question naturally comes up: where am I going with all this? I am extremely happy with my position I have now (extremely, extremely, and I’m not going anywhere short term), but if I’m being honest, I don’t think it would shock anyone to say that I don’t want to be in the same exact job in twenty years. Spending much of your life pledged to one company/institution/whatever doesn’t seem realistic anymore. Sure, when I was a kid, I had relatives who would get a job at Company X when they were 22 and stay there til retirement. Now, though? Now it feels like you blink and twenty years are gone, and somehow you wind up without money for retirement or whatever, and hey, it’s your own damn fault, because what? – you thought the company was going to take care of you?
More to the point, I’m increasingly finding NYC to be unliveable. I recently rented and watched the new Morton Downey, Jr. documentary (which was quite good) for the sole reason of seeing footage of the NYC/NJ that I remembered so fondly as a kid… and that’s just sad (I mean, really: When you fondly look back on Roy Innis punching Al Sharpton and get all misty-eyed, you have to wonder what the fuck is going on). NYC today is practically unrecognizable compared to the city I fell in love with and pledged I’d be with forever when I was in my late teens. And NJ? Well, change has come more slowly, but all those shots of the Seacaucus wetlands that aren’t there anymore were a real battle cry to me that the time has come to really start thinking hard about everything.
So, in trying to think of all this reasonably, I came up with a Best Case/Worst Case Scenario for my future self. They break down like this:
Best Case Scenario: I am teaching somewhere beach-y but with access to rural areas (or rural, with access to beachy areas, although the formal is preferred). I ride my bike to work every day, or walk. My students are centered and grounded and love art, but really don’t care about the art world. We make art together, and talk about art and philosophy and critical theory. Some of the students write poetry; the university/college has a commitment to diversity in terms of race/age/etc, and so we wind up learning so much about ourselves through late night jam sessions involving roaring bonfires at the beach and tearful conversations. Everything is beautiful. I have tenure (or something similar), and can afford a one-bedroom house/apartment.
Worst Case Scenario: I am teaching somewhere landlocked and sun-bleached, and religious (Mormon, Catholic, Evangelical – whatever, it’s all the same). Every day, I get hauled into the Department Chair’s office to explain why I’ve shown “obscene art” to my classes, and at least once a week I have a football-y student ask me if it’s true that “Jackson Pollock was a homo.” It’s hot all the time unless you’re indoors in the freezing cold air conditioning, and I have to drive everywhere, and all the radio stations I can get on my car radio are Top 40. I start drinking heavily, and ducking into the women’s room to cry on frequent occasions. Everybody hates me and thinks I’m weird and stuck up. I’m an adjunct, and earn less than a McDonalds fry cook.
What I’ve learned from this exercise is that the two things important to me in a teaching job are: 1. quality of students and 2. location. (What’s a given is that I want to earn enough money to support myself, but I’m not especially salary-driven.)
Students: I have amazing students now. They would be super hard to ever leave. I feel like I understand them and they understand me, and we work well together.
Location: My location currently sucks. But it could be far worse.
But getting back to students: I’ve been thinking lately that art students require a certain… finesse? skill?… in communicating with. And it’s one that I’ve come to really love and enjoy, and really deeply get. And it’s a connection I won’t be quick to get rid of.
Say for instance, I say to a class full of art students, “I want you to fold a piece of 8 1/2 x 11 paper in such a way that the 8 1/2 sides meet, and you wind up with a piece of paper that is folded at exactly 8 1/2 x 5 1/2.” It’s a pretty reasonable request, but I’ve tried this experiment with my classes before, and I know what always happens: about 1/2 of the class gets it right; another 1/4 get it totally opposite (folding the paper horizontally instead of vertically), and the remaining quarter will do some variation of the following: make a paper crown, eat the paper, fold it in triangles, cut themselves with the paper, start crying (possible a combination of all of these).
This is because I have made a crucial error in my directions (this, I have learned from years of working with art students). I used something that resembled math (aka, numbers) in my directions, and math stirs up in art students a kind of primal fear that can’t be abated or calmed in any rational, normal way. You’d think that numbers under 20 shouldn’t really wig them out so bad, but they do – and they sort of panic and freak out unnecessarily. They detest math, and are actually deeply afraid of it.
You cannot use math to communicate to art students. If I do the following:
“Fold your paper like this,” (hold up paper correctly folded)
“Fold your paper hamburger, NOT hot dog” (ok, I needed someone to tell me this one, but I swear it works. NO REALLY. Every time. They laugh and think I’m nuts, but they fold their paper right.)
…everybody gets it. That’s because I’ve just explained things visually. Art school kids are incredibly visually literate. They’re also culturally literate, literature literate, critical theory literate… and so forth. They’re just not math literate. In fact, they’re deeply math-phobic. Math makes them terrified and afraid, like some sort of cornered, feral animal. And each one is horribly ashamed of being this way and thinks they’re the only one, until they realize that everyone else in their class is and then they become sort of weirdly proud of it. (There are other things, too – other little tricks you learn along the way that helps you to relate to them, and explain things thoroughly so that they really get it. It’s not just math, it’s a whole communication style that’s different. You can’t just port the pedagogical approach used by a successful biology teacher into a studio classroom. It doesn’t work that way. And it makes sense – it really shouldn’t work that way, if you think about it.)
It also helps that I will forever be, in my heart and soul, The Kid Who Made The Paper Crown:
And so the problem becomes, now that I have a firm grasp on how to speak to art students, where does that leave me in my “teaching career”? Will I ever be able to shift gears and go talk to jocks taking Art 101 because it’s required? Or older folks going back to school “because it’s fun”? Or have I somehow screwed myself, by becoming so enamored with art kids, that I’ve severely limited my career options for the next 30 years?
This is what I’m trying to figure out.
… your friends die.
Not in that sudden, unexpected way that your friends die in your teens or twenties, where someone is in the wrong place at the wrong time, or suicidal, or being stupid. But, like, they die of diseases. Like grownups die.
They die of heart attacks or cancer, or other prolonged illnesses that had hints along the way that were ignored. Because of course you’re going to ignore them, because what’s the alternative? Being a total weirdo who runs to the doctor for every little thing? Come on. You want to be normal and like everyone else, and to go out and have fun and be the way you’ve always have. What’s so wrong about that?
Well, nothing. Except that I’m left here, feeling old, and not really sure what to think anymore. Were you an asshole for ignoring it all, or just human? I don’t know. Judging you would make this easier, but that doesn’t seem right, either.
Dear Gallery Front Desk Person,
You probably don’t remember me, but I recently brought a group of students to see your gallery space. We were all alone in your space; in fact, I kind of suspect we were among the only people to come to your gallery that entire day, even though it was well after 3pm at the time.
My students quite liked the show that you had up. We spent a lot of time there, and at one point, several of my students got into an animated conversation about one of the pieces. Now, as a reminder, they were the only people in the gallery, and if screaming could be considered a 10, they were at most speaking at a 4. Which is to say that they were probably speaking slightly louder than one normally does in a gallery, but not at all in the vicinity of complete inappropriateness.
You might recall your reaction to this. You singled out one particular student, and made a “shushhhhhhhhhhh!!!” noise like you were a deflating balloon, and barked at him to lower his voice. I was standing across the room (maybe 15 feet away) and hadn’t noticed that anyone was speaking especially loudly, and was taken aback by your rude silencing of my student. I watched as you barked at this student, and commanded him to take his loud conversation elsewhere, despite the fact that he had been speaking about the work on the wall to his peers, and hadn’t even been doing so terribly loudly.
I wanted so desperately to walk up to you at that point and congratulate you. Good job, Gallery Desk Person: you just rudely shushed an autistic student, and embarrassed him in front of his peers. You must feel really good about yourself for having done that. This student has worked really hard to be mainstreamed in with other students his age, and I, as his instructor, have also worked hard to not single him out or draw attention to his difference. But, wow; you and your complete and total lack of acceptance for anyone deviating from even the slightest social norm…. well, hey. Way to enforce the status quo. Way to support stupid ways of being, purely for the sake of keeping things as they are. Did you realize you were going to be this much of a total conformist when you decided you wanted to go into art? Because really, you might do better (financially, at least) at a real estate firm, or perhaps an insurance company. I can see those being much more lucrative fields for you to pursue.
And not only that, you just rudely shushed a person who was genuinely interested in the work on your walls. How many people walk through your doors and actually have a reaction to the art on the walls? How many people get stirred to passionate conversation by the work that you are exhibiting? Not many, I’d assume. You should be pleased that the work elicits such a reaction, instead of shutting it down.
Ugh. You sir, completely horrify me.
Dear Super Fancy Gallery Security Guard,
After the experience detailed above, I was honestly ready to throw in the towel, and then you saved me. You saved me… like you can’t possibly ever know.
I entered into your gallery with a couple of remaining students, and encountered a show of an artist of whom I know little about. When my students asked me for clarification, I was honest with them and told them I didn’t really know. You came over, and started explaining to us. Your explanations meant the world to me. You made sense. You connected with us on a human level; you answered our questions and didn’t look at us like we were weird or stupid, and you had lots to say in terms of your own opinions of the work on view.
Your time with us was a godsend. I was reminded of why I wanted to be an artist in the first place, and why I always felt so at home at art galleries. We talked and asked questions, and then other people came over and asked you questions, too, and you so generous entertained everyone who came by. Your job, as much as I understand it, is to stand by the wall and make sure people don’t steal/harm things. And yet, you went above and beyond; you gave a shit, to the point where you demystified work that had been very opaque to us before you entered the conversation. You didn’t have to talk to us, but you did: because you’re genuinely curious and engaged with the world, and want others to be as well.
Thank you, thank you, thank you. You completely restored my faith in the art world. I mean this sincerely, and from the bottom of my heart. I was completely ready to pack my bags after the encounter I detailed before this one. But you saved it, and for that, I will always be grateful.
I want to write a book this summer, with drawings and text intermingled, and finally write down a bunch of the stories I have in my head from growing up. Not a “memoir” per se, but more a disconnected group of random stories (with pictures), all of which have been important to me.
This one just came blasting back, and I think it’s pretty representative of the kind of things I’m thinking about:
She freaked out. The class I was in at school and the neighborhood I was living in were all white, and she was convinced I had become this racist living under those circumstances. She immediately trotted out all these tales of racial equality, about the suffering of blacks under whites, Martin Luther King, Harriet Tubman, and so forth.
What it just dawned on me was, what I was really asking her was if *I* could ever be a garbageman, or if you had to be a black guy to do it. I was obsessed with garbage from a really early age (still am) and consider garbagemen to be one of the most important, key figures in any society. You can do without stockbrokers… you can’t do without garbagemen. I’ve always thought about garbagemen as these incredible, heroic people who just make all the bad stuff go away… and what I was really asking was, Could I ever be that worthy, that good?
I’m still obsessed with them. Sometimes, at 5am, I hear the garbage trucks on our block, and I wake up annoyed that something has disturbed me and my sleep; but as soon as I realize that the sound is that of people hauling the garbage away, I breathe a happy sigh. It honestly comforts me.
The well-worn and tired motifs of:
- the drug/alcohol/addiction memoir
- the eating disorder/mental health memoir
- the portrait of the artist as a young whatever.
I find myself more and more committed to writing an illustrated book this summer. And, in effect, hiding behind these motifs while also revealing/honestly considering myself.
These motifs as cliques that now reveal nothing about the author.
They become their own style of fiction. There is nothing confessional about them.
And yet, as readers, we’re drawn to them because they supposedly lay bare a kind of “truth” we lack otherwise. And so, how do you hide behind the lie as a way of exposing the truth? Is such a thing even possible? Or is this just a descent down a rabbit hole of exchanging signs for meanings for signs for meanings, again and again? And if so, is it worthwhile to pursue?
Yesterday: up at 2:30am, leave the house by 3:15, head to Newark airport. 5am flight to Charlotte, then transfer to flight to San Francisco. Arrive 10:15am local time. Take BART train to 16th and Mission, meet nice woman driving me to campus. Fill out forms. Get key to place I’m staying at, luckily around the corner from school (very big perk, and a nice place, too). Try to lay down for a bit but my mind is going a million miles an hour. Kinda sorta sleep. Wake up, walk to the Mission District. I’m awed – it’s super cool, like a more intellectually honest NYC, which is to say small businesses, cafe-y and boutique-y places, and occasionally homeless people (in NYC, we’ve chased out the homeless and the small businesses. We still have the boutiques, though). Eat massive amounts of Vietnamese food. Go to yarn store that is a million times better than any yarn store we haVe on the east coast. Start to feel ripped off that I’ve spent the last X number of years slogging it out in NYC. Walk home. Crash.
Today: up at, I’m not really sure, different because the time change is what it is. Wander around aimlessly. Go to Whole Foods three times in an hour. Stare at weird architecture. Realize I’m tired. Drink too much tea and start to crash. Head over to school.
Talk about my work for an hour and fifteen minutes. More about my “career” than my “art” but I’m cool with that. Wonder if I’m scaring the students too much. Feel guilty because I suddenly remember two old friends of mine teach at this school or live nearby and I didn’t connect with them (awkward, yikes). Answer questions. Try to be honest bUt optimistic.
(what I want to say but somehow don’t: being an artist is really, really hard and scary and you’ll cry a lot, but it’s totally worth it. There’s no money but it’s ok – money sucks anyway. You have air to breathe and water to drink and thoughts to think. Fuck all the rest, you don’t need it.)
Go to studio visit after studio visit after studio visit. Meet students I know nothing about, and I have 45 minutes to tell them what I think they should do with their lives, like I even know what I’m doing with my life.
Stare at the stack of garbage cans at every turn. Is my garbage landfill, compostable, or recyclable? I have no idea San Francisco. I’m just tired. And yet, I have to confront this every time I go to throw something away. How very social justice-y of you.
Finish slaphappy and exhausted. Go to vegan restaurant (there’s a million of them here) where everything is drowned in cashew cheese and truffle oil. Feel sick. Go to a bar where they ask you if you want potato based or quinoa based vodka. Feel overwhelmed.
I’m stunned and shocked that I got to live to the specific moment when a museum is doing a show based on a time and place I once inhabited as a kind of “ah yes, remember when?” trip down memory lane; a guilt trip to make us all feel bad for being alive now instead of when things were cool… but then of course, I was alive then too. So I get to feel like I have a gold star next to my name or at least a pat on my head for having hung in there this long. Or something.
Unrelated, there were two things happening this evening in close proximity to each other. In my mind, I like to picture that they were the result of some hedge fund managers’ meeting gone awry, where everyone started playing around with some really shit bath salts, but likely they had nothing to do with one another:
1. A man – in a suit and tie – was standing on 6th Avenue, laughing maniacally, at the top of his lungs. I went into a tea shop and asked the people how long he’d been doing that, and they rolled their eyes – at least 20 minutes, maybe more. As I ordered my maté with soy milk and waited for it to correctly steep, this guy’s creepy wails of laughter were wafting into the store, and I had to fight the urge to run.
2. Up further on 6th Avenue (only a few blocks away) two yuppie guys came tearing up the street. Although it was crowded and they were plowing into people left and right, they seemed to not notice at all, and to be intent on running full speed. Eventually one turned down a corner and the other, trying to catch up, tripped. He landed face first with a huge SPLAT on the concrete; one of his shoes abandoned maybe 10 feet behind him. It was shocking to watch another human being hit the ground so hard, and several passersby asked if he was ok (honestly, I think it was impossible that the guy hadn’t broken something or at least gotten severely bruised). Slightly stunned but looking otherwise oblivious, the guy got up and started to run again at full speed.
These two incidents happened within maybe 10 minutes of each other.
It was weird and upsetting. I don’t like to be around people who are having strange reactions to drugs, or mental illness, or just testosterone – it terrifies me. I felt, just as an observer, really rattled by the whole thing, and rushed to get on my train home. In my mind, I was half-jokingly thinking, “You know, if NYC is going to be both expensive AND filled with weirdos, it’s not worth it… it was one thing when it was cheap and full of weirdos…” And then I had the rush of hatred fill me, as I started to think about how differently things would have played out had a person of color or homeless person or anyone not white, male, and in a suit, been doing exactly the same thing…
And, I don’t know. I don’t think you’re really supposed to think that anymore.
You know what I never posted?
My video from Miami. Geez. Way to go, Amy.
Here it is. My one comment is that it runs a bit faster when it’s just looping on an ipad, so if the timing seems slow viewing it online, it is. But so it goes.
(1) What is the difference between art and craft?
(Ok, I think about that one a lot. But I’ve been thinking about it more, if that’s possible, now that I have a spinning wheel and have been devoting a lot of time to learning how to make yarn. Making yarn is a fascinating task – I don’t think anything has ever quite captured my interest in the same way, with the exception of painting and drawing. Over the last few months, I must have spun miles and miles of yarn. I haven’t run out of ideas or enthusiasm yet.
Here’s the difference between spinning yarn and making art*: yarn has to be well-made; there is no such thing as de-skilling in craft. If it falls apart, it ceases to be yarn, and becomes instead just a big mess. Art can be falling apart. It can be swept up and thrown away and only the myth of it remain. But that doesn’t cut it with craft.
*And see, you think the difference is going to be that yarn has no content. But as I play with it more, I see that’s completely not true: Can you spin yarn that tells a story (through color, texture, etc)? Sure. What about creating a yarn that refers to art history? No problem.
Increasingly, I think the difference is entropy. There isn’t any in craft; there is entropy constantly in art. The history of art is the history of the art object being torn apart, or falling apart under its own (historical, intellectual, aesthetic) weight. That doesn’t happen in craft.)
(2) What is the role of the artist in society?
(Yes, I know – this is a grad school type question, the kind of which you usually throw out the door when you have to suck it up and just go out and make a living and deal with all the kinds of practicalities of being a grownup. But it never stops troubling me. Part of me feels like when people ask me what I do for a living, instead of saying “I’m an artist,” I should say, “I design things for rich people’s houses.”
That isn’t what I signed on for. I knew there was collusion/support between the elite and artists, but what’s frustrating is that seems like the only support that’s out there anymore. When it was one avenue of several, that was pretty ok; but for now, it feels like the only thing that’s out there for artists.)
(3) Is it possible to (do business)/(participate in capitalism)/(earn a living)/(create a market)/(build an audience) in such a way that is not soul-sucking, awful to the world, or disingenuous to the work you make?
(Ok, this comes from several business deals I’m working on right now, that exist outside of the structure of the mainstream art world. Is doing good business the best art? Or is it an excuse for me to play wannabe exec? Or will none of this even work so why bother even wondering?)
Argh. As usual, I don’t know.