Monday, December 2, 2013

Enrico Natali, Detroit 1968

Why do I find the images in Enrico Natali: Detroit 1968 to be uncanny?

The recent bankruptcy filing by the city of Detroit may act as a marker for legal and financial definitions of decline or catastrophe, but does it tell us much beyond civic bureaucracy? In media, Detroit in recent years, has become as exotic a place as Berlin, where one can still find traces of World War II, or Havana, closed off from the splendors of the West by dint of its revolution, whereas Detroit is the ruin of industry, of capitalism, on a grand scale. Camilo Jose Vergara's "immodest proposal" to cordon off downtown Detroit as an Acropolis of Industry dates from 1995. "Crisis" was how industry ran, no stranger to generations of the city; but if one were to sense a sea-change, it would be that in the past, a crisis would necessitate change of some sort which would be considered to lead to some sort of resolution, however provisional that may be; whereas now, where do we go? The solutions of the past were in relation to industry, but now there is no industry, just people and a place. The cynical machinations of the Kwame Kilpatrick administration, illuminated through Kilpatrick's various trials and serial imprisonments could be seen as the the fulfillment of entrepreneurial stewardship: he was just doing what you would do in that situation, getting what he could get. Or, as Kilpatrick wrote in one of the numerous texts to his mistress, as reported in the Detroit Free Press: you're only busted if they see you. A state-appointed supervisor, working above the city's government, illustrates another endgame of bureaucracy: make more bureaucracy. Along with the continual crisis of the the economy, the stopgap measures of a failing government lay out a weird cycle of damnation and futility pulling the puppet strings of the the terrible world of Capitalism, in which God's grace is measured in financial terms.

The Fordist principles that transformed Detroit from a small-ish manufacturing center in the late nineteenth century to a hub of automobile manufacturing and the "arsenal of democracy" during World War II were structured around the idea of production, of a potential unlimited production. It also meant folding the workers into production and consumption, making the workers synonymous with their work. Looking at the policies of the Sociological Department and English School at Ford we can see a thorough process of institutionalized assimilation at work. From the Ford archives:

The culmination of the Ford English School program was the graduation ceremony where students were transformed into Americans. During the ceremony speakers gave rousing patriotic speeches and factory bands played marches and patriotic songs. The highlight of the event would be the transformation of immigrants into Americans. Students dressed in costumes reminiscent of their native homes stepped into a massive stage-prop cauldron that had a banner across the front identifying it as the AMERICAN MELTING POT. Seconds later, after a quick change out of sight of the audience, students emerged wearing “American” suits and hats, waving American flags, having undergone a spiritual smelting process where the impurities of foreignness were burnt off as slag to be tossed away leaving a new 100% American.

Assimilation also means erasure and forgetting. A place like Detroit, expanding outwards into the flat fields outside the city, allowed people to emerge in a New World made of industry, shopping, and a family home. The centrifugal patterns of development would emerge later as a more disastrous pattern than anticipated when the core of the city,from  which all radiated out long avenues, became hollowed out by abandonment.

The Sociological Department appears in Jeffrey Eugenides' novel Middlesex, which includes a very precise geography of Detroit and an account of the processes of assimilation for immigrants. The Sociological Department  functioned as a panopticon for Ford: keeping track of the workers, making sure they were of proper character for the work place.

Which take me back to Enrico Natali's photographs, which are from the late 1960s. The decline of the Big 3 was already in place, or at least the decline was local: the Big 3 were moving factories to North Ireland and South Africa. The 1967 riot had been very destructive and polarizing between city and suburbs, but Detroit was still a very wealthy city.

We can see a little of that in Natali's photographs. It's a shock for me now to see the downtown streets crowded, that there had been a sense of it as a place in which to circulate, to shop or see a movie (sorry to miss Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! on the big screen).. The predominantly white population downtown are in movement: downtown reads as an excursion. & so many f the people in groups look like they are in uniforms, too, of some sort. Natali's street images could be read in contrast with Garry Winogrand's - Winogrand's images are composed in a more gothic, anamorphic way - we become aware of the camera and its use more than any subject. Whereas Natali works with methods related to the documentary projects of the 1930s: there's less intervention in framing, the images have a contemplative aspect to contrast with what were busy, circulating streets. In the prints I've seen there's an immaculate technique in terms of exposure & printing, and an operative kindness towards the people in the photos. Another aspect of the images that could be explored is how gendered the groups are - men with men, women with women, along with any racial divides that could be seen, too.

The feyness of the two boys in front of the movie theater makes me wonder: in contemporary terms the image reads as queer, but historically, would queerness have existed like that? Or are these proto-metrosexuals? The boys exude a sense of privilege, which may be the privilege of just being very young with the blitheness that they occupy the place. An industrial city like Detroit was not a tolerant space for queerness in public.

Earlier this year on line I found another Detroit photographer, Bruce Harkness, with work from the 1970s. Harkness worked in the Cass Corridor, the slum just north of downtown, with some images from a transvestite bar The Gold Dollar Show Bar and another local place, Verdi's Bar, which shared clientele. Harkness's photos remind me of Anders Petersen's Cafe Lehmitz somewhat, with a Weegee flash and that old industrial Midwestern sense of grimness-in-daily-life. But my point in this is: the sense of exclusion and concealment, the afterhours as refuge at the Gold Dollar or Verdi's were the reality of local queerness in Detroit. Harkness was totally off the map for me prior to finding his website.

There are other Detroit photographers, such as Bill Rauhauser and Brad Iverson who have significant bodies of work done in Detroit. Nancy Barr has curated exhibitions of photographs of Detroit at the Institute of Arts: Detroit Revealed, Motor City Muse, and Robert Frank - Detroit Experiences 1955 which are significant expansions of its visual history. Another contemporary photographer who works with images of Detroit past & present is Dave Jordano. The artists in Detroit are perhaps its best reporters - they still work outside a globalized post-Fordist economy, there's still a locatable sense of agency to practice, they're outside the absurdist theater of local politics or the viciousness of industry. Who to consult in this invidious world?

The Natali image of the two boys exudes a pungent sense of outrageous arrogant privilege in a stroll down Woodward Ave: next stop, Ibiza!  I see so many of the contradictions of daily life in Detroit. The boys return me to Middlesex, to the "Obscure Object" for Cal/Callie when in high school in Grosse Pointe, to the adolescent abyss of seeing someone attractive, outside of oneself, and cruelly self-contained and unattainable. In the emotional aftermath of that realization one could echo on a personal level, the city of Detroit motto, penned by Father Gabriel Richard, the founder of the University of Michigan, in 1805 following a fire which destroyed the entire settlement: Speramus Meliora; Resurget Cieribus - We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Joseph Maida, New Natives (Hawai'i)

Years ago at the Swann auction house I looked through an album that came from a Duke's castle in England. The album came with an embossed view of the Duke's estate, representing his title and his property, which was impressive enough for its exoticism in mercantile New York, although the contents of the album were what drew me to it: dozens of images of Sicilian youths by Wilhelm von Gloeden. Gorgeous peasant youths in classical and not-so-classical tableaux, semi-nude or nude, erotic but just enough within a refined aristocratic European sensibility to hold onto the edges of acceptable culture. In contemporary terms this would be for a "niche market" enterprise for men who wanted to look at other men, and the archaic tableaux would be a kind of drag contrivance of art: shabby, maudlin, a masquerade which shows its obvious seams. This was for "them" meaning "us" - meaning it's just for us and as such it is still marginalized in a broader ostensibly asexual i.e. heteronormative social sphere, which isn't necessarily all bad.

Looking through the Duke's album, the last pages do a curious shift, from the antique pastiche of von Gloeden, the last pages were a collection of black-&-white ethnographic images of men in Africa, which could pass for early National Geographic images, artless, images used as identification, for classification. 

The marvelousness of the Duke's album is that it links two intense bogeys that can be found in photography: a move towards an excess of fantasy and sexuality, along with a colonizing need to classify and in effect control the scope of the subject. The camera is not an innocent technology: it limits the scope of our perceptions with neat bifurcations between fantasy and reality, enforcing techno-cratic limits to each, along with its flattening of the subject into identifiable terms. This is this. That is that. 

The queasiness of photography as a technological phantasm-cum-order comes to mind in looking at Joseph Maida's photographs titled New Natives (Hawai'i). The texts from Maida's website and from his gallery show lay out a neutral scenario: The men in the images are models in Hawai'i, contacted through social media, who pose for the the photographer in their own chosen way, so there is a collaboration rather than an imposed tableau or role for the model. 

While I would not dispute this scenario at all, I think that part of the uncanny richness of Maida's images is its connection to the weirdness of photography, which can be embodied in fetishism (the fetishism of physicality, of race), and the difference between photographer and subject. The most direct correlation between ethnography and these images is in the captions which list the many mixed races of the models ("Hawaiian, Chinese, Spanish, Portuguese, Filipino"etc.). Maida brings up a potential sea-change for hegemonic White America in the election of Barack Obama as indicative of a blurring of ethnic identity, and without saying so directly, the hybridity of new generations born after the passing of legalities regarding miscegenation. In Maida's photographs there is a tension between the idea of a portrait (what the ruling classes use to represent themselves, as a fully embodied presence) and classification (what happens to everyone else). 

The neat sociological explanations of the project, if anything, underscore the semiotic excess of the images. In Flesh of My Flesh Kaja Silverman makes reference to an imaginary camera that exists for us now, for which we comport ourselves, as if for the world. Or in contradistinction to the Decadent paradox of a mask that tells the truth, we now have masks which present masks, and there is nothing else. These are very lush images, with very interesting looking boys in them, yet if I had to locate what it is that moves me in them, it is not as an apotheosis of my sexual urges but a weird twilight instead. The landscape seems like the end of a world somehow, a liminal place. Hawaii looks kind of cold even when it reads simultaneously as a great place with a laundry list of great things to be found. Arcadia looks like an artificial backdrop. The cool tone to the images pushes them out of any easy reading towards questions - the enterprise of photography, the looking at others, sex, self-presentation, self-perception - which gives them a curious existential presence. 

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Earth Art, Cornell University 1969

At this point in time there is no thorough history of the 1969 Earth Art show at the Andrew Dickson White Museum at Cornell University, although its significance has been noted. The Earth Art show has a prominent place in the MOCA catalog Ends of the Earth: Art of the Land to 1974, which includes an interview with the curator of the show, the late Willoughby Sharp. Sharp commented that the lack of a catalog for the show (Cornell published a small catalog for the show a year after the show) led to the founding of the journal he edited with Liza Bear, Avalanche, which had its own brief life in 13 issues released between 1970 - 1976.

The pages of Avalanche and the later catalog of the Earth Art show are both written with an casual unpretentiousness which at this point in time seems downright freaky in relation to contemporary art writing. At Cornell I was able to locate bound volumes of Avalanche which had been taken off the library shelves & put in storage: it is disarmingly simple to read. Beyond the generous use of nicknames - "Jim" & "Bob" & such - one can also trace a resemblance to a provisional community of like-minded people speaking to one another. That may be only a looser prototype of "the art world" but a lot more contingency and a lot less networking is involved.

The Earth Art show ran February 1 - March 16, 1969. It was the first institutional venue for earth/land art in the US, featuring projects made for the exhibit by Robert Smithson, Dennis Oppenheim, Richard Long, Hans Haacke, Jan Dibbets, Neil Jenney, Gunther Uecker, Robert Morris, Walter De Maria, and Michael Heizer. One of the reasons given for the catalog's lateness was that up until the show opened it was not fully determined who would be in it. A blizzard kept Robert Morris in New York City, unable to travel to Ithaca, for example - he gave directions for his piece, which involved piles of dirt, coal, and asbestos on the gallery floor, by telephone. There were administrative issues with pieces by Michael Heizer and Walter De Maria. Their work was made, but then not shown. De Maria filled a room with dirt, akin to the "earth room" made in Soho, on the surface of which he spelled out "GOOD FUCK," which led the museum director at the time, Thomas Leavitt, to close the room to the public. Heizer dug a large pit in the garden of the A.D. White house, which, seconding-guessing an incomplete archive, ticked people off as well.

Excluded from the later catalog, their works can be seen in ephemera generated by the show: a 2 page story of "What the Kids Think About the New Art" for the Ithaca Journal, and a short 16mm black-&-white film made by Marilyn Rivchin, who later taught filmmaking at Cornell. Marilyn's film includes footage of Dennis Oppenheim's Beebe Lake cut, where he was assisted by local recent graduate Gordon Matta-Clark, a bulldozer digging the Heizer pit behind the A.D. White house, Jan Dibbets, Hans Haacke. The resolution of the film is poor which makes viewing even more of a bit of time-travel and guessing-game (what am I seeing?). One project Marilyn Rivchin was unable to document was the mirror displacement begun in the Cayuga Salt Mine north of Ithaca by Robert Smithson, due to the company's policy of not allowing women in the mine.

There is a small file in the Johnson Museum of Art pertaining to the show, which contains an array of ephemera, from a crispy yellowed spread from the Ithaca Journal to press photographs. I found in it a set of photographs for a piece Smithson placed in the basement of the White house, which is reproduced in a later catalog of Smithson's sculptures that Cornell published after his death. Smithson did not take the photographs himself - he had others take them, & they document the path from the Cayuga Salt Mine to the A.D. White Museum, ending in a litter of photographs placed on a pile of dirt. Although it was not explained to me as such I believe they were overlooked "as" Smithson photos simply because they were ostensibly not shot by him, although nowadays I don't think that would negate his authorship. Ed Ruscha's images of parking lots were commissioned by Ruscha from a professional - I would consider that a parallel case in hand. Also there is a packet of photos of the piece Richard Long installed in on the slope at the front of the house. There is no identifying stamp for those but they appear to have been by Long himself.

The file is a curious mess. In our times which involve an excess of archives (albeit who can keep track of everything?) this lack is somehow as bracing & invigorating as the cold winter winds must have been in 1969. In retrospect the maleness (and the weird reinforcement of gender stereotypes in the Ithaca Journal coverage in which all the conservative, befuddled onlookers are female) stands out a bit more. What could be considered foolhardy & belligerent in its time now seems in some ways impossible to duplicate in our cautious, coded world. Earth Art can also be seen as a kind of cracked mirror for the enormous property which comprises Cornell University. If Cornell has a fairly spartan campus in terms of comforts, it more than compensates for that by the enormity of the campus. The university was founded by 19th century entrepreneurs who owned large tracts of land. In what seems like a slip of the tongue, the university's arboretum and nature preserves were named Cornell Plantations - the word plantation ostensibly cleansed of its racist connotations by being in the historically Abolitionist Republican North, but not of its seigneurial duties. If there is a lesson in the campus itself it is the virtues and power of private property.

In the transcription of the panel discussion for the show, Robert Smithson, as usual, shines. Beginning with the Cayuga Salt Mine, Smithson engages literally with what Jacques Derrida termed "the entire 'Cornellian' landscape - the campus on the heights, the bridges, and if necessary the barriers above the abyss - and the abyss itself." (Derrida, "The Principle of Reason: The University in the Eyes of Its Pupils", Diacritics, Vol. 13, No. 3, Autumn 1983, 17). Smithson's enviable lofty humorous disdain for historical gravity, comes through - echoing The Monuments of Passaic or the essay "Frederick Law Olmsted and the Dialectical Landscape." (Olmsted was also an early consultant in the planning of the Cornell campus whose plans were not used).

In retrospect, the masculinist connotations of the Earth Art artists, working with their tools in nature, seems less of an antipode than it must have seemed at the time. At its founding The Cornell University (as it was first known) was meant to offer practical education in the sciences, in agriculture, engineering - "useful" trades. As an institution which dutifully historicizes itself, the university offers a class in its own history titled "The First American University"to explain its once experimental curricula. There is a curious offhand note in Morris Bishop's History of Cornell (1962) about the original architecture of the school, which is now the Arts Quad: Bishop makes a distinction between the rough rectangular buildings constructed from local New York State Bluestone as a "masculine" style favored by Ezra Cornell, and the flights of "Upstate Gothic" fancy of Franklin (now Tjaden) Hall, & the Andrew Dickson White house as the "feminine" style introduced by university president A.D. White. That may not be a serious distinction per se, but it's flippancy in the book underlies a local suspicion in regards to the arts and humanities at Cornell to this day vis-a-vis the uncontested importance given to the sciences, business & entrepreneurialism. That weird Earth Art isn't entirely incompatible with the prosaic world of builders and developers, although somehow, it is, too.

The Earth Art show to this day is the major art event of Cornell University. My friend J. who grew up in Ithaca in the 1970s stresses how open the campus & the town were, that what exists now is monstrous and overbuilt in comparison. The leftover ephemera of the Earth Art show is a small hint of what is missing from our present time.

. . . Actually if you think about tracks of any kind you'll discover that you could use tracks as a medium. You could even use animals as a medium. You could take a beetle, for example, and clear some sand and let it walk over that and then you would be surprised to see the furrow it leaves. Or let's say a side-winder snake or a bird or something like that. And also these tracks relate, I think, to the way the artist thinks - somewhat like a dog scanning over a site. You are sort of immersed in the site that you're scanning. You are picking up the raw material and there all these different possibilities  . . . This is a sign language in a sense. It's a situational thing: you can record these traces as signs. It's very specific and it tends to get into a kind of random order. These tracks around the puddle that I photographed, in a sense explain my whole way of . . . going through trails and developing a network and then building this network into a set of limits. My non-sites in a sense are like large, abstract maps made into three dimensions. You are thrown back onto the site . . . - RS