“Tonto’s Revenge Dance Party” by Tom Huff

detail view of Tom Huff’s “Tonto’s Revenge Dance Party,” 2011.

“Tonto’s Revenge Dance Party” by Tom Huff

A number of exhibitions at Santa Fe’s Museum of Contemporary Native Arts are about to close on July 31st. I’ve seen images of Tom Huff’s piece elsewhere on the web, but took a short video showing the work from all sides while the turntable is in motion. Perhaps this documentation would be useful to a scholar or student interested in the work who did not get to visit the museum in person.

Tom Huff, who is Seneca, created this artwork for the exhibition  Under the Influence – Iroquois Artists at IAIA (1962-2012). IAIA is the acronym for a college in Santa Fe:  Institute for American Indian Art. IAIA began as a two-year college in 1962 and celebrates its 50th Anniversary this year. It has changed a great deal over the years, including growing from a two-year to a four-year college and expanding its campus, acquiring and renovating an historic building into a museum, and building new, state-of-the-art collection storage facilities for its museum, MoCNA.[1]

The exhibition Under the Influence is part of museum programming this year that brings to light some of IAIAs history through the use of artworks in their collection and artworks solicited from former students. Once the current exhibitions come down, 50/50: Fifty Artists, Fifty Years goes up just in time for the 2012 Indian Art Market, on August 17th.

There is a strong sense of very positive regionalism associated with IAIA and its museum. Santa Fe’s art market in general has a strong sense of regionalism. Strong artistic and artisanal practices from the state’s pueblos help maintain that sense of regional identity. The exhibition Under the Influence – Iroquois Artists at IAIA (1962-2012) foregrounds the college’s role as an educational center responsible for bringing together Native American (and First Nations) students from a wide variety tribes and cultural traditions into a shared location. Tom Huff’s turn-table based artwork, titled Tonto’s Revenge Dance Party, has stuck in my mind since seeing the exhibition, not just because it has a central location at the entrance to the exhibition space, but because it has a strong narrative component in addition its moving parts.  The fictional sidekick “Tonto” is currently at the center of debates around the representation of Native peoples through television and movies.[2] As in television and film, the Lone Ranger is the center of the universe. While other parts are in motion and have context, Huff’s Lone Ranger stands immobile – no “ranging” involved. Tonto is represented by a plastic toy Indian  riding a skateboard around the perimeter of the record player’s turntable. The title makes Tonto the center of the action, claiming both revenge (very serious) and dance party. The dance party may actually be equally serious. Reading the text written over the case for the record player reveals a seriousness to the party – putting the “party” into context with the history of IAIA and the history of Native American art. Huff learned stone carving while at IAIA and continues to work with stone as well as mixed media. The text reads in part,

“IT WAS THE YEAR I GOT STONED WITH ALLAN HOUSER AND DOUG HYDE. I SPENT THE SPRING SEMESTER WATCHING MR HOUSER AND DOUG CREATE SCULPTURE. I ADMIRED THE ZEN NATURE OF HOUSER AND THE ROCK AND ROLL WORK ETHIC OF HYDE. ALLAN SUGGESTED THAT I SHOULD CARVE STONE. DOUG ALWAYS HAD COLD BEER. I’M STILL CARVING BECAUSE OF THEM, AND SOMETHINGS GOTTA WASH THE STONEDUST DOWN…  I WAS DISCOVERING THE DIVERSITY OF INDIAN NATIONS AND INDIVIDUALS AND HOW WE ARE DISTINCT AND SIMILAR. LIVING IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY AND CREATING ART THAT CONNECTS US TO OUR CREATION. ENLIGHTENMENT. LIGHT DARK REZ CITY NORTH SOUTH EAST WEST – WE ALL GOT ALONG EXCEPT WHEN THE ZUNIS WERE LOOKING FOR THE NAVAJOS ON FRIDAY NIGHTS AT THE CANTEEN TO GIVE THEM COWBOY BOOTS.”

Another section includes a photograph of Allan Houser with the caption “THE GODFATHER OF CONTEMPORARY NATIVE AMERICAN SCULPTURE.”

Tom Huff attended IAIA in 1979 and then earned a BFA from Rhode Island School of Design in 1984. He’s been involved with Atlatl, exhibited his stonework internationally, and curated the exhibition Haudenosaunee Elements at the Everson Museum in Syracuse, NY. Huff was Artist-In-Residence at SUNY Empire State College in 2011.

Tom Huff was only at IAIA for one year, but that year clearly had a lasting impact. If you have the chance to visit MoCNA before Under the Influence closes on July 31st, I highly recommend it. If you can visit the museum again during SWAIA’s 91st Indian Art Market in August, even better! Tom Huff’s Tonto’s Revenge Dance Party is definitely a work worth hunting for, as are many others in the exhibition.


[1] A major resource for the history of IAIA is Joy L. Gritton’s book, The Institute of American Indian Arts: Modernism and U.S. Indian Policy, published in 2000 by University of New Mexico Press. The notes and bibliography are extensive and useful, although the book only covers the inception of the school through 1968. An accounting of the college’s history and analysis of its role in art and education deserves greater attention and scholarship than it has yet received.

[2] The blog Native Appropriations has a number of postings on the subject of Tonto. http://nativeappropriations.blogspot.com/2012/03/why-tonto-matters.html from March 2012 contains links to a number of other articles/blogs related to the subject.

Performance Documentation: Vestige Vagabond

Maria Hupfield and Charlene Vickers, Vestige Vagabond, performance, August 2011

This blog post presents performance documentation from a performance I attended on August 20th, 2011. Vestige Vagabond was a public art performance by artists Maria Hupfield and Charlene Vickers. It was presented in conjunction with the exhibition Counting Coup at the Museum of Contemporary Native Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The piece has been developing over the past couple years, but the locale for it’s most recent presentation is particularly significant.[1] The version I witnessed took place in the midst of SWAIA’s[2] annual Santa Fe Indian Market. The event has been held every year since 1922. The streets around the central plaza become an open-air market that attracts indigenous North American artists to sell their work. Indian Market brings an estimated 80,000 people to Santa Fe.[3]

Santa Fe Indian Market, August 2011.

Artists Maria Hupfield and Charlene Vickers described their intentions this way: In this performance, the value of Native American culture, ingenuity, function, aesthetics, and sharing will be emphasized through a series of new and unexpected objects and actions in a public interactive open market setting – under the museum’s portal.[4]

I saw the performance on the first day of Market, August 20th. It was repeated the following day. All the photographs accompanying this article are from this first performance. The heart of Vestige Vagabond is the street-market dynamics played out in a cultural market, where artists/artisans lay their handmade objects on a table for the perusal of buyers. Hupfield and Vickers began their performance with arrival and set-up, like the hundreds of artists at market, by pulling roller bags behind them, unpacking, and laying out objects on a market table. Ordinarily, there is a look-but-don’t-touch-without-permission standard for behavior at market. Many of the art objects for sale come with prices in the tens-of-thousands. The performance artists overcame audience reticence by demonstrating the use of some of the objects, such as the braids/Walkman/rock apparatus, and then passing the object to a bystander. They never gave verbal instructions and only spoke to each other. As the performance progressed, people in the audience became braver about exploring and using the objects being passed around. At the end of the performance, the artists wiped their sweaty faces with the napkins printed to resembled Canadian bills.[5]Then they gathered up and arranged all the objects in an attractive sales display, positioning themselves behind the table, much like the artists selling their work at the market.

I did not get to see the second performance, on Sunday, August 21st. Hupfield sent me the following statement about changes she and Vickers made to the second performance:

For the second day we wanted to find ways to help the santa fe crowd break through their role as passive observers and get them really involved. To help with this we started the performance by hand-printing two signs that read “not for sale” and “demos here now.” We also integrated a few more staged style actions together and responded directly to individuals in the crowd. For example we singled out Amber Dawn (Bear Robe) to wear our fringe gloves, distributed and boxed with the beads and did an impromptu honor dance with the tea cup for a mother who was carrying her child on her back. It was good times!

Welcome sign describing the performance outside of Museum of Contemporary Native Art.

The artists arrive.

Set-up begins.

Set-up continues.

Hupfield looks into a box with an eyepiece before handing it to someone in the audience.

The audience begins examining the objects.

Hupfield with rock, walkman.

The walkman, with braids and a rock attached, plays language lessons in indigenous languages.

Charlene Vickers presents a second walkman. This one played pow wow music.

A birch bark basket with wooden nickels and a magnifying lens.

Paper napkins printed to look like Canadian bills were kept in the back pockets of both artists.

The display table. The large squishy vinyl cylinder on the right corner of the table is huge pony bead.

The display table at the end of the performance.

Printed napkins used in the performance.

Artist Biographies:

Maria Hupfield works across disciplines to engage in intersecting points of dialogue between Western and non-Western visual representations and philosophies. Her practice evidences the body as a site of resistance, agency and social engagement. She is a member of Wasauksing First Nation and is of Anishnaabe/Ojibway Heritage. A graduate of the MFA program at York University, Maria holds a BA Specialist in Art and Art History from the University of Toronto and Sheridan College. Hupfield lives and works in New York City.

Charlene Vickers is an Anishinaabe artist living and working in Vancouver. She graduated from Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design in 1994 and Simon Fraser University, Critical Studies in 1998. Born in Kenora, Ontario and raised in Toronto. Her art explores ancestry and living in urban spaces.[6]

Related Blog Entries: Native Performance Art and Performance Theory Rebecca Belmore: Vigil


[1] There is a brief video clip from a 2010 performance of Vestige Vagabond on You Tube at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=owl1Y3TDaIo
[2] SWAIA stands for Southwestern Association for Indian Art
[3] For more of the history of SWAIA and Indian Market, see http://swaia.org/About_SWAIA/History/index.html
[4] This description was posted to an Events page on Facebook prior to the performance. It also appeared on a signboard in front of the museum.
[5] The eligibility of Native artists from Canada is a recent change to Indian Market rules.
[6] Artist Biographies were provided by the artists.

EMERGENCE by John Feodorov at Santa Fe’s MoCNA

John Feodorov, Domi - Nature, 2010

See this artwork before the exhibition closes on March 31st, 2011! Museum of Contemporary Native Art, Santa Fe.

A lot has happened in the world since my last posting on Not Artomatic. There was the usual problem of working too much. But a lot has gone on in the world, too – Egypt, Syria, Libya, Japan. It has felt rather like the fall of the Berlin Wall, but with a new event every two weeks or so.  I say that from the perspective of someone who was a high school senior in 1990. Something changed in the world then – I saw it on television[1], and there was intense emotion on a massive scale, but no real understanding of what might come afterward. My high-schooler imagination was excited, but I lacked the knowledge, the perspective to really understand much of it. Twenty-one years later, I find that hasn’t changed much! I swirled around news sources that didn’t even exist back then, looking for information, understanding, answers. I also swirled around my memories of conversations with artist John Feodorov about his new series of work, titled Emergence[2]. I wanted to write about this series, but kept finding something in the way. First, I told myself it was because I need to be more academic and I need good research on Navajo cosmology and the Emergence concept. I did research, and had trouble coming up with an explanatory, non-Eurocentric (yet possessing academic authority) source. Unlike many religions, Navajo religion does not proselytize.

But the artist’s conversations with me made it clear that this structuring worldview was very important. On a gut-level, I’ve been tying that in with the cascade of events in the Middle East, recent devastating earthquakes, the tsunami, and nuclear disaster in Japan. The Christian paradigm of apocalypse does not seem to help us deal with widespread change, whether that change is natural disaster, environmental disaster, or political collapse. For human cultures to survive, we have to have cultural foundations that help us recover from disaster and create some kind of order from entirely new conditions. I think that’s what appealed to me about looking at Feodorov’s Emergence series.

John Feodorov, Emergence #3, 70" x 70", Acrylic on unstretched canvas, 2010

Any of you who are reading this who are writers (and I’m sure you all are writers, even if you don’t think of yourself that way) are familiar with something we end up calling “writer’s block.” I don’t think it really exists. When my mind ducks away from writing something, there is usually a reason. Often, it is because I still need to think/feel my way through an issue and writing sometimes isn’t the best way to do so. Sometimes, making art helps me figure things out and then I can get back to the writing. Other times, words from another person (in conversation, e-mail, a song, Facebook) help me make a connection I was missing. And then here is something that floors me every time it happens. I occasionally get stalled because I ALREADY WROTE THE WORDS I NEEDED. The text in the section below is from an early blog post I wrote called “What is so important about Native American Art.”

“Indigenous populations have experienced multiple migrations, population losses, and recoveries. The conceptual unification of oral tradition and the production of material culture contextualize this history and provide us with models for survivance that are useful not only to our indigenous communities, but perhaps to the population at large during this current period of change marked by serious […] upheaval.

We still have the stories and songs of when we arrived in our Tlingit homeland, over 10,000 years ago, not only the stories of how we got to where we are now, but the stories of the people who had to sacrifice along the way. Part of our stories have to do with the sacrifices by clan mothers in order to get where we needed to be.[3]

– Larry McNeil

Such stories help us contextualize present issues. Our artforms give us the tools we need to cope with change, to be resilient, to make conscious choices that consider the long term. Thinking seven generations ahead requires imagination! Art is more than a reaction to events in our lives; artistic practice also leads to real-world changes.

In very practical ways, indigenous artistic practices lead to involvement in environmental issues.” All of this has been leading into actually addressing Feodorov’s Emergence, series in reference to the Navajo cultural framework that describes their origins as a people who have passed through a series of worlds or existences, with each new world arising from the out-of-balance destruction of the previous one.  The organizing principles, spiritual forces, and sacred terrain are different with each new emergence.

John Feodorov, Emergence #4, acrylic on canvas, 72" x 72", 2010

I always think it is important to pay attention to artists’ own statements about their work, as you will know from reading my writing in general. The following is John Feodorov’s exhibition statement, which was prominently placed at the entrance to his exhibition:

“Emergence

In 1979, the largest accidental release of radioactive material in USA history happened in Church Rock in the state of New Mexico.  A tailing dam burst, sending eleven hundred tons of radioactive mill wastes and ninety million gallons of contaminated liquid pouring toward Arizona into the Rio Puerco River.  Today, the Navajo communities still cannot use the water.” *

According to a Sept. 23, 2010 article in Indian Country Today, “The New Mexico Environmental Law Center filed an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court this month to reverse the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals decision to allow in situ leach (ISL) uranium mining in the Four Corners region of New Mexico. […] The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has granted Hydro Resources, Inc. a license to mine uranium in Crownpoint and Church Rock.”

According to the Associated Press, 11/17/2010: “Supreme Court justices Monday decided not to review a decision that allows Hydro Resources Inc. to leach-mine uranium at the aquifer used by 15,000 Navajos in the Church Rock and Crownpoint areas.”

The works in this room explore the transformation of environmental tragedy into possible new mythologies. This is the basis of the Navajo creation myth–one world’s destruction is another’s creation. With the acknowledgement by most scientists that our global climate is heating up, and with the recent oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, many people admit a sense of helplessness and even resignation. To be honest, I sometimes find myself among them and this ambivalence is reflected within this recent body of work. While watching the continuous live video feed of the BP oil well freely spewing into the Gulf, I couldn’t help but think of the Navajo creation story where animals, insects and gods climbed a magic reed, like the fabled Jack and his beanstalk, from the Third World into our current Fourth World to escape annihilation. I kept thinking of that leaking pipe as another “reed” in which spirits embedded deep within the Earth were now emerging into our world, like medieval demons charging through the mouth of Hell, or red ants marching towards unsuspecting picnickers.

With the Oil well now capped, it is easy for us to fall back into our daily routines. I hope this doesn’t happen. As demonstrated above, environmental pollution and exploitation continues to this day. Since we don’t seem to learn from the past, it might be a good idea for us to start looking around for another magic reed. * (Excerpted from “Pollution of the Navajo Nation Lands” a paper by Kimberly Smith of the Black Mesa Water Coalition, presented August 2007 at the United Nations International Expert Group Meeting On Indigenous Peoples And Protection Of The Environment, which took place in Khabarovsk, Russian Federation. This meeting was hosted by the Government of Khabarovsk, the Association of Indigenous Peoples of the Russian North, Siberia and the Far East (RAIPON) in the Russian Federation.)”[4]

Feodorov’s words (above) take on even more relevance in relationship to the current revisiting of nuclear policy going on worldwide as a result of the containment problems at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant. What about the work itself?

Rani Molla wrote a review of the exhibition for the Santa Fe Reporter, which is worth reading. Molla closes with this statement:

“The fifth world—entered through a sooty smokestack and in which we teddy bears are still defined by the items we buy—would already be dismal. Perhaps the point is that there is no fifth world—just this one, and it’s a scary place.”[5]

I was terribly disappointed with that statement. I didn’t think it was all that dismal. I found humor, irony, sarcasm, in many of the pieces, yes. There also seemed to be a cautionary aspect, too. If we don’t shift some core values, we’ll end up placing our power-generating capacity (and the corporations involved) into a position of deity-like power over us. I’m probably a bit too used to Feodorov’s work to look at it with fresh eyes. He’s been using the Teddy Bear as a symbolic element to his work since the beginning of his career as an artist.[6] The open-mouthed profile view of a human head is also repeated element in his 2D work. Sometimes the open mouth represents a scream, desperation, pain. Other times, it represents speech, breath, a connection to the sacred.

John Feodorov, Oracle, 2010

Maybe Molla and other reviewers are right – Emergence is about dystopia instead of  future potential. I keep asking myself how the work would have to be different in order to present a new mythology to help us feel our way into a Fifth World. What is the middle ground between naïve hopefulness and dystopic vision? Can the video feed, the antenna, the open-mouthed communication, the apotheosis of the stuffed bear, the grinding of candy corn, combine to show us the world we already live in?  Is Emergence really about the Fourth World? And can we really leave that world behind us? Can we alter those patterns in the next order of things? Does Feodorov need to show us a Fifth World that is better than the current state? I’m not sure I could set my own skepticism aside for that.

If you have the chance to go see this work – say you’re in Santa Fe at some point during the next two days – take a look at Emergence. See if you can find hope, despair, and a questioning of the  “natural order.” I think I did.

John Feodorov, Ambiguity, aprox. 3' x 4', 2010


[1] And by television, I mean I saw it on all three networks, with rabbit ear antennas, when we were amazed that the new tv had a digital display  of 1-99. All the channels were fuzz once we tuned it beyond channel 13. My family did not get cable television until after I left home.

[2] The exhibition is at IAIA’s Museum of Contemporary Native Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It closes 3/31/2011. See it right away if you can!

[3] Larry McNeil, comments from the panel “Migration, Relocation and the Diaspora,” during the Creation – Migration – Change convening, February 2009.

[4] Wall text by John Feodorov, accompanying the Emergence exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Native Art, Santa Fe, NM January 14 – March 31, 2011.

[5] Rani Molla, “Emergency: Emergence Shows the Environment in Dire Straits,” The Santa Fe Reporter, January 19, 2011.  http://sfreporter.com/santafe/print-article-5863-print.html

[6] I wrote a short essay as part of MoCNA/IAIA’s Vision Project and specifically address the symbolism of the Teddy Bear in popular culture and how Feodorov uses it in his work. This essay is not yet published. I will update this footnote after the publication is available to the public.

John Feodorov, Untitled, 2010

Video Installation – Kateri Tekakwitha

One of the current exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Native Art in Santa Fe right now is a selection of recent works created in response to the history of Kateri Tekakwitha (1656-1680), an early Mohawk-Algonquian convert to Christianity. She is beatified by the Catholic church  and is in the process of canonization. I will be writing more about this exhibition and other work currently on exhibition at MoCNA – but time runs short! I took a brief segment of video of Marcella Ernest’s video installation work and wanted to make that available sooner, rather than later. The full video is four minutes long and is projected on a screen of pasted-together pages from a bible. I only have 30 seconds of it in the video above. It’s worth viewing in person. If you stand close to the screen, you can easily read the biblical passages. This work deals with Kateri’s physical disfigurement from smallpox scars and her exercise of physical mortification as part of her devotion to her new religion.

The works in Soul Sister examine the complexity of responses to Kateri Tekakwitha, from analytical to devotional.

To see the work in person, visit the Museum of Contemporary Native Art in Santa Fe.

http://www.iaia.edu/museum/

Collisions of Art and Science

Elizabeth Demaray, Corpor Esurit, photo by Dave Gehosky and courtesy of the artist

ART LEADS TO DATA?

Sometimes, the combination of art and science creates great art. Other times…well, not so much. We don’t usually think of art creating great science. The reason for that might be that the role of aesthetics (yeah, art) in presenting scientific data is well-masked. In order for scientific data to be believable, the aesthetic decisions about how to present the data are usually obscured. Some artists embark on projects that look a lot like a science experiment, such as a piece recently featured in the New York Times. Brooklyn artist Elizabeth Demaray constructed an ant habitat and presented the ants with a fast food diet. As the article states, she picked a type of ant very unlikely to be able to adapt to a fast food diet. I puzzled over the article… lodged in the “Science” section of the paper. Here is a link to the article, which includes a photograph of the work installed in the gallery. It seemed like bad science to me – and unfair to the ants. (Many of the ants died, unable to adapt to anything but the sesame seeds on the buns and the questionable interiors of chicken nuggets). Is it possible for this experiment to produce useful data? And does it work as a piece of art? Neither question is addressed in the NY Times article. In terms of science, the artist picked the wrong type of ant. But if she wanted to make the point that fast food is bad for humans, as demonstrated by visual evidence that not even ants can live off of it, then one could consider the work successful. I’ll go out on a limb though and say that my opinion is that it is mediocre art in terms of the content and bad science, as well as ethically questionable. Other species of ants could have survived quite well within Demaray’s Corpor Esurit, but the meaning of the piece would have been a bit muddled. The presentation of the work in the gallery looks very visually interesting, at least in these photographs generously provided by the gallery. Take my judgement here with a grain of salt… I’d have to go see the work in person to really have an informed opinion. Maybe some of you in New York can go look at it and report back… (see comments).

Elizabeth Demaray, Corpor Esurit, photo by Dave Gehosky and courtesy of the artist

DATA LEADS TO ART?

Demaray’s piece produces data that we are supposed to see with our own eyes. However, another method is to make work based on already existing data that has then been visually interpreted by the artist, unveiling relationships between art and science. According to my limited research, the term for this is “data visualization.” Aaron Koblin, for example, has created artworks based on visual representations of data, such as calls and internet data between New York City and the rest of the world. The emphasis is usually visual, although there are examples of works that translate data into audio forms. Aaron Koblin and Daniel Massey collaborated on an audio piece called Bicycle Built for 2000. It’s worth visiting the site and clicking on “more info” for a fuller explanation of that piece. The song “Daisy Bell” was the first piece of digitally synthesized vocal music (1962). You might also remember it as the song that HAL sings in the final moments of 2001: A Space Odyssey. They had over 2000 people record themselves singing a small snippet of the song and then assembled each snippet into overlapping audio data. If you visit the artists’ website, you will note that there is a visual component to the piece, not just the audio file all on its own. I looked online for something about a project done by tree canopy scientist Nalini Nadkarni, but couldn’t find anything about it. I saw her give a talk about her work and she presented a project that she worked on with a musician, in which they transformed tree canopy data into audio representations instead of the more usual graphs, pie charts, etc.

DATA leads to ART leads to SOUND/SPACE/AUDIENCE… leads to POSTCOMMODITY

All of this leads me to one of the new works by the artists’ collective Postcommodity, on exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Native Art (MOCNA) in Santa Fe. Postcommodity is a four-person team of artists: Raven Chacon (Navajo), Kade L. Twist (Cherokee), Steven Yazzie (Laguna/Navajo) and Nathan Young (Delaware/Kiowa/Pawnee). Their selection of works in the exhibition (curated by Ryan Rice) is titled “It wasn’t the Dream of the Golden Cities,” a reference to the 400 year anniversary of Santa Fe, and the rumored existence, according to Spanish, of seven cities of gold that lead Spanish conquistadors to the region repeatedly. Friar Marcos de Niza reported glimpsing one of the cities from afar. But when Coronado arrived, there was no gold – only adobe pueblos. After 140 years of violence and abuse by the Spanish and the church, the pueblos revolted against Spanish control and had years of autonomy between 1680-1696. All this is background knowledge that is necessary to understand Postcommodity’s work in this exhibition. The particular piece that I’m writing about in relationship to science, data, and sonification is the multimedia installation piece titled If History Moves at the Speed of its Weapons, then the Shape of the Arrowhead is Changing. This installation is in a room 29′ x 16′ and has 8 monitors mounted on narrow pillars roughly chest-high around the room, plus a hidden subwoofer. Everything in the room is painted with gold paint. Walking down the hall toward the room, you hear a cacophony of sound. Entering the room, you feel it as well. Different tones emit from speakers in different parts of the room. You turn around in the space, trying to separate out these digital tones, to catch where precisely they are coming from. My dad was with me on one of my trips into the room. He absolutely hated the piece and couldn’t leave fast enough. The auditory experience is pretty unpleasant…even more so for someone with tinnitus, like my dad. He wanted to check it out more, but couldn’t take it. But that’s pretty much the point. The piece is intended to represent an ambush – a situation any reasonable person would want to get away from. If it were just an unpleasant sound installation, I would say the piece was a gimmick and would put it in the category of yet another work art that seeks to punish the audience (not that we don’t sometimes need a good punishing). However, the science, theory, and collaboration behind the piece is what is intriguing and is what brings the piece beyond a simple surround-sound extravaganza.

Cymatics example - a pattern created when sound passes through a plate layered with sound.

There is an interesting field called cymatics that works on visualizing sound by vibrating sand or water. Here is a link to a video of Evan Grant explaining cymatics. It’s a way of making sound visible. I searched for a term for the opposite transformation… the transformation of the physical into sound, but couldn’t find one. What Postcommodity is doing is basically reverse-cymatics. Kade Twist says that the correct term would be sonification. Postcommodity takes data on the hypothetical trajectory, velocity, and impact energy of four pueblo weapons at the time of the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 and turns that data into sound. The wall text (and gallery guide) describe the piece this way:

“The sound and multimedia installation If History Moves at the Speed of its Weapons, The the Shape of Arrow is Changing (2010) is a sonic ambush utilizing four Pueblo Revolt era weapons (bow and arrow, atlatl and dart, sling and rock, and war club). We have performed a ballistic analysis for each weapon that includes all potential impact points within the gallery, providing a comprehensive mathematical analysis of multiple ambush scenarios. From this data algorithms were derived to inform sound compositions specific to each weapon. The result is a dynamic and interactive installation entirely informed by the inherent physical, cultural, and intermediary properties of each weapon. The sound filling the room becomes the medium for the weapons themselves to physically engage and envelop audiences.”

The sound is directional… with sound emanating from the position where the weapon would land… if it didn’t hit YOU first.

Postcommodity, If History Moves and the Speed of its Weapons, Then the Shape of the Arrow is Changing, Photo by Will Wilson, Courtesy of MoCNA

In a public talk at MoCNA, Postcommodity described the origin of the idea as coming out of reading the book War in the Age of Intelligent Machines (1991) by Manuel de Landa, heavily influenced by Foucault, plus Deleuze and the idea of the machinic phyllum. This piece introduces the idea in a physically challenging way. Kade Twist wrote to me that If History Moves… “is also influenced by the writing of Paul Virilio (Speed and Politics). He came up with the idea that history and the rationalization of temporal relationships within a particular society/civilization moves at the speed of its weapons — we culturally rationalize velocity through our weapons systems — in this context we are looking at the velocity, or dromological difference of the two clashing civilizations and analyzing the indigenous cultural identity and worldview embedded in the weapons systems.” So how did Postcommodity convert those weapons systems into sound? Twist says “We used the computer code written in Max/MSP that was written byCristóbal Martínez. Each weapon was assigned a specific tone: sine tone (war club), triangle tone (bow and arrow), saw tone (rock and sling) and square tone (atlatl and spear). These are the fundamental sound waves from which all sound is comprised.” Rather than have a completely arbitrary or purely aesthetic criteria for selecting the audible tones, Postcommodity’s team selected sounds whose forms, revealed by cymatics, had some symbolic relationship with the forms of spear, arrow, rock, and club.

UPDATE: Listen to the audio embedded in this updated post: LISTENING TO THE AMBUSH

This piece is a cerebral romance between art, technology, history, colonialism, and counter-colonialism. The big romance is between art and science, with the four artists from Postcommodity collaborating with composer/media artist Cristóbal Martínez and scientist Andrew McCord, who performed the mathematical analysis and physics modeling of the weapons. And where the romance turns gritty and real is in the audience’s own physical relationship to the piece. Positioning a mathematical model of an ambush using pueblo weapons in a gallery puts the audience in the position of vulnerability and culpability. The piece would seem to push the audience into imagining themselves as the Spanish attacked in the Pueblo Revolt. Yet it is in a gallery, in a setting that reminds museum-goers of that violent past and the injustices to which the Pueblo peoples were subjected. Who exactly are we rooting for in this ambush? Surrounded by false gold, in the midst of Indian Art Market, tangible white guilt, romanticism, and earnest desires to make a better future, If History Moves… gives the audience the chance to identify with the power of the “conquered” and the weaknesses of the conquerors. And the conquerors are all of us living today.

Nathan Young had some important words that I’d like to close with:

We didn’t have a dream of these golden cities. That’s not why we are here. It’s not necessarily the Spanish’s fault, or gold’s fault. It could have been anybody. It’s the market.[1]

For more on Postcommodity, please see this previous post: Photo Essay: Day 4 of My Blood is in the Water.

Here are links to other articles about this piece:

http://theendofbeing.com/2010/08/30/postcommodity-it-wasn%E2%80%99t-the-dream-of-golden-cities/

http://www.adobeairstream.com/elements/article/447.html


[1] The Museum of Contemporary Native Art made an audio recording of Postcommodity’s public talk. They plan to make the audio tracks available via their website sometime this fall. I will include the link here when it is released.

How does art-writing happen?

 

Newspaper reviews, journal articles, exhibition catalogues, gallery guides…art criticism blogs? How does art-writing happen? Who pays for it? How does anyone make a living doing it? For the most part, we don’t make a living writing about art. For example, I make my living teaching. When I help my students with guidance about doing research on artists and artworks, I guide them to journal articles and give them a caution about the beautiful picture books on the library shelves. Most of the exhibition catalogues take a very conservative approach – controversies are usually glossed over. Exhibition catalogues exist to improve the reputation and value of a museum’s collection. If you want dirt, try for journal articles from academic journals. Drawback to journal articles: it can take a while for work to get published… maybe a couple years. And nobody really gets paid for publishing in academic journals. Good art-writing is hard to find… and especially hard to find if you are interested in Native American art (historic period, traditional, or contemporary – there’s a lot of rubbish, and then there are gems mixed in with it).  I bring all this up because I just read an interesting post on the blog wittily called Bloggy

Here is the text of the post:

“Given my lack of time for blogging, and knowing more people would see it and discuss it there, I shared my notes from my rant on the last night of #class with Art Fag City. Don’t miss the comments.

Part of the point of #class was to propose solutions, not just whine, so here are my thoughts. As the number of culture critics and writers decline in the printed media, the online world is replacing them, but getting paid enough to write is a big problem, even for relatively well-known writers such as Paddy Johnson of Art Fag City. As the co-founder of Culture Pundits and Idiom, it’s something I worry about quite often, and both were founded to find some support for good writing.

My proposal: arts organizations such as The Art Dealers Association of America and the New Art Dealers Alliance should use a portion of their membership dues to fund arts writing. I’m sure similar groups exist for theater and dance as well, but the area I know best is the visual arts. In the long run, they need people to write about art, including their artists and exhibitions, and if people are too broke or busy freelancing to do so, no one wins. For a fraction of the cost of attending even a single art fair, the pooled resources could make a big difference in the quality and quantity of art criticism. Heck, perhaps some of this money could even fund some good editors to work with bloggers and other writers who would like that assistance!

Implementation details, such as an advisory committee for handing out the money, can be discussed. I would strongly recommend against a big proposal process, as I think that takes away from the time writers could use for better purposes. Writers who are interested in being considered could fill out a simple web form with a link to some samples of their writing for a committee to consider. In the interest of smoothing cash flow for all parties involved, the awards could even be monthly payments rather than lump sums. PayPal works very nicely for that.”

The Comments that follow the Bloggy post were also interesting. You should check them out.

The main objection to Bloggy’s proposal is that if those organizations are paying the writers, then the authenticity of the writing is corrupted…we turn into a bunch of gagged yes-men(and women), because what funder is going to risk having us give them BAD reviews about the artists and exhibitions they have an interest in? This argument overlooks one important fact: any press is good press. Randy Gragg, an art critic in Oregon, once told me that when he gives a show a bad review, MORE people go see the exhibition. For some reason, we are fascinated to go see what BAD art looks like. It’s not like going to a movie that you read a bad review about. Going to a gallery is usually free. Going to an art museum can be free or cheap depending on when you go. You’re also not held captive for 1.5 hours. You can leave anytime you like. Mr. Gragg said that he got thank you letters from artists, even for a bad review, because at least it was free advertising, and the artist knew more people came to see the work for themselves.

But back to Bloggy’s idea of trade organizations pooling funds to support art writing… I think it’s an interesting idea and I have been thinking about it for the last month or so, independently, but in regard to art-writing specifically about contemporary Native American art. We in the US have been operating under a handicap in comparison to the kind of support our counterparts in Canada have.  When a Native art institution in the US is looking for Native writers about Native art, they run out of writers if they are looking for more than 10 or so, and have to turn to Canadian First Nations writers. This is because we don’t have institutional support to make a living, develop our careers, or even hang on by tooth and nail here in the US (see my picture above). If IAIA,  MoCNA, the Denver Art Museum, NMAI, the Heard Museum, the Southwest Museum, SWAIA, and other institutions with a stake in Native American art pooled their funds, they could support a number of independent arts-writers, without having to start their own publishing houses. I’m just planting a seed here… someone with a better head for business could figure it out. Me, I’m here for the art, and the blogging.

Art in Additional Sizes (more TOMS Shoes from the IAIA fundraiser Vital Strides)

Sherry Farrell-Racette kindly sent in these photographs of TOMS Shoes that she won at auction last week. For the background on this story, please see the previous entry: Art in a Size 7.5. Here is one pair of shoes by Teri Greeves, a Kiowa beadwork artist who resides in Santa Fe. For more information on Teri Greeves, you can visit this Craft in America website. Please feel free to click on links in this article – they open in a separate window! 

TOMS Shoes, by Teri Greeves (Kiowa), 2010.

Detail of Teri Greeves' beadwork.

 The second pair are artworks meant for display more than actual wearing. This pair of shoes by photographer/installation artist Will Wilson (Navajo), is titled The Rose by any other name is the name of the Toes, as it says on the shoebox below. 

The shoebox for Will Wilson's art shoes (TOMS Shoes).

 Each shoe has a set of photographs inset in the footbed. You can remove the set of photographs and fan them out into a circle because they are attached at a pivot point in the “heel” area. 

A view of Will Wilson's art shoes with photographs in the footbed.

Detail of Will Wilson's "The name of the rose by any name is the name of the Toes." Each set of photographs is fanned out in this view.

 Wilson’s project plays upon feet as objects renown for their odor, just as roses are renowned for their own odor. Of course, since this pair of shoes won’t actually be worn, they aren’t likely to acquire “rosiferousness.” Way to go, Teri Greeves, Will Wilson, and IAIA’s ASU for such an inventive fundraiser!