Saturday, February 10, 2007

welcome, willkommen, whatever, to counterforces

The ambiguities of small places invaded by History continue to amaze me. I cherish the ironic pieces produced by Trio Sarajevo during the siege, in an era when scanners and Macintosh equipment were crude compared to today. Yet despite shortages of paper and difficulties of export and the intrinsic challenges of design in the early 1990s (an era which now seems as distant as the 1890s once did), the design collaborative called Trio turned out some satirical reworkings of Lichtenstein, Warhol, and classic movie posters that called world attention to their plight and the larger dilemmas of the city in which they lived. (They joked, vis-à-vis their systematic violation of copyright, that the United States would send agents to arrest them and put them on trial, and this way they would get out of Sarajevo.)

Yet Sarajevo was not a major art capital by any means; well-regarded by local standards, with a reputation for sophistication that became greatly exaggerated by virtue of its having been thrust into the world’s headlines as a city worthy of pity. In the past part-decade, it has taken its particular place in the twenty-first century scene.

Kosovo/a’s Pristina today seems also remarkably sophisticated compared to what one would expect in a capital of a small place beset by controversy; yet the clever conceptual pieces one learns about in the world art magazines are of course no more than what one would expect in the component parts of a now-dismembered country that produced avant-garde art for the better part of the twentieth century. The Yugoslav avant-garde remains one of the fascinating side channels of modernist art history, and some of its latter-day players are now icons of world art in general.

More than one piece by twenty-first century artists from such places, however, have been devoted to the theme of what one has to do to catch the attention of the world’s centers of curatorial power.

And indeed I wondered about the proliferation of biennials, a would-be shortcut to world attention involving the importation of world-class curators to place local artists alongside the globe’s usual art suspects. It now appears that, art fairs having displaced biennials as a means of securing the attention of the cash-potent classes, collaborative art schools considered as conceptual art are the hot new thing. The attempt to establish one such school along the Green Line in Cyprus for the most recent Manifesta fell victim to local politics. Anyone with an ounce of political sense could have seen that it quite likely would, but street smarts have not always been associated with the art world, as can be seen from the fate of the Russian Constructivists onward.

And the further into the world’s art provinces one burrows, the more the level of street smarts either diminishes or increases, depending on the nature of the street that one is addressing. Deeply local scenes work well as internally consistent enterprises, but they look silly when viewed from any larger perspective. People who are misplaced in terms of their local scene are often equally misplaced in terms of the global scene, because they fall somewhere in between the two in terms of sophistication, knowledge, and imagination.

Not to mention self-marketing abilities.

So in 2006 I set out to explore some of these paradoxes by producing The First Walker Street Biennial, a resolutely provincial event that would exist exclusively in its documentation.

Rather than having a world-class curator, it had me; rather than having hordes of world-renowned artists to set alongside locals, it had two extremely interesting artists from no further away than just across the state line. It was named after the shortest street in Atlanta that contained contemporary art galleries, though the two galleries it did hold were among the most risk-taking and innovative in the city.

And the book, which did not call itself a catalogue however much it resembled one, was devoted to the biennial theme of “Myth, Fiction, and History.” It explored the multiple paradoxes of provincial invisibility, and the extent to which local phenomena were known these days almost entirely via print and the internet. This is sometimes enough, when the phenomena are of any interest at all.

Nonetheless, the sheer plethora of worthwhile things in the world, out there competing for attention against better-funded and more adroitly marketed entities, puts the odds against many, many topics of interest being discovered by their natural audiences.

Without claiming that my book-only biennial was worthy of the world’s attention (though I think the two artists I chose are worthy of more attention than they have thus far gotten), I set out to produce an event that would be overlooked.

The First Walker Street Biennial can be had at cost via, but this is the first public announcement of that fact beyond Walker Street itself. I placed a battered paperback copy of the book in one of the two galleries on the street, with a crudely lettered text on its front announcing that by special arrangement, copies were still available via the website cited. (Of course, the book is actually published on demand from the website, one copy at a time, and exists at present in an edition of…welll, that varies day to day.)

The irony is that the book was placed in the gallery only two weeks before its owner decided to close it, and it is unlikely that anyone at all saw it who wasn’t already aware of the project.

So my point was made twice over. And by posting this to my alternate art blog, rather than to the joculum blog that has gotten a small international reputation, I have ensured that this announcement, too, will have an extremely restricted audience. I have rather deliberately excluded keywords that would permit its discovery by people who were looking for something else, other than researchers into contemporary political history (or perhaps Pop Art) who will have no interest in this particular art venture.

Welcome to “Counterforces and Other Little Jokes,” y’all. We’ll be exploring, every once in a while, those themes so restricted to the art world that I can’t ask my handful of loyal readers on to put up with them.

And maybe every once in a very great while I’ll pull in some guest commentators, but don’t count on that. The ones I have in mind have their own websites already, or they like to publish in places where someone will actually read what they write.

By the way, those who think this blog can be accessed via the username I have chosen will find yet another little joke. I suggest bookmarking and/or writing down the URL, if you haven’t been sufficiently repelled by the inaugural commentary.

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