I've been using and working on the Internet for almost twenty years now. I've done start-ups and IPOs. I've worked for huge companies. I worked for Disney when they didn't know the web from a CD-ROM. I have been involved and engaged with copyright and intellectual property law and their relationship to art and culture for over a decade.

So my opposition to the entertainment industry's maximalist online power play, in the current form of two pieces of legislation being considered in the US Congress right now, SOPA and PIPA, is neither fleeting nor naive.

As many people with far greater expertise than I have discussed in great detail, these proposed laws are a grave threat to the Internet as a platform for economic, cultural, and political exchange. They are unnecessarily broad and ambiguous and give vast, new, unchecked power to corporations who have consistently lied and misrepresented their case and the supposed threat they face.

Stop SOPA and PIPA by calling your US Congressional representatives today, but also get smart on the issues surrounding these bills. And keep following them, and keep holding politicians and the companies they're serving accountable, because this crap won't end today or this week.

Public Knowledge primer and updates on SOPA & PIPA []

I don't know what, if anything, these mean, but these two stories last week made me wonder about the relationship of art and politics and Washington DC as viewed from a political/media perspective.

First up, and most disturbing, was the Washington Post Arts/Style section's discussion of an American Psychology Association study [which, right?] linking creativity with lying & cheating. The Post was not alone in referencing artists--it took its headline, "Are artists cheaters?" from The Economist, "Are artists liars?". But unlike the Economist, which actually didn't discuss artists or art at all, the Post framed its entire story about the study around the inherent dishonesty of art and artists in a way I found facile and offhandedly hostile:

It's not a wholly new idea. Being a liar is a requirement of being an artist, Ian Leslie argued in the Economist. "If art is a kind of lying, then lying is a form of art, albeit of a lower order -- as Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain have observed," writes Leslie. "Both liars and artists refuse to accept the tyranny of reality."

Lying and cheating for one's art -- as in making up stories, cultivating a persona, and even appropriating other's work -- is different than cheating for personal gain, though. There have been prominent examples of artists who have engaged in both forms of it. Paul Gauguin's numerous ethical breaches -- beyond sleeping with teenage girls in his adopted homeland of Tahiti -- included misrepresenting his paintings of the island to collectors back in France as a garden paradise, when in fact, it was colonized and stricken with alcoholism and disease.

So artists are prone, even required to "act unethically." And so when someone who is, by every definition, an uncreative non-artist lies with the express, unethical intent to deceive, it is called art.

That's according to an anonymous Mitt Romney campaign official rationalizing his candidate's patently dishonest misrepresentation of a statement of President Obama:

"First of all, ads are propaganda by definition. We are in the persuasion business, the propaganda business.... Ads are agitprop.... Ads are about hyperbole, they are about editing. It's ludicrous for them to say that an ad is taking something out of context.... All ads do that. They are manipulative pieces of persuasive art." [The Reinvention of Political Morality, -NYT]
Which, of course, is all on the heels of Rachel Maddow's ongoing mockery of Herman Cain's delusional, lie-filled campaign as "performance art."

This conflation of art and lying not only serves to justify, albeit cynically, the actual unethical behavior in the political realm, it also weakens and pre-emptively discredits art itself as a vehicle for protest, speech, idealism, or whatever intent/content the artist might have. It seems like one [more] way in which politics plays politics with art in ways that art is not even fully aware.

If there's any good writing or thinking on this kind of thing, I'd love to hear about it. Honestly.

Here is a PBS Newshour Q&A with Steven Tepper, discussing his research into why art--or the arts, really, since he looks at theater, libraries, music, too--triggers protests in some communities at some times and not others. He found that the protests are "always deeply rooted in local concerns.":

STEVEN TEPPER: I looked at 805 cases of conflict across 71 mid- to large-sized cities in America. When all was said and done, and I looked at all the various things that might correlate with the cities that the highest rates of protest over a four year period in the 1990s, it was the rate of immigration in the decade prior that most strongly determined whether a city was a high city or a low city in terms of its protests levels. Cities that had experienced rapid population changes, in particular if the percent of foreign born had grown significantly, those cities were the most contentious in the late 1990s. And the argument in the book is that when people feel unsettled by the rate of social change, when the things around them are changing fast -- economics, demographics, technology -- art becomes something that they fight over as a way to reassert their values, reassert a sense of who their community is and where they fit into their community, who's values still matter, what does a community look like going forward, and art becomes this amazing arena in which people negotiate their differences of opinions around the contours of their expressive lives together.
Great, so now we know? And we don't have to read Tapper's new book, Not Here, Not Now, Not That! Protest Over Art and Culture in America? Except that reading the book may be the only way to get a handle on the "social changes" Tapper mentions. Because they frequently seem to involve race, religion, and gay.

And I assume that he sets aside the culture-war-style protests started by organizations or politicians to gin up support or fundraising, which do not always have a local impetus. [Though even as I think about the Smithsonian's "Hide/Seek" mess, the reality was, it was timed to disrupt the Congressional debate and coverage of the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," so in a way, it was hyperlocal.]

tl;dw, reading the transcript is quicker: Conversation: Why Do Americans Protest Art? [pbs newshour]
Go ahead, buy: Not Here, Not Now, Not That! Protest Over Art and Culture in America [amazon]

We took the family to Hillwood over the holidays. It's Marjorie Merriweather Post's house-turned-house museum, and it's kind of bizarre, frankly. Not seriously wack, but just a low-grade oddness which, who knows, maybe the passage of time and the accretion of history will help mitigate, and 50 years from now, it'll be Washington's Frick Museum. But it's not yet.

Hillwood is a sprawling memorial to the oft-married heiress/socialite's extravagant but ultimately middlebrow taste. The house is kind of big, but mostly grand, similar in scale and layout to the White House, but in Georgian/James River revival style, built in the 1920s. The storm doors on the terrace entrances look like the ones on every postwar red brick grandma house in Washington. The gardens are sprawling, but conventional.

Post's collections are a docent's paradise: tons of factoids to be shared about piles of French furniture, Sevres porcelain, Russian baubles and czarist portraits. And antique miniature furniture. None of it was as interesting as the positively massive cut crystal pendants hanging from every sconce and chandelier; seriously, grapefruit- or palm-sized or bigger, almost every one.


And so my favorite room ends up being the kitchen, which is fantastic. It's huge and vintage and all stainless steel, acres of Lustertone countertop, with a couple of sections of Formica and marble. It's a rare testament to the blind folly of our renovation-mad real estate culture. Keep your vintage kitchens, people, are you crazy?? [That pink tile and rococo gold-plated fixture master bathroom, OTOH, yow. A cautionary tale.]

Anyway, point is, this awesome double sink thing here in the butler's pantry? What is going on with this? I think it's stamped Geneva on the front edge. It is spectacular. Made my day.


One of the startling images Alan Taylor included from the EPA's DOCUMERICA collection is by Bruce McAllister. The caption:

A train on the Southern Pacific Railroad passes a five-acre pond, which was used as a dump site by area commercial firms, near Ogden, Utah, in April of 1974. The acid water, oil, acid clay sludge, dead animals, junked cars and other dump debris were cleaned up by several governmental groups under the supervision of the EPA. Some 1,200,000 gallons of liquid were pumped from the site, neutralized and taken to a disposal site.
Hmm, is that the only photo McAllister took of railroads and toxic industrial dumps near Ogden in the early 1970s?




McAllister's acid pond is "near Ogden," but it turns out it was even nearer the Great Salt Lake. The site was called Little Mountain Salvage.

Following on from the multiple installments of archival World War II images on hisphotoblog In Focus, Alan Taylor has assembled selections from another remarkable public photo archive, this time from the Environmental Protection Agency. In the early 1970s, the newly formed EPA sent photographers around the US to document the environmental and physical state of the country. The project, titled DOCUMERICA, rivals the Depression-era Farm Security Agency's photo effort in scope and scale; more than 100 photographers produced over 80,000 images, and the Corcoran and Smithsonian organized DOCUMERICA exhibitions that toured the country until 1978.

In setting out to "systematically record the ills of the 1970s American landscape," EPA project director Gifford Hampshire consciously patterned DOCUMERICA on the FSA's photo program, consulting with FSA veteran Arthur Rothstein on setting it up and selecting photographers.


Around 16,000 have been digitized and are available on the National Archive's website, and I've just barely started poking around. The least interesting of the two things I've found so far, both from photographer Bruce McAllister, is documentation of what I believe is the first installation, on October 10, 1971, of Christo & Jeanne Claude's Valley Curtain in Rifle Gap, Colorado.


I'm guessing it's the first, because McAllister's photo captions mention how "it was ripped to shreds by canyon winds in 24 hours." Christo tried again on August 10, 1972, but that time, a storm forced the curtain's early removal. Which makes McAllister's stated date of 05/1972 incorrect. On the other hand, sundresses and October in the mountains don't normally go together, do they? Either way, as ills of the American landscape go, Valley Curtain was little more than a 24-hr flu.

Alan Taylor's 46 favorite images from DOCUMERICA []
DOCUMERICA: Snapshots of Crisis and Cure in the 1970s [ prologue magazine]
Search the Archives Research Catalog for "Christo Javacheff" []

November 23, 2011

'You Are Good Dome Builders.'

Thumbnail image for jeshyn_dome_meridian_1.jpg


(K-2-28) This is the first of our United States, Department of Commerce, Trade Fair domes. It was erected in Kabul, Afghanistan in 1957. The U.S. Department of Commerce came to me in an emergency and with a very small budget. We were given thirty days to design and produce this structure, which we succeeded in doing. It had to be so designed that it could be folded up and put into one DC-4, which was all that was available for that task. It had to be flown across the ocean to Afghanistan, accompanied by only one of my engineers. All its parts were color coded so that the Afghan people were able to erect it by putting the red end to the red hold on the hub and the blue to the blue, etc. The Afghans didn't know what they were building at all. They thought it was meant to be a conventional rectilinear structure, but suddenly found they had produced a hemispherical structure. They were bogle [sic] eyed and excited. The workers began to shoot-the-shoots [sic] down the taut nylon-geon-skin of the dome. The king of Afghanistan acclaimed the dome.

World society is accustomed to the concept of an architectural design which is erected by skilled craftsmen who's [sic] skill, a priori, permitted the architect to design the kind of building which the craftsmen build. It was up to the architect to keep in mind that which the craftsmen could build.

In the case of our Afghan dome, when the Afghan people saw that the Afghan workmen had put up a new dome structure they attributed its spherical success to the Afghans' craft skill. They said to the Afghan workmen shooting the shoots down the dome, "You are good dome builders." The workmen replied, "Yes we are" and the Afghans applauded. So they said it was obviously Afghan architecture--a modern plastic and aluminum super-yurt. This made our dome the hit of the Kabul 1957 Trade Fair and the U.S.A. Departmetn of Commerce who had originally taken on the dome only as a last minute emergency device to stay within budget yet meet a challenge decided to see if this unexpected geodesic virtue, of popular appeal, would meet with equal favor elsewhere. It did time and time again.


This is a picture of the same Afghan dome which being 100% demountable, without parts loss or deterioration, went on economically in disassembled condition successively by air to New Delhi, Bangkok, Burma, Tokyo, the Philippines, and then down to Lima, Peru, on the west coast of South America and is now back in Africa again. This geodesic dome is now on its second local-stop trip around the world by air. It now has many counterparts doing the same.

Buckminster Fuller, from World Design Science Decade 1965-1975, Document 2: Inventory of World Resources, Human Trends And Needs, 1963, pp. 78-9. [All WDSD documents are available for download at the Buckminster Fuller Institute.]

Previously: Welcome to the Kabul Dome
In Afghanistan Did Buckminster Fuller A Statecrafty Geodesic Dome Erect


There are so many fascinating things about the Gene Davis Giveaway, I almost don't know where to start. And I'm embarrassed to not have known about it sooner. Gene Davis Giveaway, or Give Away, or as it was called at the time by its creators, The Event, was an amazing art project, part Happening, part Conceptual Art, part ur-Post-Modernist appropriationist market critique, and--yes--part Relational Aesthetics mayhem. And it happened in Washington, DC, in 1969.

The story, as it was fed to Washington Post critic Paul Richards, is that in the spring of 1969, DC sculptor Ed McGowin and art critic/artist Douglas Davis were at a party, trying to figure out how to declare the end of the once-edgy, now "Establishment"-friendly Washington Color School movement. Douglas wanted to "gather [all] the color paintings and destroy them," and McGowin said no, "let's give them all away."

So they approached Gene Davis, who agreed to let McGowin and Davis make 50 replicas of Popsicle, one of his trademark stripe paintings. Davis mixed and supplied the paint, while McGowin and some art students from the Corcoran produced the 6x6-ft paintings. When it was all done, Gene came to silkscreen the three creators' signatures on the back of each canvas. Sometimes the fabricators signed the works, too.

McGowin and Gene Davis screening Giveaway signatures with Douglas Davis looking on, from Douglas Davis's The Giveaway Box, via Gene Davis: A Memorial Exhibition, 1987

Meanwhile, Douglas invited 500 local swells to a black-tie party in the ballroom of the Mayflower Hotel, where the 50 "Gene Davis Paintings" would be given away, free, to lucky attendees whose names were pulled from a large bowl. [Actually, I think it was 40 paintings, because 10 had been pre-sold to folks who underwrote the production of "The Event." I'd bet they were exchanged for around $1,000, an attractive discount from the $3,000 price of an "original" Davis painting at the time.]

And that's how the Gene Davis Giveaway was positioned at the time, and apparently, for long afterward: Gene Davis paintings by any other name that still looked as sweet. At 0% of the price.


In his uncannily prescient and expansive preview of Gene Davis Giveaway in the Post, Richards likens the project's collaborative "assembly line production" to "a different sort of event that not so long ago celebrated the dominance of another kind of painting." Which, obviously, I must quote at length:

That earlier event was performed on a Willem de Kooning drawing by Robert Rauschenberg, a painter then unknown [sic]. The drawing had been made freely, almost automatically, in the abstract manner with soft pencil on fine rag paper. Working freely, almost automatically, in the abstract expressionist manner, Rauschenberg erased it.

Traces of pencil marks remained so that the handwritings of both artists were visible when their work was shown as "Erased de Kooning by Robert Rauschenberg."

Rauschenberg's gesture marked a point in the history of art. His erasing did not destroy--but underlined--the premise of the artwork it altered. Freehand erasing is to freehand drawing as mass production is to the tedious production of an "original" Gene Davis stripe.

That's one way of looking at it. There are others. Some see the Giveaway as a publicity gimmick and others see it as a way to get something nice for nothing and still others regard it as a joke. Douglas Davis feels the Giveaway--with its color, its lottery, its glamor, its suspense--is itself a special work of art.

Wow. Exactly! Except that I think Richards' actual take was one or more of those unnamed "others," and that Davis & McGowin fed him the rest. When Douglas looked back on Gene Davis Giveaway in 1987 in a catalogue essay for the recently deceased painters' memorial exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum that re-examined the project in light of postmodernism's challenge to originality and authorship, Richards poo-poohed it all as "self-congratulatory hyperbole."

Which you'd expect if Richards thought the Event was a "publicity gimmick" or a "joke," but not if it were "a special work of art" which just so happened to align with, if not prefigure, the contemporary art world's next two decades of conceptual and theoretical developments.


By Douglas Davis's 1987 account, though, there's no question that he and his collaborators "were in the midst of artmaking," and that the art was "The Event" itself:

What I remember most about that evening is the roar. The crowd was enormous, virtually filling the gigantic ballroom [above]...The atmosphere approached that of a ritual, yes, but the ritual of Wall Street or striptease. Very early, the chanting began: "Give it away, give it away." When we finally drew the names of the winners out of a large silver bowl, the yelps and screams of the victors, and the groans of the losers, were earsplitting. I began to feel ashamed of myself. Barbara Gold of the Baltimore Sun was the only critic who sensed the conceptual edge in "Giveaway." She claimed that the patrons calmed down toward the end, stunned by their own vulgarity, by the shock of recognizing "how totally monetary value could get in the way of the aesthetic pleasure." "A vague air of sheepishness became pervasive," she wrote. I hope her reportage is more accurate than my memory. I recall nothing but loud, overbearing greed to the last. Photographs reveal the winners waving their rolled Popsicles in the air as they left the Mayflower, dancing above a sea of black-tied oglers. At least for the moment, free art, having found its owners, returned to the realm of the precious. No, Walter Benjamin, the aura of Popsicle glowed that night in fifty different directions.
Alright, maybe that is a little hyperbolic.

In any case, I think it's clear that under the Erased de Kooning analogy, Gene Davis Giveaway is really a work by Douglas Davis and Ed McGowin. But that poses the uncomfortable question, what if you erase a de Kooning, but you don't become Robert Rauschenberg? For all his DC Happenings and on-point conceptualizing, Douglas Davis is less well known for making art than for his 1970s tenure as the art critic at Newsweek, and for organizing the Open Circuits symposium that brought video art to MoMA in 1974.

And while Gene Davis's market is pretty sleepy, it's still more established today than either Douglas's or McGowin's. And so it is that most of the Popsicles in public are optimistically/delusionally presented and traded as Gene Davis. Because even in 1987, Douglas didn't realize his project would also prefigure the eventual acceptance of editioned originals and outsourced painting.

So while you can put on a happy conceptual face and say the piece is still working, on another level, it's gotta hurt when, as recently as 2010, Douglas Davis's own copy of Popsicle is being sold--along with his Giveaway Box, the trove of ephemera, documentation, and related materials he'd assiduously collected as part of Gene Davis Giveaway--as a Gene Davis. That's like the A/P right there, the ur-After Popsicle, and it still only makes $11,000.


How Ya Like Me Now?, a large painting of a white Jesse Jackson by David Hammons, was one of seven outdoor works in "The Blues Aesthetic: Black Culture and Modernism," an ambitious exhibition organized in the Fall of 1989 by Richard Powell at the Washington Project for the Arts.

The other six outdoor artworks were installed without a hitch, but approval for Hammons' painting to be erected on a DC city-owned parking lot dragged on for six months, three months after the show opened. When the OK was suddenly given [with no explanation of either the delay or the decision], WPA staffers hurriedly erected How Ya Like Me Now? on the lot at 7th & G Streets [where the Verizon Center currently sits], across the street from one of the intended target audiences for its questioning title, the National Portrait Gallery.

The NPG had no portraits of blacks on display at the time. And Hammons suggested that a portrait of Jackson, arguably the most prominent African American in the US in 1988, would already be in the museum if he'd been white. Jackson had lost the Democratic Party's nomination for president to Michael Dukakis after hitting a wall of white voter resistance in Wisconsin, a phenomenon of racist reluctance pundits called "the Bradley Effect."

But a billboard-size portrait of a pink-cheeked Jackson suddenly appearing on the streets of DC with no explanation and a Kool Mo Dee lyric for a title was bound to arouse controversy. And when WPA curator Powell, who is black, left three white staffers to finish installing the piece, a crowd of young black men formed, voiced their protest against the artwork--and then took a sledgehammer to it and tore it down.


The Washington Post showed a photo of the only piece left standing on 7th Street, Jackson's blonde afro and part of his blue eyes. After some back and forth in which Hammons kind of complained that the WPA did not install the work as high off the ground as had originally been called for, and the WPA complained about the city's footdragging delays and said it was going to send the scalped Jackson back to Hammons for repair, the damaged tin painting went back on view, encircled by hammers, for the remainder of the exhibition.

All of which makes me very interested to know when and how How Ya Like Me Know? ended up in its current home in a private DC collection.

The most complete account of this story I can find online is this 1998 Duke Alumni Magazine article on RIchard Powell, who went on to become a very prominent art historian and author []

November 1, 2011

Sarah Sze Street View

Just this morning, while I was watching Sarah Sze's 2010 lecture at the Smtihsonian American Art Museum, and she was showing videos of her installations for the first time [borrowed, with permission, she said, from various YouTube users, which is nice]. And I found myself thinking, "Hah, try running the Google Street View Trike through that!"

But of course, Google already did.


Street View just announced the release of imagery from The High Line, which was apparently captured by the Trike this spring, just before the second, Northern section opened.


And whaddyaknow, there's Sarah Sze and her crew, installing her bird city, Still Life with Landscape (Model for a Habitat). That's Sze and her updo on the left. On the LEFT. Focus, people, focus.

And I do believe that is dearly departed High Line curator Lauren Ross with the lanyard, checking in on things. [Happily, Ross isn't dead; she just moved to Tulsa.]

These photos are actually in reverse order; the Trike was driving south. I haven't spotted any traces of a Google Guide yet. But I do notice that with this early morning shoot, the Street View pano stitching algorithm erases the Trike's shadow. Leave no trace.

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Since 2001 here at, I've been blogging about the creative process—my own and those of people who interest me. That mostly involves filmmaking, art, writing, research, and the making thereof.

Many thanks to the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Program for supporting that time.

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