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SUMMER READING
by James Croak
 
Beryl Graham and Sarah Cook, Rethinking Curating: Art after the New Media (London: MIT Press, 2010) 354 pp., $34.95.

Hegel noted in his Ästhetik that "art had worked itself out" and was being displaced by rational inquiry, a continent drift from sense to sensibility that began during his time and has accelerated in ours. Soon after, with the development of photography, followed by the Zoetrope in 1834 and Eadweard Muybridge’s Zoopraxiscope, the first movie player, in 1879, image-making was thoroughly embedded in machines.

Such variance of the fine arts developed incrementally until the 1960s, when what we might now call "New Media" began appearing with a vengeance as artists like Nam June Paik and Wolf Vostell picked up video and the Fluxus group undertook a variety of multiple-media performances.

Today the types of New Media already on the ever-expanding list are so numerous as to make one dizzy: Motion Graphics, Bio-art, Information Art, Net Art, Systems Art, Glitch Art, Hacktivism, Robotic Art, GPS Tracking, and others. How does one gather it all together?

In Rethinking Curating, the learned authors Beryl Graham and Sarah Cook, both from the University of Sunderland, rankle at the term New Media, but will not offer a substitute. They do try out "Turing-land," inspired of course by the computer pioneer Alan Turing, and they fancy "post-media."

In any case, we are encouraged to "use verbs of behavior rather than nouns of medium." This verb-not-noun notion appeared in Buckminster Fuller’s poem God Is a Verb, published by the Whole Earth Catalog in 1968, and indeed the authors continue Fuller’s notions of interactivity and dynamic systems, producing their own Whole Earth Catalog for curators.

Rethinking Curating contains an exhausting compilation of New Media art, ranging from Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s telematic 2001 Body Moves, where a computer produces images in response to spectator activity, to Andreja Kuluncic’s 2001 Distributive Justice (with multiple co-authors), an internet game and exhibition that arises from a web-based voting system.

Also included are historical works. The chapter "Time," for instance, features the 1968 chess match between Marcel Duchamp and John Cage wherein the chessboard was wired to generate a musical composition based upon their chess moves -- the sound of strategy, so to speak.

What role might a curator play in these interactive programs? Graham and Cook suggest that he or she "act as the gracious host between the artwork and the audience -- provide a platform." This strikes me as a little thin, like holding a sort of art-world Tupperware party. In the chapter "Other Modes of Curating," the authors note a problem at art festivals, which can show "a tendency to treat media artists as if they were immaterial themselves," which cultivates a "financial volunteerism" on the part of artists, who are expected to pony up the costs of their project themselves.

Other nuts-and-bolts advice is given in chapters such as "The Embedded Curator," "The Adjunct Curator" and "The Independent Curator." The job continues on the authors’ website, CRUMB, a giddy acronym for Curating Resource for Upstart Media Bliss, designed to air these issues as they develop.

One issue has been that of quality, as Steven Dietz pointed out ten years ago (he wrote the foreword for this volume), it’s not what it looks like but what it does. Today, with all manner of digital art in our contemporary museums, it’s hard to follow an argument that it is unsightly. Still, this book presumes to discover a critical framework for judging New Media art, in part through its own history.

Rethinking Curating is the latest issue from MIT Press’ Leonardo series, which is designed to be a think tank for areas of knowledge that are under rapid-fire development, especially those showing a convergence of disciplines like New Media. And indeed, the book is both a teacher’s aid and a scholarly document, with a bibliography that runs to an impressive 35 pages.

As a sculptor, I admit that my previous interest in New Media art has been only casual. This book opened my eyes to the vastness of behaviors in Turingland, and I can see it becoming part of a standard syllabus for museum studies.

Thomas McEvilley, Art, Love, and Friendship: Marina Abramovic and Ulay, Together & Apart (Kingston: McPherson & Company, 2010), 302 pp., $27.

One of the most contentious acts of curating in recent memory was the late William Rubin’s 1982 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, "‘Primitivism’ in Twentieth-Century Art," which has gone down in popular art-world memory as a particularly misguided effort to show that modernism was the zenith of consciousness by linking it to primitive cultures through. . . well, that wasn't made exactly clear. Avatar's Tree of Souls? The Jedi Knight’s Force? A subscription to National Geographic?

To the classicist and art writer Thomas McEvilley, the Big Frat House had thrown a KonTiki party and pledges were taking turns at the open mike lip-syncing the ancients in a language they couldn’t speak. His irreverent review, published in Artforum and titled "Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief" (variously a Hoagy Carmichael tune and a jump-rope rhyme), garnered an ad hominem response supposedly researched jointly by 35 MoMA staff members and signed by curator William Rubin, which was very poorly received.

McEvilley’s text caused much soul-searching among art historians -- one asked, "where were you when you read it?" -- and generally broadened the entire museological approach to both contemporary art and global culture. It would be impossible to imagine MoMA’s current presentations of performance art, for instance, without the "Primitivism" blow-up. And the biggest hit has been, of course Marina Abramovic’s The Artist Is Present, the event that occasioned this book.

Among his previous books McEvilley counts The Triumph of Anti-Art (2005), which surveys the postmodernist movement, including the role of performance art in it. A much more personal look is provided by the book at hand, which gives the reader a fly-on-the-wall view of the early days of Marina Abramovic & Ulay (né Uwe Laysiepen), her long-time lover and collaborator, both of whom McEvilley befriended 27 years ago.

It’s an engaging read, with a narrative that is more like that of a novel than an academic treatise. "They were fugitives when they met, and each responded with passionate recognition to the desperation in the other." Much of the book is about walking the Great Wall of China, a performance entitled The Lovers and originally intended as a marriage ceremony. The plan called for the artists to start at opposite ends and walk 2,500 kilometers each, meeting in the middle to marry in the middle in a traditional Chinese ceremony.

Things didn’t turn out quite as planned, as Marina and Ulay’s relationship collapsed during the long period of negotiations with Chinese officials, and the 1988 long walk became a separation ceremony bringing an end to their collaboration. McEvilley was with Marina and Ulay throughout their whole process and expands their relationship journey into a poetic exegesis of relationships in general

Joachim Brohm, Ohio (Gottingen: Steidl, 2010) 116 pp., $59.95.

McEvilley’s home state of Ohio has arguably made more than its share of contributions to the arts. Two of the three women artists to represent the U.S. at the Venice Biennale, Ann Hamilton and Jenny Holzer, are from Ohio. Toni Morrison, the first black woman to win a Nobel Prize, and Halle Berry, the only black woman to win the Best Actress Oscar, are from Ohio. And the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra under the baton of George Szell was voted among the best three in the world 24 years in a row, outlasting any other.

This smallish state has also produced 25 astronauts, a good portion of the total, including the first human on the moon, Neil Armstrong, and the first American to orbit the earth, John Glenn. Seven American presidents hail from Ohio. In 1951 "Moondog," an Ohio DJ, coined the term "rock and roll" for this bouncy new music, and later a USA Today poll voted to place the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Ohio instead of New York as originally planned.

When I received Ohio, a photography book, I assumed it would be a celebration of the cultural potpourri that characterizes this fine state. Instead, the book is a fairly straightforward assortment of dreary neighborhood exteriors, marked by color but nondescript, with no special lighting and few if any characters about. In other words, ordinary views down ordinary streets.

Maybe this approach was of esthetic interest several decades ago, but today it has been overtaken by digital technology, notably Google Earth Street View. Ohio arrived from Germany with the claim that the ‘80s work of its author, the accomplished photographer Joachim Brohm, was "the first of a younger generation of German photographers who discovered in color photography a new medium of self-expression."

In fact Brohm is one in a long line of such artists. Kodak began marketing 35mm color film in 1936, and one of its early customers was the German Hugo Jaeger, who shot over 2,000 color photographs of his surroundings, beginning that same year, and buried them about Munich in glass jars to survive the war. A selection of his work was used for a chilling color photo-essay by Life Magazine in 1965; that same year William Eggleston, the American photographer whose work Brohm’s most resembles, began using color photography almost exclusively.

The accompanying Ohio essay, in German and English, contains the stock academic melodrama in which "images of decay represent the transience of the American dream," which plays well among stock academic melodramatists.  

In fact, the best photographs of the America dream are from the three robots we have driving around the planet Mars, 400,000,000 km from earth, taking snapshots of each other. In color, too. Ohio, the book, is wildly off subject, an anachronism, and could have benefited from a controlled editing.


JAMES CROAK is a New York sculptor.