26 June 2015

Expanded Moments: Post 2

Jackson highway bridge, looking southward at the Circle Interchange construction.

24 June 2015

Expanded Moments: Post 1

As part of my shiny new role at Gallery 400, I'm helping to launch and facilitate a community engagement project titled Expanded Moments. Inspired by Jan Tichy's Changing Chicago exhibition and Expanded Moment project, we are inviting everyone and anyone to take a moment to stop, reflect, and film the city landscape in flux. How does this relate to the gallery? Our current exhibition After Today considers the ways in which Chicago has changed and is continuing to change at a rapid rate. Exploring issues like gentrification, the housing market, violence, police presence, mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex, and the stratification of race and class, our exhibition has us wondering what will tomorrow look like after today?

To get the ball rolling on creating our Expanded Moment video snapshots of the city, I'm going to be posting some of my own videos taken from around the city. From the few short films I've already shot, I've found the process to be meditative and reflective. Taking a moment out of my busy commute and hectic life to pause and view the city through the framed lens of a camera has shifted the way in which I view this city space I occupy.

Interested in participating? Here's a wonderful instructional video created by the Art Assignment explaining how the video should be framed and shot. Upload to Youtube or Vimeo, then email me or the gallery a link to your video. We'll be uploading them to our exhibition Tumblr and sharing on Facebook.

sandyguttman(at)gmail(dot)com or gallery400(at)uic(dot)edu

The above video was taken during the busy lunchtime rush in downtown Chicago. It's a view of the Chicago River taken from the Jackson Street bridge.

19 June 2015

In the Absence of My Body

How fitting is it that my most recent post was titled "In Absence of a Body" demarcating a growing absence of my so-called body from this here blog? Interestingly enough, what has consumed me these past few months are my interests in bodies, able-bodiedness, and the manifestation of disability in cultural space. I've also increasingly become a bit of a homebody, but that thought is entirely tangential to my point.

The last four months have been transformational, informational, and affirmational. It feels as though my head was like a door, the creaky jamb cracked open, and like furniture moving into a new space, piece by piece new information found a place in this funny brain of mine. When I set out to become a graduate student of Museum and Exhibition Studies, I came with plenty of ideas about myself, museums, and the world I live in. 2014 into 2015 has been a spectacularly strange year. One full of violence, one that has me reeling from the news reel, wishing to turn off the Twitter feed if only for a day. How many more deaths from police brutality must we stomach? Why in 2015 do we have a Black Lives Matter movement when we should have always valued black lives? Why are businesses still running on the labor of unpaid and underpaid workers? Why are women still paid differently than men, and why are we still debating universal health care? All of these questions and more circle around me in the galleries I work in, in the classes I take, in the conversations with my colleagues and cohort, in the way we talk about Chicago, and the direction this country is moving in. There are no easy answers, but plenty of work to do.

This past year has left me overwhelmed but resilient. If anything, my graduate program has given me the tools to ask meaningful questions of the world around me, to be conscious of what irks me, and question (often systematically) what is causing the symptoms of discomfort, anger, and sadness. All lives matter. All bodies matter. This is not a manifesto, it is just how I feel.

In terms of where this leaves me within my field of research, I've landed on quite a wonderful lily pad. Having been visited by the disability rights activist and performer, Carrie Sandahl, in two of my core classes, her words on the experience of disability struck me to my core. She spoke of the theatre environment being unwelcoming toward her body, how the dark narrow backstage areas were difficult to navigate, and the roles she was often cast into used her body and her disability in ways that she felt uncomfortable with. She could play a person with a disability (often a secondary character whose disability forwards the plot in some way) or an elderly person (often male, as the theatre world is full of male characters). She seldom played the leading role, as she navigated the already gendered, ableist, competitive theatre environment. She spoke truths to my class not only about her place within the theatre, but also her body in museum spaces. That sometimes she chooses to use a wheelchair in museums fosters a completely different experience for her as a visitor. Labels are hung too high to read, and if she's with a friend who is pushing her wheelchair, often they push too quickly before she can read both the label and the object she is looking at. Glares are difficult. Often, pedestals are also set too high. Elevators and ramps, though required by the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990), are often marginalized to the sides of spaces, hard to find, and take more time to use. Moving through museum spaces is anything but fluid.

A blind visitor to Spain's Prado Museum runs his fingers across a 3-D copy of the Mona Lisa, painted by an apprentice to Leonardo da Vinci. image and caption via NPR
What these stories left me with was an unsettling urge to do something. I enrolled in a disability studies class, and wound up conducting research on what museums have done in the past, and what museums are doing today to be more accessible spaces for visitors with all sorts of abilities. The Prado in Spain has an exhibition made up entirely of paintings that visitors can touch. Three-dimensional sculptural paintings of beloved works from the museum's permanent collection, hung on the walls for visitors with both vision impairment and varying sighted abilities to experience not with their eyes but with the tips of their fingers. Very few museums have anything like this - and I don't fault them. This project is experimental, and expensive (at $7,000 a pop), though I will say these paintings offer an optimistic step in the right direction.

Noel King conducting an ASL tour in front of Seurat's Grand Jatte

The Art Institute of Chicago is currently offering monthly tours open to the public conducted entirely in ASL (American Sign Language), with the accompaniment of an interpreter. This new program has become a widely attended form of museum engagement, offering another form of communicating information about favorites from the collection. As more and more museums begin to implement alternative modes of experiencing and interpreting their collections, we will move closer to a more inclusive universalist society. Nothing will ever be perfect, but rather than seeing differing abilities as a "problem to be solved" we should always consider that everyone on this wonderful planet deserves the right to move through space in a way that is intuitive and comfortable for themselves. Regardless of the color of their skin, their gender, their sexuality, or the type of body they inhabit, each human should feel comfortable in public space. An idealist thought, but one worth fighting, protesting, and working toward.

My pal Tori exploring the Touch Gallery at the Art Institute of Chicago. It's one of the only dedicated spaces to works you can touch. All of the objects are busts, and all but one of them are of Western subjects made by Western artists.
So where does this leave me? A project I'm currently in the very tentative planning stages for is an audio tour. I would like to write, research, and record an audio tour for visitors with vision impairment for an institution here in Chicago. I won't announce which one just yet, as this is all very tentative, but I will say it's a place that I consider to be home. They do not currently have an audio tour created for this specific audience, and I'd like to help them out with that. Over the course of the next few months, I intend on researching what makes a good audio tour, going on a whole bunch of different audio tours around the city, and figuring out the language and voice necessary to write an audio tour that is accessible to anyone listening. This is going to be a huge project, but it's one tiny thing I know I can do to make the museum community a more inclusive space.

So there you have it. My long absence was worth something, at least I think so. I needed some time to read, write, stretch myself out, and let these ideas ferment into what I believe is a wonderful kombucha of ideas. Oh goodness, that metaphor! Let's move beyond kombucha and say this is a fine wine, shall we?

22 February 2015

In the Absence of A Body

Visiting Alejandro Figueredo Diaz-Perara after hours in the gallery was an entirely different experience than attending the gallery as an ordinary visitor. The chattering cacophony and buzzing hum of the opening night had surpassed. All of the lights, except for the ones in Diaz-Perara's room were off. The only sounds were the occasionally hum of the train passing by and the rhythmic thump of a single microphone softly banging against the drywall. I wasn't here to view the video installation or take in the work in the larger gallery, I came because it was dinnertime.

Dinner tonight: homemade chili and cornbread, with a tangerine

When I first heard that Diaz-Perara would be living in a 2.5 by 10 foot crawlspace in the Chicago Artists Coalition, my first questions were natural, if not a bit nosy. How will he eat? How will he relieve himself? What will he do? I didn't ask why. The "why" was deeply imbedded in who Diaz-Perara is. A Cuban-born artist recently emigrated from Havana, his life has been painted by absence. His father moved to the United States when he was a boy, and with communication being both limited and expensive in Cuba, the absence was profound. In 2011, he met Cara Lewis, an artist and gallerist living in the US. They began a relationship marked by absences, structured by distance, with various barriers of communication, and the kind of longing that lends itself to not knowing when you will see a loved one again. When he moved to the US this summer, Diaz-Perara embarked on another absence - the absence of his mother, his friends, and his country.

In the Absence of a Body makes tangible the action of absence. Though he is just on the other side of a thin white wall, he is not embodied. You can however feel his presence. His silence speaks volumes. His shadows and quiet breathing, footsteps and fingers on the wall, a hand through the movable vent that reaches out for the sustenance brought to him.

Lewis talking to Diaz-Perara while he eats his dinner

Though absence plays deeply into the provocative nature of this work, what runs deepest for me is the birth of a community and the human ability to adapt and soldier on with just the basics - Cuban values that one might not consider in this country. My questions about how he will eat, what he will do, and how he will care for himself come both out of curiosity and a sort of ignorance of what it is to live with less. What he is doing is difficult to define, there is a meditative state to the performance, but mirroring the isolation and meditation is the community that has gathered around Diaz-Perara. On a daily basis, Lewis brings him meals. She speaks to him through the wall, gives him little updates, tells him about her day. If she asks him a question, he might thump against the wall giving a response for her to intuit. Jefferson Godard has been visiting him with regularity as well, bring an energy and levity in the space that is entertaining and nourishing. Godard speaks in rapid-fire Spanish, singing, telling jokes, and leaning against the wall to let Diaz-Perara know he is there. Others like myself have brought him meals, which we lay before the vent anticipating the hand of his reaching out. A simple action that is profound and warming.

We stayed in the gallery while he ate, sometimes talking to him, sometimes talking to each other while he listened. It wasn't just the sustenance of food we were serving, but the sustenance of chatter, camaraderie, and love that nourish those unspoken parts of ourselves. My chili and cornbread received a thumbs up, and some energetic taps on the wall.

In the Absence of Body (and Diaz-Perara) will be on display until Thursday, February 26 at the Chicago Artists Coalition. Lewis and Diaz-Perara have collaborated on other projects which manifest the distance they endure while acknowledging the social and political barriers between Cuban and the U.S. You can view their projects here.

18 February 2015

Bjork at MoMA

I'm coming up for air, if only briefly to share how deeply excited I am for the upcoming Bjork retrospective at MoMA. Maybe I'll spend my 27th birthday walking the streets of NYC, drooling over Bjork ephemera, noshing on bagels and pizza, and visiting the Tenement Museum...

Here's a full track of "Black Lake" it's breathtaking, beautiful, haunting, and heartbreaking.

22 January 2015

Vivian Maier: An Historical Conundrum

Tonight I attended a talk on the extensive work of the photographer Vivian Maier led by the independent scholar Richard Cahan, and after hearing him speak casually about his work on Maier's collection, I left full of questions and maybe a little bit miffed. To preface my critique of his work, and the handling of Maier's photographs, I will say that I walked into his talk excited to hear what insights he could share, having recently viewed the Vivian Maier's Chicago exhibition he co-curated at the Chicago History Museum. But also, I entered the discussion having just left my course on Public Engagement in Museums, eager to hear how a woman so private, who has been posthumously catapulted into a very public light, might be spoken about by one of the people who brought her to the public, and stands to benefit from her legacy of cultural production.

My interest in Maier began as it did with many others - through John Maloof's 2014 documentary Finding Vivian Maier. It was midway through his film that I recalled having seen an exhibition of this never-before-seen street photographer at the Chicago Cultural Center in 2012, thinking why have I never heard of her before? And what amazing photos! I scratch my head at the thought of passively enjoying her photographs, both in color and black and white, but that she remained an enigma, a passing fancy, just another photographer I enjoyed. It wasn't until Maloof's documentary shed light on how her photographs came to the public, that her work caught the attention of the masses - at least that was my take on the way the events unfolded.

Via Charlotte Film Lab
Tonight's talk led me to other avenues of critical inquiry.

I began to understand the timeline of her collection leaving her possession and entering the hands of complete strangers. In 2007, Maier had three storage lockers, which were subsequently auctioned off through the Norwood Park based auction agency RPN. Maier passed away in 2009. She was still alive, and was still the rightful owner of these lockers and the items inside of them. But she had missed a payment. Her possessions were disseminated between three or four people who bid on her lockers.

From my understanding, the people who bid on her items were all white men, who all had the ability to bid on her collection. Whether that be through having the leisure time to peruse auctions of this nature, or the spare funds to purchase said collections. There's something both entitled and predatory about the fact that her collection of hats, clothes, writings, negatives, photographs, and other items fell into the hands of complete strangers. Strangers, some of whom threw away her letters and writings, who auctioned off her hats, who began to sell her negatives on Ebay. These acts effectively whittled away the integrity of her unified collection, as well as problematically took away from a person who might not have been in a state to financially support her storage locker fees. I can't help but wonder if she even knew her lockers were sold off, or how her life might have been if she had seen any of the financial benefits that resulted from the unveiling of her "treasure trove" of photographs.

Via the New York Times
I am critical of the purchasing and disseminating of her "things," for lack of a better word, because she was alive when this happened. Yet for reasons unbeknownst to me or those who purchased her items, she was unable to maintain the keeping of the storage spaces. Maloof's documentary touches on the issue of Maier's financial strains, and for that inclusion, I applaud him. His documentary also focused deeply on her profession as a nanny - a domestic worker who, when we piece together the timeline, lived in 18 different homes in the span of 20 years.

Hearing Cahan speak about Maier's life as a nanny, using stereotypical descriptors likening her to Mary Poppins left me considering the conditions of a solitary, domestic worker, supporting herself and her art solely on the dime of the families who employed (and disemployed) her. I considered my own interest in issues of domestic labor today, of domestic workers' lack of representation in unions, and their lack of rights, often working without clear contracts or boundaries which enable them to move autonomously, take vacation, and enjoy the benefits that many of us take for granted. I think about how she shuffled from family to family, continually having to adapt to their whims and rules, potentially working as a nanny because it meant she would always have a roof over her head and food on the table.

And then I think about what happened to Maier when the employment dried up. How isolated and alone she was. Without a family of her own or a support network to fortify her in a time of need. I think about the words used to describe her, and I shudder.

Eccentric, unusual, birdlady, odd, substantial, isolated, loner, strange.

Via Kottke.org
My issues with the talk tonight are extensive, but at the heart of my frustration was the fact that Cahan didn't attempt to incorporate her gender or poverty into the conversation of who she was and how being a woman of a certain socioeconomic status had an impact on her work. Or at the very least, what happened to her work after it left those lockers and fell into the hands of strangers. It seems a bit ironic that her work, work she chose to keep so private, work that depicts a world of strangers, should become entrusted to strangers. Strangers who, from what I can tell, were not museum workers, domestic workers, conservators, or art historians.

I grapple with the intentions of those who gambled and purchased the immense collection of objects from her lockers. I wonder what it was that put them in the auction-house to begin with. What were their motivators? Curiosity? Treasure hunting? Hoping to stumble upon the next "big thing?" It's the questioning of the underlying motivators of those who have given us this great gift of Maier's work, but who are also benefiting and profiting from her labor. Why did she have to die alone, unrecognized, and misunderstood? Why was she impoverished? What failings of our society and lack of community left her cast off as an outsider, barely scraping by? In terms of her work, who's duty is it to share her photographs with the world? And are those who are recreating her history, applying their own narratives to her story doing her justice? Should there be a feminist perspective placed on her work? Should we even be looking at her work, or was it meant to be kept private? And finally, is there a fiscal responsibility upon those who are profiting from her work?

Via the New York Times
While I don't have the answers to these questions, I'm bowled over by her work.  There is something that leaves me breathless as I stand before her photographs. Knowing that there are well over 100,000 images to be seen, many of which were taken in and around Chicago, it's hard not to want to see all of them. As a Chicagoan, these images are a reflection of my city. It's impossible not to hope to stumble upon a photo that might be me, or my parents, or a friend, or a landmark that I relate to. I spent much of my childhood in Rogers Park, could I have seen her? Could she have seen me?

One of the great and perplexing tropes in art is the presence of the mirror, and Maier to a certain extent was a mirror. She mirrored reality, or at least a reality that she constructed through her photography. Reflections and mirrors appear throughout her work. Psychologically, when we see a mirror in art, we look for ourselves. It could be in Las Meninas, a Jeff Wall photograph, or in one of Joan Jonas' performances. The desire to see oneself in art is almost a primal urge. And reflections play deeply into our fascination with Maier's work.  For Chicagoans, reflected in her work is the city we see ourselves in every day. When we look at her photographs we see ourselves both in the reflective nature of the glass frame, and in the millisecond of the moment she captured, kept, protected, and honed. We attend her shows, grasping if anything for a glimsp of ourselves, reflected in the quiet mystery of her prolific yet completely private career.

10 January 2015

Sometimes Being Alone Is the Best

I can't recall the last time I went to a museum alone. The last time I aimlessly wandered, lingering when I wanted to, sitting and contemplating when I didn't feel like standing and looking. I can't remember the last time I walked through a museum with my headphones in, listening to the soundtrack of my life, taking time reading each and every didactic plate, savoring my newfound knowledge. Some experiences beg to be experienced alone while others make the most sense in groups. Attending performing arts: best in a group. Reading a book in a cafe: best alone. But there are those experiences that toe the line of best alone and best in company that I tend to relish the most. Wandering museums, taking long walks, dining.

It's the new year, a time when we resolve to be our "best selves," a time pregnant with possibility. I really will read more, we say. I'm going to try that new diet, we say. No more Netflix, we say. In these sub-zero temperatures it's immensely easy to catch a case of the we says, and hit next on our queue. Much easier than putting on the three layers of socks, the two pairs of gloves, the hat, the coat, and the mentality that going outside isn't the worst possible thing.

On Tuesday, I was called off from work at the gallery. With that unexpected extra time, I focused on one of my goals: to attend more exhibitions, be mindful of what I see and what I experience, and to turn those thoughts into something tangible - writing. I remember Lori Waxman visiting my writing class last semester, and how she said with clear conviction that when she is visiting an exhibition for a piece she is writing, she goes alone, she takes her time, she takes notes, and she writes down all of her initial reactions. A word, a moment, a memory, a visceral reaction felt in her gut, her head, her heart. She goes it alone, much like her writing practice, but the results invite, entice, and excite. Her career with its prospects and interests is something I admire, maybe aspire to. So I too must go it alone every now and then. To experience something without the usual distractions of keeping an eye out for my companion, of wondering if they like or dislike it too, of being wary of how much time "the royal we" wants to spend in an exhibit, an experience, a moment before wondering what's next to eat, to drink, to do.

I made a list of all of the exhibits I want to see in Chicago in the next few months, and some I will attend alone. Armed with my little yellow Moleskine, a pen (or maybe a pencil), curious, inquisitive, with rapt attention to my own reactions, memories, and moments.

Shiraga Kazuo, Chikatsusei Manukinski (Golden Wings Brushing the Clouds Incarnated from Earthly Wide Star), 1960
This painting is a recent acquisition to the Art Institute of Chicago. It is in the Ab/Ex room, sharing its air with Pollock, Krasner, Calder, and Twombly - as far as I can tell, this is one of the only non-Western painters in the room, which strikes me as oddly unfortunate. This painting moved me to tears, reminding me that sometimes there are feelings that can be expressed and felt without words. This painting is thick, I imagine big and generous sticky brush strokes, marred by slightly violent paint splashes and splatters. The red droplets on the lower left reminiscent of bloodshed and spatter patterns on par with gunshot wounds. That rich blue, dare I say Universal Blue, is my saving grace. I wanted to touch this canvas. I was excited to learn that Kazuo painted entirely with his feet.

Christina Ramberg, Loose Beauty, 1973
After viewing the Hairy Who and the Chicago Imagists film last month, I have a newfound appreciation of work I often would have glided past. I took this picture initially because it reminded me of the constant T&A (of the female persuasion) lining the walls and pedestals of fine art museums. Upon reflection, there's something wonderfully off-putting about Ramberg's portrayal of the female form. The curves are imperfect, there's a grit to it, only made more noticeable by the sheen on the underside of the brazier and on the side of the undergarments. The angles are sharp and puncturing, the lace is soft but barely present. While this woman might have no face, she is big and bold, like a raven or a shining gun, a force to be reckoned with.

It would appear that I just missed one of my favorite paintings, Alex Katz's Vincent and Tony. Is it strange that I really enjoy stumbling upon these institutional slips hanging on the walls? A reminder that a museum is a living breathing organism, one that has many layers of employees and worker bees with various tasks and duties. 

A snapshot from James Welling: A Diary of Elizabeth and James Dixon, 1840-1841 / Connecticut Landscapes, 1977-86
I began my solo exploration in the basement of the museum, a space that photography has unfortunately been relegated to. I didn't quite know what I was looking for, and in my moment of grasping for something familiar, I stumbled upon this snapshot of the Sex Pistols' album God Save the Queen.

And last but not least, a mesmerizing, dare I say fun, installation of Jesús Rafael Soto's Pénétrable de Chicago. This work has been in storage since 1986, longer than I've been alive. A round of applause for its welcome introduction to the world of 2014.