The Performance of Contemporary Art (Part 2)

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Portrait of Carey Chrome, an art model living in Easton, PA

In part one, I wrote about a theme that has emerged in this column of the mercurial nature of artistic quality. i.e. one day this is good art; the next day that is good art. Even the eye of the beholder is fickle.

I continued by identifying some trends among the professional artist community. In general, the traits listed were those of non-conformists because conformity is antithetical to individualistic creation. If one is expressing oneself, then one is not marching in formation.

Expression of truth is inevitable because the human animal is not strong enough to suppress it indefinitely. Even a poised exterior houses an inner conflict between what is felt to be true and what is said to be true. And that expression surfaces in myriad ways, art being only one of them.

Contemporary art is simply an aspect of human nature. Human beings create art when they don’t know what else to do. Automatic expressions such as body language, whistling, fidgeting, and doodling happen all day every day. Much of art education is pairing those expressions with an explicit societal purpose.

A satisfied mind—one at rest completely and content—has no reason to create artwork or express itself in any way. A mind like that reacts to events as they occur, drawing on past experiences to resolve conflicts and sustain the well-being of self and community. It’s when the mind gets confused that art appears.

In the early 20th century, a group of French painters set the tone of modernist expression. The small but impactful group, which included Matisse, became known as les fauves, the French word for “wild beasts.” It was a reaction to early industrialization and its incomplete understanding of human potential outside of formalism.

Artists are artists because they are outcasts, not the other way around.


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Relativity in Art School

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There are lessons learned in art school from the coursework, and there are lessons learned in art school from the experience. Both are instructive.

The lessons taught in classes generally relate to the history, theory, technique, context, and vocabulary of that discipline. This is true across the arts and is the basic structure of an education in those various fields. To what degree each aspect is taught depends on the school, the nature of the class, and the teacher.

There is no objectively correct way to teach art, so sometimes the balance between two of those categories can cause conflict—a common one being theory vs technique. A conceptually minded artist may dismiss a craft-oriented curriculum as undesirable since it is focusing too narrowly on a specific set of skills. Meanwhile, a technically minded artist will lament that the tradition they admire is being constantly called into question and not being taught as it was to artists in other cultures at other times.

Art school, as it exists currently, is a relativistic affair. Once, when I was in graduate school, a professor suggested that we move on from such designations as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ when critiquing work. She didn’t mean that she wanted us to be more specific. She was suggesting that statements regarding quality in any way were not productive. That position did not appear to outwardly surprise or trouble any of the MFA candidates in the room.

It didn’t surprise me either, but it confirmed something I found troubling about art school—its illogical structure. If nothing is better or worse, then how is improvement possible? Why have an art school if not to improve?

I understand her position better now, and concede that it has merit. It may be fair to say that artists do not actually improve; they just learn new methods of expression. What is the measure of a quality? What scale does one use?

While I’m tempted to conclude with a working theory of how to rate artwork fairly, it would be disingenuous. The truth is I still struggle with this one. I have never found an objective way to judge art. When I need to pick favorites, or make creative choices, I still simply rely on intuition.



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Pretty Pretty

Image by Adam MacHose

Have you ever heard of Chen Lizra? She’s this person who talks about Cuba and their culture of flirtation. She says seduction is something that can be applied to everyday life. It rang a bell because my bestie, Marlana, who runs TERSE. and cohosts an online show with me, once described the look of the show’s set as “seductive.” She didn’t mean anything sexual. That’s one of the things people get wrong about seduction, they think it’s all about sex.

Google lists the definition of seductive as “tempting and attractive; enticing,” which is the broader definition I want to cover. That could mean a business deal, a nice vacation spot, a personality, a title, the look of a TV show set, etc. It doesn’t need to be sex.

I specialize in making enticing collaborations. Lehigh Valley Dancers is a simple formula: offer dancers free professionally filmed videos of their dancing. Naturally they show up in droves. That’s it. Why did I want to meet a lot of dancers? Because I wanted to meet new people and those were the ones whom I had something to offer. It really is that simple.

I don’t know how many, exactly, but I’d estimate that I met about two hundred dancers and conversed with them for about an hour while filming their solos. I always assumed they were just there for the video, but occasionally I’d make a friend. It was a way to connect with people.

Sometimes I describe myself as a minimalist, and that’s what I mean. I’m a minimalist in that the core of my art, that exchange, is as simple as I can make it. There is an allure to certain types of lighting, shooting, and editing. Mix that with politeness and you create a system that attracts people to your location. You might occasionally make a friend.

Other people use a similar formula, but most of them want something more. There are photographers who go online to Model Mayhem to look for a date. But most commonly, people just want money. Artists beware: the moment you charge, the person paying becomes the boss of what you do. They become a client who can make demands of you. You can say it shouldn’t be that way, but it’s that way. That’s the price of a price. It ceases to be enjoyable to me. I don’t have the energy after my full time job to do that.

A free system like Lehigh Valley Dancers has its other advantages. It creates an enormous body of work and presents an opportunity to challenge yourself as an artist and learn new skills. If you’re an artist, I recommend trying small collaborations. There are a lot of avenues I’ve considered that I haven’t tried yet. Consider if I did a series where I went to artists’ studios, interviewed them in a video, shot b-roll of their studio space, and maintained a YouTube channel of it. Why not? What better way to network with artists in the area? (By the way, if you use that idea, start with me, I’m sooo interesting.)

My point is: if you’re an artist, you can use the skills taught in art school in ways that don’t involve money. It will make your life better. And you might accidentally help someone.


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Deamon Love: Dennis Cooper

InFinite Museums

On a whim I went to the blog I had not checked in on in a long while, only to find there was no blog. Everything had been replaced with a page stating that the blog had been closed down for violating terms of use. This was not in and of itself surprising: transgressive artists should expect to face censorship challenges. It would not be anything remarkable if not for what happened after. Things disappear off of the internet all the time. The real puzzle was the reason behind the disappearance, as well as the complete absence of a warning that this would happen.

Dennis Cooper’s blog, The Weaklings, has been a wonderful place for those who wanted to find alternative representations of reality–a few degrees removed, darker than midnight. It is an alley many could walk down, and then quickly walk away from if (when?) it became too much. Eros and Thanatos are not just connected in the Universe of Dennis Cooper–they are permanently in each other’s arms, in the darkness of a corner room, open to each other and engaged in a perpetual state of procreation. The romance of Cooper’s most delicate and meaningful love affairs (the most tender one I have encountered yet would be in his graphic novel, Horror Hospital Unplugged, 1993) is always tainted by the reality that in a heteronormative world, in a world which promotes its dominance, its “rightness” by making these desires criminal, the ostracized queer will go on to become a criminal, to attract the darkness to them. To criminalize the queer is to make them a self-fulfilling prophesy. This is not some new dimension of fetish reduced through pornography, this is where desires hold both liberation of the self and the traps of social consequence. This is the territory of Jean Genet’s sailors on a phallic ship, where the structure of society is reworked.

Through high school, Dennis Cooper was the reason I cleared my browsing history before my parents could look something up on the computer.

Cooper’s blog is the only place where you can find detailed prose-poems about male escorts and the world of rent boys hooked on drugs and masochism, and esoteric and obscure reflections on the history of art, sensational crimes, transgressive and punk writers from the tradition Cooper helped initiate, and long lists of elaborate decorations or images, often without commentary, centralized around a theme. My personal favorite was a series of Halloween decorations that ranged from the mildly gross and humorously creepy to the outright traumatic, represented through a series of demonstration videos and .gif sets. Cooper’s interest is the only thing connecting it all. In many ways, The Weaklings was a darker corner of Tumblr before Tumblr existed. In my first year of college, I found a magazine called PYWSM?!? And in that exchange met a beautiful man who gave me hope for queer people hoping to create art outside of the rainbow paradigm. I discovered the films of Pasolini and the plays of the mad spiritual Artaud. The blog offered Cooper fans a place to interact with the author, in the form of a “PS” at the end of each post. Cooper responded to almost every person who left comments, and used the section as an opportunity to promote young artists he admired.

[Cooper, in an interview with Hilda Magazine, talks about his publishing history, including a large section about the composition of a blog post, including a discussion of the “PS”]

And one day it all disappeared. Cooper went public with his story about the removal of his blog and the deletion of his account, which cost him years of work, including a novel in progress. It was a moment that could have easily shattered another artist and forced them to close up shop. To lose a work in progress is one thing, to lose an archive at the same time is to feel as though your work never existed in the real world. I was reminded of the incident early in Hemingway’s career, in which he famously lost a trunk full of manuscripts, or the drunken remarks that Capote had finished Answered Prayers and put the book in a locker, where it has yet to be found. The lost work always holds out hope and dread. These are the moments in which the artist has to choose whether to continue working or to abandon their efforts. Following international outcry, the account, along with the blog, was returned to Cooper, with almost as little explanation as its disappearance. All that is left is speculation.

The Weaklings, or DC’s [NSFW] as it is now called, can be described in its new incarnation as an art project moving in two directions: a restoration of the lost material of the blog that Cooper originally wrote and published for over a decade, in addition to new posts, creating a space where the past and the future are unfolding at the same time. This archiving/creating project moves in conjunction with Cooper’s turn towards the digital form, exploring what writing means in a digital landscape. From his early career in the zine scene of the 1980s to his most recent print novel, The Marbled Swarm (2011), Cooper has focused on the breakdown and manipulation of language. The digital landscape has given him a new avenue to explore.


A screenshot of the Title Page for “Zac’s Haunted House” a “GIF-Novel” by Dennis Cooper

Zac’s Freight Elevator, published online by right after the blog controversy, is the third in a series of highly experimental works composed entirely in .gif images. These works are freely available on the Internet, either as downloadable packages or as things you can scroll through on your web browser of choice. To call these works novels is to present them within a particular context that the genre hounds among us might find uncomfortable or unsatisfactory. They are, after all, wordless, and who created a wordless novel? (Lynn Ward and his woodcuts, perhaps, but no matter.) These works are exactly what you would expect from Dennis Cooper: dark, occasionally funny, twisted, disturbing, filled with images that will stick with you long after reading. The only difference is these are actual images, not  representations of visual events in words. Each text is made up of film clips, music videos, spinning rock lyrics, advertisements, and oddities found throughout the web. The images short-circuit what we have come to expect from literature.  It is, of course, the case that many of these images are tapping deep into your unconsciousness, sending signals not unlike the signals from the telegraph device featured in the preface to Zac’s Haunted House [NSFW], the first of his “GIF-Novels.” Imagine a silent film without title cards or music to accompany the action.

I read Zac’s Haunted House, in about 15 minutes. Reading is, I realize, a somewhat dishonest term–not because the book is wordless but because I scrolled through, not wanting to look, even as I kept going. It is traumatizing, a horror film you watch through parted fingers. Even still, there are moments of tenderness hidden in the work. Comfort is to be found in the arms of another man, even if this other man could also betray you and send you spiraling, as men so often do in Cooper’s work. There is love, but it is fleeting, snatched away before it can be turned into something sentimental.

These works dependent on the archival and collaborative nature of the internet. Each consists of found image sets, rearranged to create movement and contrasting scenarios. This is a new kind of storytelling that grew out of the blog space, one that lets readers create the context between images and situations. There is no specific plot. It takes the gaps of experience (the life we live between Facebook posts) and makes that the narrative structure. With each new work in this form, the form itself develops, resulting in a smoother, more finessed experience of Cooper’s juxtapositions. In a time when many of us scroll on by, Cooper has adapted to the scroll and made it part of his work.

It is in these narratives that Cooper is finding ways to present the world to readers anew. Like his prose fiction, it is dark and frightening, but it is also able to contain moments of great tenderness. It is the radical honesty Cooper demonstrates by placing his work in the world, that makes his blog and his novels in a new media form into avenues worth exploring in our digital wonderland before they are blocked off.



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