Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Symbiosis of Artifact and Process In Bettina Hubby’s 3 Construction Site Installations

I.  Hunting (or “in the morning there is meaning”)

“Art is one of the many products of thought. An impressive one, perhaps the most impressive one, but to revere art, and have no understanding of the process that forces it into existence, is finally not even to understand what art is….Even the artist is more valuable than his artifact,…but the process itself is the most important quality because it can transform and create, and its only form is possibility…..The artifact…is only important because it remarks on its source.”
Le Roi Jones/Amiri Baraka, “Hunting Is Not Those Heads On The Wall” (1964)

“….but in any case the thing’s got to come into being, something has to happen, or all
We’ll have left is disagreements, desagrements, to name a few.”—John Ashbery,
 “One Coat Of Paint” (April Galleons, 1987)

In considering the symbiotic relationship between artifact and artistic process, the “Head on the wall” is a striking image to characterize art works in galleries or museums. It emphasizes the beautiful trophy of the so-called successful hunt abstracted from the process of hunting, as well as of the hunt’s functional necessity (that resulted in the creation of practical necessities like food and clothing, whether called ‘craft’ or ‘culinary arts’). In Early Modern (pre-20th century) Western Art, such “death” was often championed as immortality---the sublime object can outlive the artist. Baraka clearly makes no such brag, but this doesn’t mean he rejects the creation of “things.”

“Art is identification, and the slowing down for it. But hunting is not those heads the on the wall.” This is the only time he uses the phrase in that essay, but it’s telling. This “death” (or “Immortality”) is more accurately (modestly and intimately) a cessation, a pause, in the mad rush of the hunt, the process, or of what Ashbery would call “disagreements,” however arbitrary (a poem is never finished, only abandoned; a song is never finished, only recorded). The artifact, or thing, may not provide any absolute closure, but there was a real ethical foundation in the creation of the first gallery or exhibition setting---as a sacred (even if ad hoc) place. Likewise, the concept of art as an end-in-itself, if understood as a temporary absolute, is not dismissed. Baraka does revere that attention, the slowing down that the creation of artifacts entails, just not the fetishism of it at the expense of the process.

Even if the artist is “cursed with his artifact,” he’s careful not to say, “Hunting is better, or is always better, than those heads on the wall”—and in this sense, his essay is more radical than those who do suggest we he should eliminate the artifact. Rather, it’s needed precisely to illuminate the process, and enable its continuing. The process may give the artifact meaning but the artifact gives the meaning form. In order to “push the envelope,” there must first be an envelope to push. [i]

II. Bringing The Work Site Into The Harris Gallery

Bettina’s Hubby’s recent construction site installations illustrate the struggle with the artifact Baraka explores. Hubby starts with an idea “to create outside the confines of conventional exhibition settings,” yet her photographic and mixed-media Construction Site series was first made public at the Harris Art Gallery at The University of LaVerne in November 2012. In this setting the primary emphasis was on the “heads. “Art-critics and enthusiasts gave positive reviews to her choice in subject matter as well as aesthetic beauty of her site-specific installation art, but her artwork went beyond static portraits or still life “documentary photography” in a number of ways. This two-person show, with Chad Attie, was itself deeply influenced by the kind of thinking that was in the air when Baraka his essay in 1964.[1] As Jon Leaver puts it in the press release for this show:

Since emerging in the late 1960s and early 1970s, site-specific installation art has sought to reject the notion that artwork is independent of its surroundings. In line with this current in contemporary art, this exhibition brings the life of the street directly into the gallery.

Hubby’s inspiration for the Construction Site series came literally from the street outside her front door. The imagery incorporated into her photographic and mixed-media installations derives specifically from the road works taking place on Rowena Avenue in Silver Lake, the site of her studio.... Accordingly, she has brought the work site into the gallery in the form of five sections of chain link fence, onto which are clamped delicate silk panels printed with her photographs of construction work. These photographs are manipulated to subtly kaleidoscopic effect, producing a mirroring similar to a Rorschach inkblot, an invitation to the spectator, perhaps, to imbue the work with personal meaning. Other works in the show include ceramic tiled panels that further evoke and aestheticize the paraphernalia of road works, as well as photo-collaged wall decals depicting strange hybrids, conjoining organic forms and machinery."

Leaver, as well as other art critics who wrote of the show, emphasize the aesthetic detail of the artifact, but notice the tension between the verbs and nouns! As Hubby’s process manipulates kaleidoscopic photographs of construction work, and places them on silk panels clamped onto sections of a chain-link fence, her conjunctions between the sky and the machinery, the yin and yang, also reveal contrasts. Using “masculine” and “feminine" media and forms and processes, the symmetrical mirroring of the large water pipes before they’re placed underground, in my own personal imbuing of meaning, resembles fallopian tubes as a site of construction, for instance—though her gendered juxtapositions in her work cannot be reduced to mere anatomy.

At the Harris Gallery show, the thing came into being, and the show certainly illustrates one way life can be brought back into the museum (even in the form of the holes in a chain-link fence). These objects become commodities for sale and appreciation, but at least as importantly an occasion for more hunting. As Leaver writes:

As with much of Hubby’s work, the project is participatory and inclusive; for her the construction site is not a distant subject of her disembodied lens, but something to be engaged.

Accordingly, for Hubby, this successful and innovative show at the Harris Gallery could not be the be-all-and-end-all, the closure or culmination of a fascinating process. In part, because the process of construction at the site continued, in her own front yard outside of her live/work space; whether she liked it or not, she could not avoid returning to the source! Socially and environmentally, this controversial construction site was larger than her and she could not be an observer of it without also being an actor in it-- since her art was contingent on the construction worker’s work (whether you call it art or not).

III. Construction+Art: The Rowena Street Exhibit

In her Rowena Street exhibition, she brought the gallery back into the street, the site of her original inspiration. This phase of her engagement was the antitheses to the Harris show.  The work becomes imbued with cultural meaning that was implicit in the Harris Gallery, but now the primary focus, even if at the risk of de-emphasizing the “actual art” itself—a risk she gladly took to create work that doesn’t corrupt viewers into “accepting the material in place of what it is only the remains of,” as Baraka puts it.

Hubby had begun documenting the construction site on Rowena (The River Supply Conduit Improvement Project commissioned by the L.A. Department of Water and Power) because, like many residents and businesses in the area, she was frustrated by the noise, the dirt, and the underlying politics of this project (now into year 3 of what was supposed to be a 1-year project). Hubby, however, also saw the similarities between what she does as an artist and what construction workers do—and felt increasing solidarity, especially as she became more aware “of the neighborhood tensions that the workers have to fend off," as she told Catherine Wagley of the LA Weekly.[2] If one of the of functions of “documentary art,” is to call attention to the lives of its subjects, the Rowena exhibit certainly achieved that more than most documentary still-lives are able.

A construction site, as a workspace, is much more an embodiment of what Baraka calls “hunting.” A construction worker understands work a little differently than even the most innovative conceptual artist; the finished project just means the end of the gig, the end of a paycheck---a sense of accomplishment too, but, unlike in an art-gallery context, they get paid for the hunting more than the heads. If these construction workers didn’t actually create what they were paid to, they would likely not be re-hired! Yet that doesn’t mean they are not also “artists” (if that term is used honorifically).
Understanding this, Hubby wanted to celebrate their ongoing work, so she threw a party on the construction site itself on Saturday, January 12, 2013, an ‘off day,’ (though a few workers still could be seen working), that transformed it into a gallery space; her printed invitation emphasized the “casual party” nature of this event for the benefit of a workers and general public[ii]---but it was also a highly political conceptual art piece with civic value. The workers “played,” but Hubby worked. While Hubby displayed many of the same works she had shown at the Harris Gallery on the actual chain-link fence, the “hardhats’” unfinished works-in-progress presided over the event. In this context the work had a radically different function as well as meaning. The construction site became more than a “found object.” The event itself—which was well documented, became as much a part of the art as the photographs.

Since it was primarily billed as a party, balloons, candles, food and music became as important as her own artwork. She unveiled new art-objects, created specifically for this site-specific context—most notably, the iconic “disco ball” hanging from a large excavation crane that loomed over the site and the traffic cones stuffed with flowers; the cones could still serve their primary functional purpose while also doubling as vases. She also symbolically invited the attendees to literally eat her photographs, as the icing of the cake she served, and photographed the half-eaten cake (another form of excavation or digging). While the photographs that emerged from this event are beautiful and thought provoking, they only tell half the story. In this context, the objects, and even her role as “artist,” were superseded by her role of party host, project coordinator, and even political activist—her relentless hunt.

She invited me to provide the musical entertainment. Hubby understood how a dirty 1983 Ford Econoline with a piano bolted to it (courtesy of mechanic High Kilroy), conceptually, is analogous to a large crane with a disco ball hanging from it. She also painted the van with chalkboard paint so that the workers and their children could create visual art as I performed. We set up a microphone outside the van and many of the construction workers and their families as well as singers from the surrounding neighborhood (Michelle Rose, Tif Sigfrids and others) joined in for “street karaoke.” The construction workers sang along to “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place” (poignantly joining in on the “work, work, work” chorus) and sang  James Brown’s “I Got You” in hilarious falsetto after sucking on helium balloons—to name but two highpoints.  No one cared if we were creating “art” beyond the transient event—and, musically speaking, we weren’t creating marketable “product,” but for that night at least, the tensions between the neighborhood and the workers were not evident, as the audience became participants; the subjects became co-creators in the art, and the artist became curator as well as observer; producer as well as consumer.

This party certainly lived up to Hubby’s claim “to create art outside of conventional exhibition settings.” It became a media event—not simply the antithesis of the Harris Gallery show. Taken together, these two construction site exhibits, complemented each other, and suggest new possibilities for how we create and exhibit art and music in the 21st century. This was not lost on Elsa Longhauser, the director of The Santa Monica Museum of Art. SMMOA found itself in the middle of another construction site controversy, and invited Hubby to be a year-long resident construction artist to make a virtue out of necessity.[3]This provided Hubby the perfect context to further develop, and synthesize her findings of her first two construction site exhibits—largely because it was both a construction site as well as a conventional exhibition setting.

IV. The Dig The Dig Potluck: Santa Monica Museum of Art (July 21, 2013).

On July 21st, 2013, Hubby brought her artwork and curatorial acumen to another controversial construction site: the Bergamont Station, adjacent to the Santa Monica Museum of Art. Hubby’s “Dig The Dig” installation was an outdoor event that brilliantly occupied the liminal space exactly between the construction site and the Santa Monica Museum of Art. Though officially invited by the museum, and held on its parking lot (separated from the site by a chain-link fence), the event had the blessing of the construction site, and both construction workers and art cognoscenti were invited to participate (and the input of both was essential).

“With the validation of SSMoA Monica,” as Rose Apodaca puts it, “the celebration-cum-art installation took on a different significance from the Rowena chapter—albeit without the institutional or art world sobriety” of the first chapter at LaVerne University. Like the Rowena event, it was a party to celebrate the workers whose construction work on Olympic and 26th she had chronicled, as the Museum’s “Resident Construction Artist,” in the months leading up to the event. Hubby expanded most of the ingredients she had included at that event (the disco ball, the cones, the food, etc.), but, socially, it had many more similarities with a conventional art opening for group exhibition. While this installation was billed as a “potluck dinner,” and included a rich away of food and beverages, what Hubby served up was an embarrassment of riches that simply cannot be digested in one visit to the museum cum construction site.[4]

V. Curating Is Not Those Heads On The Wall

Of the over 300 attendees of this event, there were only a handful of construction workers present; the vast majority were patrons of the museum, fellow artists, or people from the community who had heard about the event through KCRW or the other pre-show publicity. Over 30 artists, working in a wide array of media (from artifact-based work to process-oriented work) contributed.[5]

As a result, there were many more patently artistic focal points at this event, with a site map posted on a blog to allow curious viewers to navigate the event.[iii] As one of the musicians invited to provide “entertainment,” I was especially impressed by the way Hubby spaced the layout of the event so the musicians, and DJS, were far enough away from each other so as not to compete. Since the space itself was more expansive than either the Harris Gallery or Rowena Site, Hubby’s own art-work took on a larger scale, as she displayed “super-sized photographic murals on vinyl” (in contrast to Harris’s silk): “a kaleidoscopic vision of dredged earth, ponderous machinery, verdant palm trees and sea-blue skies”(Apodaca).[6]

She also expanded her use of the traffic cone motif; this time stuffing the traffic cones with sunflowers—because they last longer—and streaking them with tasteful brushstrokes which complemented the orange, and the presence of the cones was heightened by her use of orange table-cloths, utensils and actual oranges in bowls. Barbara Gillespie decorated each tall cocktail table with crocheted orange and white miniature “cozies,” The Inflatocorps Cone Bar created a giant nylon cone, and Ivette Soler conceived a cocktail called The Safety Cone. Thematically, the flower in the cone provided the central iconic image, or thing, that often started the discussions, yet the discussions went beyond it in fascinating ways.

In her role as “curator and project coordinator,” contrast and juxtaposition of such contexts deeply influenced Hubby’s decisions on which art works, and artists or creators to include.[7] As a writer, I was immediately impressed with the text art by Christopher Michlig and Eve Fowler. Michlig’s posters were nothing but the single word “YES” or “NO,” the primary dualistic juxtaposition,[8] while Fowler chose one of Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons as her text to hang on 4 adjacent posters. Hubby used them for the show “purely due to the day-glo palette and poetic nature of their messages in contrast to normal construction site signage” that suggest analogies with the cone, but the specific text Fowler decided to use was entirely her own and suggests other juxtapositions worth further investigation (Fowler was not present at this event).

VI. Branching Out

Likewise, the inclusion of my “piano van” project clearly relates thematically to the flower in the cone or the disco ball on the crane. Hubby did not dictate my choice of material; the event, however, certainly played a part in the nature my “performance art” at that event, as I found myself interacting, often one-on-one, with those who visited my parking space during the four-hour stint before my official 20 minute performance. In this context, there was very little gregarious dancing—to either my music or the DJ at the other end of the site-- and no interactive, if debauched, street karaoke as at the Rowena event. I did receive requests for some songs, and appreciative listeners, but more often I found myself in fascinating discussions with other artists and art appreciators about the presence of the piano in the van as an installation piece in Hubby’s exhibit.

Since the event necessitated that Hubby “branch out” from her role as visual artist into her role as curator, it became clear that I must branch out from my role as musician. The mere concept of a piano in a van may be a static artifact, but improvisation, in this case primarily in conversation, became the hunting, which allowed me to at least begin the process of interactive harmonizing with the practices of the other artists at this event in a way music could not in this context.

Indeed, at the heart of Hubbyco’s curatorial projects, is her putting a diverse group of artists in implicit dialogue, to explore the ways each artist’s practice intersects with the others. These conversations became explicit at Dig The Dig, and as I found myself engaging in them, I experienced how the conversations became the art, or more importantly the hunt, in which the artists could begin to discover ways in which are practices can be further coordinated to intersect with each other.

VII. Language, Introversion, and the Question of “Conceptual Art”

In this discussion, I’ve purposely tried to de-emphasize the use of the term “conceptual art,” to describe Hubby’s ongoing achievement. Certainly Hubby tries to avoid the term—for her the execution of the works (the ‘heads on the wall’) is clearly not a “perfunctory affair” (as Sol Le Witt put it in his seminal 1967 definition in ArtForum); but as the presence of Christopher Michlig’s text-art shows, Hubby certainly incorporates the central concerns of that historical “movement,” creating art that questions its own nature. While many have pointed out Hubby’s affinities with her mentor, Ed Ruscha, who elevated the status of language itself as art (and was present at the event as a “culinary artist”), and others who have produced art by exclusively linguistic means, I detect even more affinities with Christine Hill’s Volksboutigue projects. Hubbyco, like Volksboutique, could be characterized as “an exercise in labor, in public service and conversational skill” revealing “the dichotomy between a working atmosphere and its result---between introversion and extroversion.” It shows “the mess behind the scenes” exhibits mistakes and "capitalizes upon chaos” (Volksboutique Manifesto).[9]

In Hubby’s case, the conversational skill both precedes and extends beyond the “event itself.” Talking and writing have a similar symbiotic relationship in the Art of Conversation. Behind the scenes, the creation of a blog months before the event to document her role as Resident Construction Artist became at least as important as her delivery of flowers to the construction site. Those were the first two things Hubby did at SMMOA, and in expanded proposals she planned both bulletin boards and billboards not simply to publicize the project but to engender discussion on its civic and aesthetic value. In the 21st century, such “virtual reality” becomes as crucial as attendance at actual events, whether we like it or not.

The so-called necessity of “web presence” these days in the culture industry (on-line applications, on-line classrooms, wiki-leak activism, MP3 culture, etc.) has lead to an increasing placeless, and eventless, culture. Yet overzealous attempts at reactions to this (such as the Occupy Movement, which became dominated by those who believed that their actual physical presence at various City Halls around the country was more “in the trenches” than those who were working on the “virtual” trenches (through teaching, the web or art) are not the answer. Why? In part because they don’t make room for introvert!

But Hubbyco’s vision is capacious enough to reveal the dichotomy “between introversion and extroversion,” and thus make room for the introvert as well site-specific extrovert, between the “doer” and the “thinker. In this sense the launching of the blog alongside of her beautification project at the actual site shows how the event becomes the thing that exceeds itself. As an introvert, I feel in many ways more present in Hubby’s project in writing about, and beginning to analyze some significances, of these pieces than I did when at the actual event (though it was fun-work while I was there!).

In this sense, the event became less of a culmination or a climax of Hubby’s construction work installations and more of what Rose Apodaca refers to as SMMoA’s “first chapter of engagement with the revitalization of its environs and its own metamorphosis.” As I look forward to Hubby’s proposed books, and even a panel discussion (which may include as many of the artists present as she can corral, her ongoing blog and proposed book and other documentation), I considered writing a DIG THE DIG theme song, but Samo Hunt had already done that ( ).so—for now I decided to write a sestina. It only focuses on one aspect of the event, but one that should not be overlooked:

[1] Baraka was clearly not alone in the idea that museums and galleries that de-emphasize their surroundings conferred the negative value of a reified ‘death’ (as opposed to a positive value of ‘immortality’ onto a living process). You can even see it in Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna,”—“inside the museums infinity goes up on trial...” The highway blues that Dylan sees in the Mona Lisa’s smile could also be called ‘the hunting.’ Yet The Harris show illustrates one way a gallery can bring life back in.
[3] While most agree bringing more mass transit to the area will be great for the community, “it’s a sad irony,” as Lisa Napoli noted, that it resulted in the destruction of the much beloved Track 16 Galleries. The Museum (itself a beloved, and anything but staid, institution) remains, and while temporarily inconvenienced by the “dig,” is ultimately looking forward to the new station.
[4] The documentation has begun. Tyler Hubby filmed many aspects of the event; Marlene Picard (and others) photographed the event rigorously, and here’s Ruben Diaz’s time-lapse Bird’s Eye video of the event, for starts:

[5] Gordon Bowen, Josh Callaghan, Alice Clements, Eve Fowler, Steve Hurd, InflatoCorps, Kristin Beinner James, Adam Janes and Justin Miller, John Knuth, Karen Lofgren, Omar Lopex, Christopher Michlig, The Modeling Agency, Adrian Paules, Nora Jean Petersen, Pat Pickett, Nancy Popp, Olivia Primé, Jim Skuldt, Mike Slack, Mariángeles Soto-Díaz, and Keith Walsh. Additional creative contributions from Fallen Fruit (David Burns and Austin Young), Samo Hurt, Barbara Gillespie, Dave Cull, Tyler Hubby and Zig. music from T. Kelly Mason, Soy La Mujer, and Chris Stroffolino; and cocktail artistry by Ivette Soler and a bespoke scent created by The Institute for Art and Olfaction
[7] aside from the food of course; both professional and amateur “culinary artists” were invited)
[8] see Apodoca for a further discussion of the possible significances, both aesthetic and political, Michlig’s posters took in the context of Dig The Dig.
[9] A fascinating art-school dissertation could be written on the striking similarities (and differences) between these two artists. I’ve had the pleasure of working with both, and plan to discuss this in a future piece that goes beyond the scope of this essay.

[i] Baraka’s own body of work, as artist, public intellectual, culture worker and activist in over 60 years of public life is itself an embodiment of this symbiosis. His work in forming collaborative institutions of self-determination (from his work with The Black Arts Repertory Theatre in the 60s to his recent events, co-hosted with his wife Amina Baraka, at the Spirit House in Newark) is exemplary, and go beyond the terms of this particular early essay of his.

[ii] Construction+Art+Outdoor Exhibit+Party
If you are a construction worker, this invitation is especially for you

Bettina Hubby has making photographic works of the Rowena street construction  project in Silver Lake over the past year.

Workers and the site itself—have become the inspiration and subject matter for this recent art project

As a way of thanking you and giving back, Hubby is inviting you and your family to a casual outdoor party.

Saturday—January 12, 2013---5-730 pm

LOCATION: The biggest construction site on Rowena Avenue between Fletcher and Hyperion. Look for the orange balloons and candlelight!

Locals from the neighborhood are also welcome to join.
Hope to see you at the site!

*Food and veberages are being generously donated by ATX, Atwater Village and Bar Brix, Silver Lake and special thanks to Raven Spa

[iii] (this was where I included the Site Map as an endnote, but BLOGGER won't let me post it!)

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