“Nowhere #8005,” (2009) by Ian Whitmore. Image courtesy of the artist.
The harnessing of nature into man-made indoor climates has been occurring for centuries via an array of vessels including terrariums, greenhouses and flower vases. In many places, structures were built around a living tree so as to minimize environmental impact, or simply for the sake of convenience. Ficus, bonsai and rubber trees have dominated living rooms and dens for decades. No matter the climate, we humans are a species that demands the outdoor environment be brought inside.
Regardless of the organism brought indoors, the maintenance and containment of a houseplant is key. It is expected that a plant match its container proportionally and that its extremities not exceed a certain margin of space. Fallen leaves and buds on the windowsill or coffee table must be removed swiftly. Soil is expected to be well-watered and the leaves positioned to receive a healthy duration of sunlight (many owners elect to occasionally rotate their pots to provide even exposure). Care through control on all fronts is the triumph of houseplant-ing.
The photographs of Ian Whitmore and Andrew Curtis show artists participating in an increasingly noticeable aesthetic focus: the inclusion of houseplants in their work. They are just two examples of a large shift toward including these ubiquitous pieces of our built environment in contemporary art. Moreover their work centralizes indoor spaces and other highly controlled, stark, almost-empty environments and landscapes (three-season porches, patios, lanais). These are often, at least in Whitmore’s case, commercial and institutional spaces. Curtis is more focused on examining houseplants in domestic settings. For both photographers, the foliage they look at spans a diverse register of species and health — some are fruitful and vibrant, others dying and losing their leaves.
There is something compelling about these organic wanderings, however. Both photographers’ works are simple and often far from any ideal notion of garden or elaborate adornment. To be sure, the term “houseplant” itself suggests a special marked quality differentiating from its outdoor, wilder counterpart. One of the fundamental differences in these terms is whether or not a pot or planter is used. These contain the roots, soil and watering. They also enable convenient transportation, depending on size and material, of course. Noticeable systems of containment will be the criterion for “houseplant” here. Yet the curbed aesthetics of those spaces remain. A majority of plants appearing in their works are clearly under some influence of control. Essentially, repression is aestheticized, restraint made tasteful. The play of control and natural tendencies are worth paying attention to when looking at Whitmore’s and Curtis’ pictures.
Whitmore’s work often frames the houseplant as folly in the built environment. His photograph “Nowhere #8005,” (2009), a ficus tree in a conference room, betrays any sense of obedience on the part of nature. The tree is off-center, toward the back of the room as seen from across a standard conference room table and chairs. It stands in waiting or perhaps delay, preparing to enter or exit from an important board meeting. The empty chairs personify the tree, as if to state “standing room only.” The natural object brings discomfort, almost prompting a desire to see it in a larger, more natural landscape. It does not match.
The folly here is riddled with intentionality. Regardless of how it got there, the tree was an attempt to make the space more inviting, more human. The tree stands as a pocket of nature, a small patch of wild earth. Whitmore’s approach slaps away all politeness with a knowing hand, abhorring the plant’s supposed pleasantness in favor of an awkward yet latent aggression (the ficus tree is on file with United States Forest Service as a species with rapid-growing and invasive roots). The tree, as the photograph shows it, could be a channel of aggression and otherworldly strength within the limited behavioral bounds of corporate America. It is a totem of what is to be fought for. Could it stray from its compliant positioning? Whitmore could very well have given us something to believe in.
In other cases, houseplants occurring in Whitmore’s work may serve as a unifier among various locations and representations of nature shown in the photographs. The larger body of work in which his plant photographs appear is titled “Nowhere.” Here, a collection of scenes traverse 22 nondescript locations, in each of which a plant is evoked or an actual plant is found in surrounding content. Over time, viewing these photographs in a sequence makes a game of spotting the houseplant (although they are easy to find). One realizes that the plant (or the idea of one) is a single thread that runs through the work and each instance must be located.
Andrew Curtis exposes the plant in full-frontal view, making it central to the work with minimum content on the outskirts of the image. Curtis’ work seems to recall the idealized specimens of “Sunset” periodicals and the more extensive full-color landscaping manuals printed under the same name. Here, however, the plants have been isolated from their other surroundings by the use of Rotring ink. Their cut-out shapes evoke space with no other grounding features (see “INTERNATIONAL LAWNS (Survival Programmes)”). The work provides a certain sense of dependability given that the plants dictate the black-hole-like space that encapsulates them. Curtis presents the plants as a means for orienteering, predicated upon the unseen prime meridian of conventional landscape arrangement and design. In other words, a sense of space is discernable. The quest prompted in these photographs is not to find the element of nature but to see its containment and its possibility.
It could be that Curtis is calling to mind the notion of control through his strict photographic treatments. At first glance, there seems to be no escape for the foliage. Vibrant and near artificial renderings (i.e., highly-processed) create a second layer of control/containment. Yet, the distortion that appears in these techniques also brings with it a sense of potential. Nature is held captive but only visually. It could be that a removal of surrounding content alleviates literal containment and allows for freer growth, something wilder. Maybe Curtis’ work seeks not to show how nature has been tamed but how it can be liberated within some of the most intensely regimented spaces.
The larger implications of houseplants in various media have yet to be formally unpacked. Regardless of context, they operate as a starting place. Perhaps this is their larger significance: they are looked at, almost depended upon, by the viewer as a bellwether for understanding the conditions shown in the rest of the work. They are moments of nature, adaptable and clear representations of care (or lack thereof). Therefore, the plant becomes not only our point of access into the work, but also a determining factor for how the rest of the scene is doing (or what it is trying to do).
ELEGY FOR THE UGLY TOMATO
One can find tomatoes at Chicago’s chain grocery stores year-round. These tomatoes are uniformly round, bright red and flavorless. For many, this is simply the status-quo, they’ve never known a tomato to look or taste otherwise. Yet older consumers or those who frequent Farmers Markets know that tomatoes come in a wide variety of colors, sizes and shapes and typically have a rich bounty of flavors, from sweet to salty depending on the varietal. Why then do the bland, mealy uniform tomatoes dominate Chicago shelves? The answer is a familiar refrain in this world: follow the money. Grocery store tomatoes have been bred for pest-resistance, shipping durability and shelf-life. Conspicuously absent on that list are flavor and nutritional value. As is always the case in these circumstances, the blame isn’t only on the producers of sub-par tomatoes, for they are reacting to market demands. These poor-quality tomatoes are consistently sold to an audience that hungrily consumes them and demands their appearance in winter months when they are out of season.
The example of tomatoes is a microcosm of the circumstances that lead to poor quality and availability of produce in major urban area. The food market in a city like Chicago is vigorously entangled in the food supply web of factory-farms, international retailers and government subsidy that keeps lackluster produce available 365 days a year. But even this sub-par service is only available to those in neighborhoods where profit is to be had. Chicago has become rightfully notorious for the existence of “food deserts,” areas with neighborhoods with no or distant grocery stores. “Examining the Impact of Food Deserts on Public Health in Chicago,” a 2006 report commissioned by LaSalle Bank, found that “living in a food desert can mean greater rates of obesity, premature death, and lower quality of life, especially for mothers and children.” Eating good food is a matter of life and death, and many populations in Chicago are losing that fight.
This status quo is increasingly unacceptable to a growing number of farmers, community organizers, consumers and city planners. Across the city Farmers Markets, organic food co-ops and community gardens are sprouting up. Yet, more significantly, groups of forward-thinking visionaries are planning and executing industrial and community-scale projects that aim to fundamentally alter the understanding of, and access to, food in Chicago.
OASES OF GREEN
Instead of Chicago as an unbroken stretch of pavement, concrete and monolithic structures, imagine instead a blend of the natural and manmade. As an urban environment criss-crossed by swaths of green, open space. Places where citizens can stretch their legs, engage with nature and, perhaps, cultivate their own food. This is the utopian vision of Chicago Rarities Orchard Project (CROP). This non-profit organization has taken major steps toward developing an orchard in Chicago. It will be nestled in a busy, quickly developing corner of Logan Square (at the southeast corner of Milwaukee Ave and Kedzie Boulevard.). This 1/4 acre strip will one day be home to 40-50 apple- and other fruit-bearing trees. Their mission is focused on preserving some increasingly rare apple tree varietals that are at the risk of going extinct, plus reintroducing native species like the Paw Paw tree, which once fed native communities. Vanessa Smith, board member and active volunteer for crop, emphasizes the role of community in this project. “We will be recruiting a huge volunteer army to help with maintenance, but also because if this orchard is in your neighborhood we want to you feel like you have ownership of it.”
CROP is currently mired in the long and sometimes torturous process of developing land in Chicago. But, Smith says that local government has been incredibly helpful and supportive of the project. With help from NeighborSpace, a non-profit land trust dedicated to community gardens, crop was able to purchase the plot of land from the city for a symbolic $1. Via donations and other grants they have enough funding to tear up the asphalt and build what will be the multi-use park and orchard. Crop hopes to be planting the orchard by Spring 2014.
The ultimate function of crop is one of education and reappropriation of urban spaces. It has no intention of being an economically viable model, dependent as it is on the “gift” of the land and volunteers, and focused instead on education. There is a lingering sense that urban farming is a “hobby” of affluent and middle-class white people — one can purchase a $1,500 chicken coop from Williams and Sonoma’s agrarian line of urban farming products. While the importance of crop and small-scale community gardens cannot be understated, it will take more fundamental and large-scale projects to alter Chicago’s eating habits.
SOWING THE SEEDS
Brian Campbell, a crop scientist based in Colorado, puts the economics of urban farming succinctly:
Food systems, like everything else, are dictated by supply and demand. The ability to purchase supplies in bulk, invest in infrastructure, control delivery systems, perform extensive marketing, etc., allows large companies to outcompete small businesses. In the same way that a mom and pop drugstore can’t offer lower prices than Wal-mart, csa (community supported agriculture) and family farms will not be able to offer lower food prices than Monsanto. … Affluent citizens in large cities have many options of healthy and exotic foods, while the poorest citizens have almost no options, which is the root of the problem. It does not make financial sense to open grocery stores or even farmer’s markets in areas where nobody can afford the merchandise.
The aforementioned report on food deserts also found that these swaths of land where residents simply cannot find healthy food if they want it are almost universally low-income, largely African-American neighborhoods. In the last decade a number of groups have organized to help combat the food distribution disparity connected to poverty. Following the lead of Growing Home, a non-profit that has built operating urban farms in the Englewood and Back-of-Yards neighborhoods, the city of Chicago has developed the Green Healthy Neighborhoods initiative. The plan proposes to redevelop 13 square miles of the South Side into urban farmland. The benefits would be myriad and extend beyond improved nutrition for nearby residents. They will also create agricultural jobs and attract eco-friendly housing, industry and other businesses. The hope is to engender a South Side renaissance based on economically sustainable agricultural practices in a neighborhood that, according to census data, has lost a quarter of its population in the last decade.
Eating well is about more than access to food, it is also connected to daily habits. That’s why the targets of educational efforts in food deserts are not adults who purchase the food, but their children who influence that decision. One of the largest steps toward the goal of changing eating behavior from the young up came last winter when the Emanuel administration granted $1 million dollars to The Kitchen Community. This non-profit builds learning gardens in underprivileged elementary schools across the country. Flush with city funds (leftover from nato grants), The Kitchen Community is building gardens in 80 South Side elementary schools. Darin Delay is project manager for Kitchen Community and he walked me through the goals of the project. Kitchen Community builds learning gardens, that are “Social environments where kids can decompress, but the bigger focus is on connecting kids to real food.” Kitchen Community chooses schools based on an algorithm that includes the percentage of kids who receive free and reduced fee lunches (an indicator of a low-income student body). The installation of the gardens becomes a community bonding event. The children and their parents help construct the beds, create a “bucket-brigade” to fill the beds with soil and participate in the planting of seeds and bulbs. The hope is that this will result in families who see the learning gardens as connected to their communities and the lessons learned are taken home and shared.
FARMS WHERE FACTORIES GREW
The final step in changing food distribution systems and eating habits of Chicagoans is to make some money. A majority of the urban farming and education initiatives citywide are funded and operated by generous donations and volunteer work. These initiatives can and will continue to have a great impact on the city, but their scope is limited until they aren’t only ecologically sustainable, but also economically. A solution to the problem may already be in the works. The Plant is an 83,000 sq.ft. former industrial food processing plant in Back-of-the-Yards, a once booming but now largely low-income neighborhood. Abandoned for years, The Plant was bought for a song and is now being converted into Chicago’s, and perhaps the world’s, first “net-zero energy vertical farm and food business operation.” At the root of their system is aquaponic farming, where schools of tilapia are grown in vats and waste from the fish fertilizes plant beds. The produce is then sold to local restaurants, co-ops and Farmers Markets. When construction is complete The Plant will be producing it’s own energy via an anaerobic digester, which creates power by breaking down bio-material. It will also host a series of mutually interdependent businesses, including a cafe, breweries, and mushroom farms who will share waste and organic by-products. The operators of The Plant are also dedicated to education and outreach within their community and host a regular series of classes and workshops connected to sustainable agriculture. Perhaps most importantly, their systems and processes are transparent to the public. The Plant wants to be more than an operating business center, but also a replicable model for other urban vertical farming systems. Currently, The Plant’s grounds and buildings are still rough and bear the traces of its post-industrial past. The plans (and funding) are in place and they are moving toward their goal of net-zero energy, closed-loop food production by leaps and bounds.
The Plant, CROP, and Growing Home are just a small sample of the city-wide urban farming initiatives taking root in Chicago. These groups are powered by good intentions, smart planning and support from city government; a powerful combination under any circumstances. If they continue with the momentum they already have, Chicago is on the cusp of becoming one of the first major urban areas to successfully reclaim previously unusable post-industrial landscapes and rezone into an agricultural hub. The benefits would be tremendous, including a boost in employment opportunities, better nutrition for at-risk populations, decreased environmental impact from shipping in food from out of state, increased open space for residents, and finally, some delicious and nutritious locally-grown tomatoes everyone can enjoy.
Illustration by Claire Ellen Lindsey.
In 2009, filmmaker Oliver Stone released a documentary titled “South of the Border.” In the 78-minute long film, Stone set out to debunk the U.S. media image of then-president of Venezuela Hugo Chávez perpetuated by U.S. media — that of a mindless dictator, a 21st century Fidel Castro. Stone had it easy; it’s not difficult to find laughable footage from Fox News or CNN pundits. He then embarked on a trip around Latin America, to hang out with Chávez and the rest of the leftist heads of state of the region to clarify, through first-hand conversations with each one of them, just what is going on south of the border.
The film attempts to bring to the forefront that the shift to the left in countries like Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Argentina and Brazil is in reaction to years of destructive U.S. meddling in Latin American affairs — through the International Monetary Fund, forceful removal of leftist leaders in CIA-backed plots, etc. — and former Latin American leaders who would easily comply with White House orders. It’s the brown and the poor people in an armed but peaceful revolution, Chávez says to Stone, against white oligarchies.
Stone wasn’t trying to be neutral. Throughout the documentary he is as much of a protagonist as Chávez and the rest of the leaders. He sits next to them and always appears on camera, nodding his head in agreement with their leadership and congratulating them on their success. Throughout the documentary Stone features outside interviewees who can speak in favor of what is referred to as the Bolivarian Revolution. Nevertheless, Stone himself acknowledged to reporters covering the release of the film that the production was not “dealing with a big picture, and we don’t stop to go into a lot of the criticism and details of each country.” He said, “It’s a 101 introduction to a situation in South America that most Americans and Europeans don’t know about.”
Today, Stone can look at the more liberal media for forgiving assessments of Chávez. Outlets like Al Jazeera and Democracy Now were quick to offer more levelheaded opinions after the death of the Venezuelan leader in early March. Both outlets attempted to break down the reasons why Chávez was such a beloved political figure in the first place. The millions of mourners who took to the streets of Venezuela should have made it clear to outside viewers that Chávez was much more than just a charismatic president bribing his way into the hearts of his people.
Mark Weisbrot, columnist and co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, has been leading the charge recently with hard economic facts that support how the situation in Venezuela has improved considerably, especially for those living in extreme poverty. Al Jazeera and Democracy Now have summoned Weisbrot when in need of a clarification of just how positive Chávez was for the country. There has been a 50% reduction in poverty and a 70% reduction in extreme poverty, Weisbrot cites in his appearances on both outlets. Plus, living standards have increased for most residents of the country, especially thanks to the availability of universal health care. Chávez is never recognized for these successes in the U.S. media, in order to portray “a one-sided, negative picture of the country, and of course of Chavez himself,” Weisbrot recently wrote.
Weisbrot has had recent on-screen confrontations with Rory Carroll, The Guardian’s former Latin American correspondent who was based in Venezuela for six years and recently published a book on Chávez titled “Comandante.” What Carroll offers is mostly on-the-ground evidence from his time living there — the hospitals available to access this universal health care touted by Weisbrot are not in good shape, and the “misiones” (missions) set up to help aren’t that efficient either; the nonexistent separation between party and government leaders and the easy access to TV and radio waves gave Chavista leader Nicolás Maduro an unfair advantage in the recent election; and Caracas is now considered one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Carroll and Weisbrot have been pitted against each other on both Democracy Now and Al Jazeera. When Carroll was invited to comment on NPR about the recent election results, Weisbrot was quick to come to the defense of Chávez with a piece on Al Jazeera titled “Haters Gonna Hate,” and cited the hard numbers and statistics he now probably knows by heart.
It’s fair that outlets like Democracy Now and Al Jazeera choose people like Weisbrot to comment on Chávez — facts are good. But what is the value of more levelheaded media outlets, if they fall into the same trap: calling upon a talking head to come to the defense of one man and his politics. And what is it important to focus on, really — the people living in the country or the reputation of a leader? If we can learn one thing from history, it’s that no one man (or woman, in the case of Argentina) has the key to all of a country’s problems, and we should be wary of all of them.
Instead of looking to the president, why not cast a wider net and look closer at the situation on the ground? Venezuela’s leadership would be rightly served with more information about thriving social movements like feminists, gay and lesbian rights organizations, economic justice activists, and environmental coalitions that were given a voice by the Chávez administration, a rare occurrence in Latin American countries still very much plagued by misogyny and homophobia. Can we put a face to this oft-cited mass of Venezuelans who have benefitted from universal health care and literacy programs? What about the leaders of the neighborhood councils that make sure that the Venezuelans living in dire poverty get more access to the services they deserve? It is telling that the opposition leader Henrique Capriles has promised to maintain many of Chávez’s social programs. Yet the reasons for their success are shrouded in talking heads babble, disputing whether or not the polarizing leader did well.
The consequences of setting up a government so dependent on the image and reputation of one leader are clear now that Chávez is dead. Maduro ran a campaign that capitalized on his close relationship with the late leader, going so far as to say that Chávez had appeared to him in the form of a bird.And now the close outcome of the election and the inability of leaders on both sides to tone down their rhetoric and put a halt to their acts of defiance has left people no choice but to fight it out on the streets, in the name of each candidate. The people are desperate for solutions to serious problems of crime, shortages, violence and corruption.
In many ways, Chávez, and the presidents from the region that followed his lead, embodies the fantasies of a bred-in-the-bone leftist: he’s a socialist leader from an oil-rich South American country constantly giving the middle finger to the U.S. But in attempting to inform, commentators in global media — left, right and center — should look beyond the polarizing personality of a leader and focus more on what the policies enacted mean for the people. The late Argentine president Nestor Kirchner said it best to Oliver Stone. “In a multilateral world, you can’t have just one power decide for everyone. It’s bad for power itself,” Kirchner commented. “This is something I always tell Hugo – I’m very close with Chávez, he’s a friend — but I tell him: you need to build collectively, you need to have 10 presidential candidates. It can’t just be you. Otherwise, if you get sick and you die, the whole process will be over. To believe that one person can give the guarantee is like believing that only one country can resolve all the world’s problems.”
Illustration by Patrick Jenkins.
Mark Twain wrote about the city of Damascus, Syria, in his 1869 book “Innocents Abroad.” “Damascus has seen all that has ever occurred on earth, and still she lives. She has looked upon the dry bones of a thousand empires, and will see the tombs of a thousand more before she dies,” Twain predicted. “Though another claims the name, old Damascus is by right, the eternal City.”
Syria is where it is believed the first alphabet was invented and the rise of the world’s earliest civilizations occured. Christianity and Islam both flourished there, leaving behind some of the earliest and most important religious sites in the region. It’s one of the only countries where Aramaic, the Semitic language of Jesus Christ, is still spoken to this very day.
Today, headlines worldwide carry messages pertaining to the death and destruction in Syria, especially in cities like Damascus and Aleppo. After four decades of totalitarian regimes, the country rose up against oppression and tyranny. The Syrian civil war is now in its third year. Brutal government crackdowns and unprecedented violence have made Syria one of the most dangerous spots in the world. Violence in the country continues to escalate, bringing the death toll to 70,000, and facts on the ground tell us there is a lot more to mourn than a body count.
In May 2012, Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO, issued a public appeal for the protection of Syria’s cultural heritage, expressing “grave concern about possible damage to precious sites.” Only 10 months later, however, Aleppo’s ancient marketplace known as the “old souk” — a UNESCO world heritage site that survived the rules of the Greeks, Romans and Ottomans — did not survive attacks by the modern weaponry of the Syrian regime. After the stone walls had been pockmarked with bullet holes, and snipers surrounded the old quarter from every corner, a fire following clashes between the regime’s army and the armed opposition lit the souk up in flames, burning a large portion of its shops and historical assets.
Bokova further expressed her concern following the fire, calling Aleppo “a crossroads of cultures since the second millennium B.C.” and warning of possible destruction threatening other important sites. Joanne Farchak, a Lebanese archaeologist who also investigated the destruction of Iraq’s historical treasures after 2003, was quoted by The Independent’s Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk saying the situation of Syria’s heritage today is “catastrophic.” While other archaeologists and groups such as the World Monuments Fund have been monitoring the losses, government forces, thugs, looters, and terrorists have been playing a more significant part in lengthening the heritage casualty list. These parties, however, have yet to be identified as it becomes increasingly difficult for international agencies to enter the country. In the meantime, government officials claim the opposition army forces are responsible, while opposition members blame government forces and regime thugs.
Recent reports have shown that the holiest Jewish site in Syria — the 2,000-year-old Jobar Synagogue — has been looted, burnt and destroyed. The holy site built atop a cave is believed to be where the prophet Elijah hid from persecution; it is located in a Damascus suburb that has been under indiscriminate government shelling for the past two months. Mohammed al Shami, an opposition activist who lives in the area, said in a Skype interview with NBC News that the shelling has not spared any building. “Luckily, many artifacts from the synagogue were removed by a local council in Jobar and are now being stored for safety,” al Shami added.
Much as in Afghanistan and Iraq, it has been reported that nearly $2 billion worth of artifacts have already left Syria. The list of damaged heritage sites and missing antiquities is approximately four pages long. A writer for a Syrian opposition newspaper mentioned that a rare gold statue of an Aramaic God was stolen from the city of Hama, and various YouTube videos show ancient ruins torn down and destroyed in several parts of the country.
The Syrian regime has been wiping out entire neighborhoods, destroying towns and displacing millions of civilians through violent warfare. And while heavy Russian army tanks still surround citadels, snipers hide behind ancient limestone city walls, and shells continue to rain on the alluring courtyards of Umayyad and Ottoman mosques, the rallying cries of unknown heritage organizations remain unheard. Whether that is due to a lack of funding or publicity, sites that have provided generations with knowledge and richness are in a perilous state. As renowned British historian Dan Snow said recently on BBC World, “The treasures now being destroyed matter to everyone on the planet.” But the underwhelming inaction in response has been proving otherwise.
This list below shows only a few of the world’s archeological sites in Syria that have been seriously damaged by the ongoing fighting, bombing and shelling:
1. Great Mosque of Aleppo: The UNESCO World Heritage site is the largest mosque in the city of Aleppo and one of the oldest. It is said to be a former Roman temple and then a Byzantine church.
2. Krak des Chevaliers: A crusader castle, built by the knights of St. John in the mid-12th century on the site that had previously been inhabited by a settlement of Kurds. It lies on a hilltop between Homs and the coastal city of Tartus.
3. Al Omari Mosque: One of the earliest mosques in Islam, located in the city of Daraa in the south of Syria. The symbolic minaret built by the Caliph Omar was shelled and completely destroyed in April by the regime army forces.
4. The old palace of Junblat: One of the largest palaces in the northern city of Aleppo; it dates back to around 1604, originally built for a prominent Kurdish leader in Aleppo during the Ottoman rule in Syria.
5. Temple of Bel: Located in the ancient city of Palmyra in central Syria consecrated to the ancient Semitic god, Bel. Palmyra was a stronghold of Queen Zenobia in the third century.
May 3rd, 2013
May 3rd, 2013
Caroline Wayne, “Was it Something I Said?” Photos courtesy of the artist.
Under what circumstances is it appropriate for SAIC to ask a student to change work exhibited on campus? Art that causes controversy is not new to SAIC. By now we all know the story of the Harold Washington painting by former SAIC student David Nelson and “What is the Proper Way to Display the U.S. Flag?” by Dread Scott Tyler. The school stood behind Tyler and suffered significant financial cuts in both government and private funding because of it. In both cases the work outraged communities outside SAIC. So, understandably, there is always concern around work that may be offensive or illegal.
For what other reasons might the school request alterations? Now consider the case of Caroline Wayne, a BFA candidate in the Fiber and Material Studies, whose work was altered during the course of the 2013 BFA exhibition, to protect, according to the school, her safety.
Wayne’s specialties are soft sculpture and hat-making, which sound innocuous enough. However, Wayne’s work doesn’t stop at object creation; she is also interested in issues of intimacy and social interaction and how relationships are altered by technological innovation.
Her contribution to the BFA exhibition, titled, “Was it Something I Said?” included a headpiece at the base of which was a phone number stitched in red thread underneath the provocation “text me.” When an audience member followed the instructions and texted the number, Wayne would respond by aggressively attempting to initiate a sexting conversation. She would also include a provocative image of herself with her face covered.
Wayne took steps to ensure that her identity and personal contact information were obscured, including purchasing a burn phone and paying for one month of a pre-paid phone plan that she would use only for the duration of this project. She set guidelines for herself, including having no in-person contact with audience members and terminating all communication at the end of the exhibition.
After the BFA exhibition opening, according to the school, an audience member complained after texting the number and receiving Wayne’s response. In reaction to the complaint, the school posted an audience warning next to the piece and spoke with Wayne during a meeting she had arranged with the Career and Co-op Center. During that meeting, Wayne; Kate Schutta, Assistant Dean of Student Affairs and Co-director of the Career + Co-op Center; and Amy Dane Falkowski, Associate Dean of Budget and Administration discussed their concerns for Caroline’s personal safety. They asked Wayne to file a form with the school for approval of the work.
F Newsmagazine met with Amy Dane Falkowski, who is involved in a new initiative at SAIC called Art School Considerations, as well as the Threat Assessment Group (TAG), which is why she was elected to meet with Wayne initially. She pointed out that Wayne’s identity was readily available online with an easy Internet search, which Falkowski considered the most serious concern.
Detail of “Was it Something I Said?”
Art School Considerations (ASC) is a structure devised by the school, seemingly to avoid messy situations such as the Nelson and Tyler controversies mentioned above, but also to help students understand the potentially negative personal or ethical impact of their work. A poster that can be found around campus for the group features the motto, “It’s Not ‘No,’ ‘It’s How.’” Their list of items and situations that need prior approval includes foods, liquids and controlled substances; chemicals and hazardous materials; biomatter, bloodborne pathogens and organic materials; performances; weapons, structures and kinetics; electric and sound levels; alternative spaces; fire and safety; community and courtesy; anything you are unsure about. A formidable list.
Still, Falkowski insisted that ASC is meant to help students, not hinder them. She offered examples of situations in which ASC aided students in the completion of their projects in a way that ensured their safety, as when a student wanted to climb the walls during an exhibition and the group helped determine the safest way for the student to accomplish that goal. Other than Wayne’s case, which was brought to ASC after the fact, Falkowski could only think of one situation in which a student’s proposal was denied, and that was because the student submitted it the day before the exhibition, not leaving adequate time to assure its safe execution.
Wayne did not know about Art School Considerations before exhibiting “Was it Something I Said?” Falkowski said that if she had asked one of the Student Project Coordinators about the piece, they would have been able to find a way to make the project happen in a way that was acceptable for Wayne and the school.
However, because it was too late to ensure complete anonymity for Wayne, ultimately her situation was brought to TAG and she was asked to remove the texting portion of her piece. “If we had had a conversation early on, we would have been able to make sure that she was covering all of her bases,” Falkowski said.
Additionally, the school asked for the SIM card of the prepaid phone that Wayne had been using to converse with participants. Although she agreed with all of the requests, Wayne still feels uncomfortable about the incident, and says she only handed over the phone in order to avoid a controversy so close to her graduation. “I did voice that I was uncomfortable with giving over my SIM card and letting them read through my conversations, to which they responded that they have the same right as they do to go through faculty’s e-mails,” Wayne explained.
“There was an implied risk that I thought was important to demonstrate,” Wayne insists. “While the school has its concerns, I am over the age of 18 and feel that I should have had my opportunity to speak about the reality of virtual self-exploitation.”
When asked what steps would have been taken if Wayne hadn’t agreed to alter her work, Falkowski explained that since it was primarily a student safety concern, Wayne’s emergency contacts would have been notified. “That would mean calling my parents, and as a 28-year-old that makes me a little uncomfortable. … I would certainly feel diminished and not trusted as an artist and an adult,” Wayne said.
While it is too late for Wayne’s piece to be exhibited in full, this case highlights important tensions between acceptable risk at an educational institution. Art School Considerations seems to be trying to function in a gray area between unrestricted creation, vital for some art practices, and unacceptable hazards for an institution. This can become problematic in situations like Wayne’s when the hazard, to some degree, is the point. Additionally, repression of female sexuality and autonomy have long been restricted in the U.S. on the pretext of concern for a woman’s safety. The history of institutional and self-censorship in the arts, especially after the Culture Wars of the 1980s, makes it imperative that the reasons for altering work are thoroughly analyzed. Although censorship was not the school’s intention, careful analysis of the kinds of suggested changes and the real reasons behind those suggestions needs to be discussed.
Detail of “Was it Something I Said?”
“I think it is important to think about why you are making the point you are when you make a work of art that may be controversial or polarizing,” Wayne said in partial support of the proposal process through Art School Consideration. “However, if we have earnest theory and plans for a piece, I believe it is the responsibility of an art school to let us be in control of our work and take the risks we should be taking as art students.”
Undergraduate Lauren Wessel also often uses her own body in her performance, painting and photographic work. Wessel told F Newsmagazine that she sees both good and bad potential in the ASC process. “I wish something like that had been around when I was a freshman. I think it’s a good alternative to flat out telling people ‘No!’ to their project ideas.” Yet, she added, “If the procedure is meant to identify and dissuade students who might want to make transgressive work, I think it is hampering the art-making process. I know in the past I have been told I couldn’t make work that was in any way harmful to my own body. I think there should be a discussion with students who want to make work that is a ‘no-no’ about how and where that work can be made and displayed.”
F Newsmagazine wants your stories. Have you gone through the Art School Considerations process? Did you find it beneficial for your work? Visit F Newsmagazine.com to comment on this article and let us know what you think about art and controversy at SAIC.
Illustration by Patrick Jenkins.
Twirl that handlebar moustache, squeeze into your favorite pair of rump-hugging skinnies, strut your stuff around SAIC’s campus and prepare to be admired. You’re bound to be briefly hoisted into the social media spotlight on SAIC Secret Admirers, the flourishing art-school-meets-missed-connections Facebook page.
SAIC Secret Admirers was begun by an anonymous SAIC student on March 27 with a simple yet visionary wall post: “Messages will be posted soon, you lovesick artists.” It now has 1,639 followers from both within and outside the SAIC community. All are encouraged to use an anonymous online form to submit confessions of love, lust and longing to the admin to be posted on the page wall.
Some posts amuse with their hipster subtexts, addressed to “Girl with dicks drawn all over her blue bag,” “Boy with the unicorn tattoo,” or the “girls in my Wednesday existentialism class.”
Others divulge more serious sentiments, like this heartwrenching confession:
“I tried to turn cold. I tried to act as you do. But I can’t. I like you, but life means so much more to me than alcohol, sex, and drugs. I can’t watch you reach for another girl either.
— Ignorant little girl.”
“The page is now transforming into my own little experiment,” says the amiable creator and administrator of SAIC Secret Admirers (called Admin) in an anonymous email interview with F Newsmagazine.
Admin had seen a few secret admirer pages that were specific to certain universities and was curious how such submissions would differ in an art school setting. “There are a lot more posts between same sex couples,” observes Admin, “and the submissions are so creative and funky. … I have also been really surprised with how many people submit posts stating that they are in relationships, yet they secretly admire another person.”
When SAIC Secret Admirers was first created, every confession was posted. “As time went on, explains Admin, “I decided to only post submissions that did not include a specific first and last name to protect the identity of others. There were also submissions targeting others in hurtful ways, so I posted on the info page that hate would not be tolerated.” When the stream of submissions grew to a flood, Admin adopted a tighter filter, selecting more detailed and creative posts over vague admirations that could apply to anyone.
Assisting SAIC Secret Admirers’ lovesick participants requires constant attention and nurturing. “The only time I am not trying to update is when I’m really busy in class, work or sleeping,” says Admin. “Thanks to my lovely iPhone, I can do it when I’m out in public too. … Knowing that this page is helping others or even just entertaining others motivates me to keep up with it.”
Admin expresses amusement about overheard complaints, often from former Secret Admirers addicts who are “over the stupid page” — “Honestly, if they are able to see that this page is constantly being updated, they are online clicking around as much as I am!” Still, haters gonna hate, and on April 1 another unnamed Facebook user created the anonymous vent forum SAIC Dirty Deeds Confessions. But so far, Dirty Deeds has only 150 likes, proving SAIC’s preference for romance over rants.
Nina Palomba, a senior BFA student with an emphasis in illustration and cartooning, has found herself on the receiving end of SAIC secret admirations four times. Palomba is already in a serious relationship — “I’m in love with who I’m with,” she says — so she hasn’t taken steps to solve the mystery of her distant devotees. Confronted with everything from light-hearted pizza offers to “heavy shit” like propositions for a very first lesbian experience, Palomba has responded the best way she knows how: by posting comic strips addressing her admirers.*
Berke Yazicioglu, a Visual Communications Design BFA sophomore, has also been the object of affection multiple times on the page. A Neiman Center assistant, he nonchalantly attributes these admirations to his constant presence at the center’s help desk.
Yazicioglu’s theory is solid. Palomba also spends much of her time in the Neiman Center for her job in student government, and lately she has even observed a surge in student wanderers. “After the page blew up, I noticed more people in the Neiman Center than I’d ever seen before,” says Palomba. “I think kids are trying to get noticed. It’s really weird.”
Can anonymous online admiration really lead to real-life romance? Yazicioglu, for one, isn’t interested in pursuing someone who can only spout sonnets from afar. “It seems like they wouldn’t be my type of people, [because of] the insecurity they seem to have,” he says of his online admirers. “I’m more attracted to confidence. … I don’t know anyone who’s had a successful hookup on it.”
A few anonymous success stories, however, have been posted on the page. ”[It] melts my heart,” says Admin. “I love that people are actually finding each other, and love (or lust and sexy times) are blossoming from this page.” BFA freshman Rebecca Blau cites a close friend whose SAIC Secret Admirers encounter sparked romance. Upon hearing through the grapevine who had posted an admiration, “She texted him,” divulges Blau, “and they hang out now.”
Some students may find the page’s tongue-in-cheek content makes it difficult to distinguish true yearning from mischief. Many posts are a bit of both. “The ones that are more sentimental I take seriously, but the ones that are like, ‘I’m gonna eat your butt,’ I don’t really think that they’re serious,” says Blau.
Blau is, of course, referring to the phrase “eat dat butt,” a beloved meme among the SAIC Secret Admirers community appearing in increasingly creative forms, including haiku, since first surfacing in this gem of a post:
You know I eat dat butt,
yers n shit
The true definition of “eat dat butt” is to be determined. “Dude, I don’t even know! ‘I just wanna, like, get up on that? I’m gonna devour it?,’” speculates Blau. “Rim jobs!” says Yazicioglu, sitting nearby. Blau promptly disagrees: “I don’t think there’s that many people in the school who’d wanna do a rim job.”
Palomba suggests a darker reading — “It was really weird because I watched this VICE documentary on a guy who was a cannibal, and he was talking about legitimately eating that butt. So my initial interpretation was like, ‘That’s kinda fucked up!’”
“I guess all us SAIC kids just have a major infatuation with butts,” sums up Admin.
Yet among the butt fixations and lusty proclamations float BFF praises, good-natured snark and heartfelt graduation goodbyes. The online lovefest, besides blindly shooting Cupid’s arrows, has, perhaps most importantly, shifted perceptions among SAIC students about each other. “Thank you so much for creating this page,” reads one post to the admin. “It has allowed me to see that not everyone at this school is a pretentious asshole, and that most of the people who don’t come up to talk to me (even after we’ve met) are not doing it because they are bitter or rude, but a lot of SAIC students are apparently shy!”
At its core SAIC Secret Admirers fulfills a simple but welcome purpose — to embrace even the most introverted students in a big, warm group hug. “I’m admiring the whole school now after reading all of these awesome submissions,” says Admin. “Ya’ll are so cute.”