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Informative, Enthralling, Absurd

In between panels, papers and cups of absurdly bad coffee I participated in the strange dance that is “professional networking.”

By Arts & Culture, Uncategorized

A student reflects on CAA’s most memorable panels

By Ariel L. Pittman

I spent the weekend of February 10-February 13 deep in the underbelly of Chicago’s Hyatt Regency hotel attending sessions at the annual College Art Association conference. In between panels, papers, and cups of absurdly bad coffee I participated in the strange dance that is “professional networking,” air-kissed former colleagues, and exchanged eye rolls and tips on surreptitious napping with friends old and new.

Like most discipline-specific academic conferences, CAA is incredibly vast, with this year’s topics ranging from “The Future of Criticism” and “Contemporary Art History in 2020,” to “Violence in American Art 1870-1917” and “Art and the Televisual.” The sheer length of this year’s session catalog was daunting, and while I managed to attend nine sessions I’ve only managed to think somewhat coherently about three.

Contesting the City: Experiments in Transnational Public Art

My presence at “Contesting the City” on February 11 was driven by loyalty to a friend and SAIC alum, Steven L. Bridges (dual M.A., ‘09).

Friendship notwithstanding, I can objectively say that Bridges’s paper examining Jens Haaning’s piece “Arab Jokes” (1996) was the best of the bunch. Making a careful comparison between Haaning’s “jokes” and xenophobic propaganda posters published in Denmark (where the piece was initially installed), Bridges described the oscillations between the legibility and illegibility of Haaning’s posters, depending on the viewer’s cultural background and ability to read or even recognize Arabic script. The result was a cogent discussion of how one might understand the value of artistic interventions of text and image in public space.

Bridges’s paper was followed by Jo Novelli’s interesting, if less coherent, discussion of Francis Alÿs’ work “Seven Walks,” performed in London in 2005. While her linguistic interpretation of “Seven Walks” was interesting, especially in terms of how art encourages us to read public spaces in new ways, what really stood out was Novelli’s discussion of Alÿs’ development of catalogs that function as archive-cum-art objects in and of themselves.

Finally, in what was one of the most absurd experiences of the entire weekend, Australian artist Richard Tipping gave an overview of his practice, which involves modifying traffic signs in order to create silly puns. The tipping point of the talk was his concluding sales pitch, in which he informed the audience that he had many small, factory-produced versions of his signs for sale, if anyone was interested.

Art and the Televisual

Among the best sessions of the weekend was “Art and the Televisual” on February 12, featuring papers by Melissa Ragona (Carnegie Mellon), Andrew Weiner (UC Berkley), Margot Bouman (Parsons), and Maeve Connolly (Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology).

Ragona’s snappy and enthralling riff on Warhol’s Proto-TV production in the late 1970s as Gesamtkunstwerk (or total work of art) brought a level of clarity and criticality to Warhol’s oft-dismissed late career work, overturning the reading of the Proto-TV work as media-whoredom and representing it as a sophisticated parody of celebrity culture and American cultural values.

Equally successful was Weiner’s paper on Frank Gillette and Ira Schneider’s 1969 work “Wipe Cycle.” The scholar presented the success of early video as an aspect of its own spectacular ability to refer formally to minimal sculpture, monumental murals, the living room, and the television studio and surveillance post.

Taken together, Ragona and Weiner’s papers made a strong case for video as a cultural medium capable of taking on aspects of fine art, popular entertainment, psychology and the transformation of protest from real event to media fiction.

Bauman and Connolly’s papers focused on more contemporary aspects of video art’s interpolation with television, and their incursions into and transformation of public space.

Distributing Ourselves: New Media Art, Curating, Networks, and Collaborations

“Distributing Ourselves” on February 12 was centered around a presentation by Beryl Graham, co-editor of the Curatorial Resource for Upstart Media Bliss (CRUMB) website ( Graham’s incredibly informative, pragmatic and exuberant presentation on curating new media work addressed the ways in which artists and arts professionals might generate a more transparent dialog in regards to best practices of exhibiting new media work. In particular, she discussed how institutions can better communicate the content and importance of seemingly inscrutable work to their publics.

SAIC Professor Bruce Jenkins (FVNM and Art History) responded to Graham’s presentation with a clear historicization of the relationship of new media and institutions. Jenkins reminded us that in addition to specific technologic innovations, this art also presents new ways of looking at the art of the past.

Next, Abina Manning, Director of SAIC’s Video Data Bank, gave a touching talk detailing the effects of the “digital revolution” on the VDB’s collection. Like Graham, Manning stressed the importance of making these works accessible to a broad audience, in order to encourage consistent maintenance of the archive and asessments of its treasures.

Following Manning, Professor Adelheid Mers (Arts Administration) spoke to the unique demands that new media work makes on the audience and the instituion.

Jon Cates (SAIC Professor in FVNM), who had been wildly tapping notes into his MacBook throughout the panel, gave a charming wrap-up response that spoke to the radical political potential in the development of new media, and the as of yet undiscovered potential of whatever newer mediums lie in wait.

While these reflections fail to do justice to my pages of notes and the thoughts and questions expressed throughout the conference, I hope that they at least convey what I think is the most exciting aspect of the field of art-studies: its willingness to take on anything and everything as fodder for critical discourse, aesthetic experience, and ideological table tennis.

Finally, I’d just like to say that while I didn’t have the nerve to try and sum up a panel that included papers by Whitney Davis, Thierry de Duve, Walter Ben Michaels and Stephen Melville in 150-200 words, watching four old white guys battle it out on the conference floor is at least as entertaining as the Super Bowl … But, CAA, next time can you serve snacks?

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