Scott Rigby of Basekamp talked me into coming to Philadelphia for the ICA show “Locally Localized Gravity” (through March 25, 2007). He asked me to talk about histories of collective art. I arrived late on one of the museum’s “Whenever Wednesdays,” and ran into the place, noting only the large blur of a multi-colored structure reminiscent of the Ewok village from Star Wars on one side of the large main gallery, and scattered groups of people. One bunch seemed to be dancing, dozens of folks standing on a big black-painted raised stage. Another group was squatted in a circle inside a tent on pillows talking.
The Basekamp joint in the show is the long table. That night, a group of interesting folks was seated at it. I sat down before a cup of coffee, and we had a good discussion concerning the histories of collective art groups.
Among those around the table were Scott, director of Basekamp, and Ola Stahl and Kajsa Thelin of the C.Cred group in England who were in town working on this show. I asked “What would you most like to know about artists’ groups?” I have written a normative history, based on written records and archives, of what a series of groups did. These artists told me they wanted most to know what is each group’s process? And how do they achieve economic independence?
The next day I returned to see the show. “Locally” consists of numerous groups, each of which has an area of the overall exhibition. A full schedule of varied activities will take place in most of these structures over the two month run of the show. At the entrance is a big black stage on wheels. Next to that is a narrow carpeted stage with cutouts of the singers Hall & Oates upon it (hunh?), the aforementioned Ewok village-like construction, a tent, two tables, and a hutch studded with video monitors. The black floor is from a gallery project in Philly of the same name. That was where the hugging or dancing was taking place the night I walked in. Ola of C.Cred said a couple of chubby guys greased up and stripped to their waists had bumped bellies at the opening. The Black Floor group insists in their wall statement that they are not a collective – they are a cooperative, yet dedicated to non object based practices.
The most spectacular construction in the space is the three towers with walkways built by Space 1026. It is, in fact, modeled after the Ewok village in one of the Star Wars movies (they’re the furry gerbil-like dwarf people who live in trees). This was unquestionably a grand thing. The towers are shingled with page-size silkscreen prints of various design. The ropes of the rampways are crocheted colored plastic bags. Dozens of people worked on it. An admiring security guard told one of the artists she wished she’d been able to help with the crocheting.
As if the books broke apart and flew up to constitute it, this is a monument to DIY zine culture. It is an art culture that celebrates the handmade. In it every useable image in an image-soaked world is processed through the silkscreen, validated by handwork into a tactile art-like painting-looking thing.
In an installation tactic borrowed from the Keebler elves bakery commercials – “Come into our tree trunk factory!” – one enters through the knothole to sit on fabric covered pillows over milkcrates and watch TV. The videotape tells the story of Space 1026, the artists at play in a raw loft, skateboarding around, exclaiming with delight – “Look at the size of this place!” (Their loft, not the tree trunk.) They built an indoor skate park ramp in their space, and tried to sell skateboards, make t-shirts and publish a zine. All these projects failed.
They didn't say on the tape what finally succeeded, but from the walk-through part of the video, 1026 seems to be a dense cooperatively run warren of studios of people producing lots of silkscreen prints. “People,” that is, a gaggle of sublettors. There’s a meeting about the rent – “Who has paid, raise your hand” -- and a woman says she has here experienced her first “real experience of community.” The walkthrough video segues with a fade into white which is a zoom into the lightbox used for exposing silkscreens. The skater ethos informs this project -- you can try anything, and try to do as much as you can before you fall off, because “you will fall off your skateboard.”
In the guts of the biggest central tower is a little gallery with nice-looking decorative artwork, tiny paintings with beautiful doodle lines, decorated drips, wry and gloomy figures. This is swell stuff, the art nouveau of the 21st century, a great flowering of decorative arts we may presume to be nationwide, best known to New Yorkers from the San Francisco Mission school work seen at Deitch Projects. Space 1026 follows in the train of groups like Royal Art Lodge and Dearraindrop. I saw the aesthetic in Atlanta at Youngblood Gallery, in both the showroom and the gift store. It’s all over clothing today as printed and stitched-on rococo décor, the generalization of the punker and sports fans sewn-on patch. Even a guy we had dinner with was wearing a preppy looking shirt with the decorative lozenges sewed on seam side out.
Space 1026 does not seem to be an art group per se so much as a studio complex of like-minded young artists, a proto-Tiffany’s studio ready to make palaces for indie rock stars.
Stephen Powers, who wrote graffiti as ESPO and published a glossy graf fanzine, comes out of the Philly scene. The city was an important early center of that now worldwide style of artmaking, and Powers’ book Getting Over records those years. Space 1026 is a pungent sample of the art school-fueled subcultural vitality he left behind when he moved to NYC. ‘Cept it ought to be James Brown on that stage.
LTTR of NYC put out a table with a hatchet punched into the surface, strewn with their publications. A videotape showed street performances the group had done. LTTR is basically about a dyke's right to be a dyke and celebrate her dykiness. It’s all good. You go grrlz! For baby dykes who wander into the show, this may be just the neighborhood they’ve been looking for. But to this middle-aged straight white male, the LTTR culture of young out lesbians is not very interesting.
In a show of groups, one is encouraged to respond to each as a super-personal subject, without any sense of who they actually are, that is, who constitutes them. In “Locally,” these groups are simply chunked together – all the toys go in the box, dolls and soldiers together. A separatist group then becomes even more separate in that context, even more objectified. I can imagine other contexts where LTTR’s work would look better, less essentialized.
Red 76 is here. They (?) were in town collecting revolutionary stories, connecting with their group name and Philly's claim to fame as a tourist destination. Ben Franklin's house in Philly is outlined on the ground where it used to be. A lot of these patriotic sites feature extensive interactive exhibitions worn to a nubbin by constant traffic. As are these concepts.
Is Red 76 a “they”? Or a he? Sam Gould is the kingpin, the author of everything the group does, so is this a group or is this, like Assume Vivid Astro Focus, the collective name of an artist who works with groups of people? This is a question to ask as collective formations become increasingly common, and Sam turns up as a fly-in artist all over the world.
“What is revolutionary to you?” Multiple monitors play videos, one an interview with a big-eyed few-toothed long-haired geezer in the subway. It’s a kind of street interview I fall into quite naturally, being a geezer myself and not usually avoiding peoples' eyes. The guy is engaging, convivial, but does not have much of interest to say beyond the typical weird mix of pride in revolutionary heritage and anxiety to assure his defense of all relations of power as they are that guarantee our freedom such as it may be, which includes debilitating self-intoxication, to which this gentleman may be no stranger.
This fast veer into street life was matched by other monitors in which people read historical writing like the history of the Weathermen. This project I am afraid struck me as flat, lacking in carbonation. That may be unfair, since like most things in this show it is also a process. Together with C.Cred and Basekamp, Red 76 is doing a "revolutionary book club" where they will meet in various bars and coffeehouses and discuss different revolutionary texts.
Are they going to struggle through the Weather Underground’s manifesto Prairie Fire. More to the point, are they going to study on the destruction of Philly’s own MOVE commune and the jailing of Mumia Abu Jamal? If they be talkin’ revolution, Red76 needs to try to be red, black and green.
Upstairs are two solo shows. Upon exiting those galleries I came upon the last group work, an installation by LURE called Sweet Green Hangout. On an open balcony they have built two conjoined greenhouses of the cheapest wood and clear poly sheeting. One is pretty chilly and lined with hay bales to sit on. It must be warmed by a crowd, I guess. The second room is lined with a waffled silver foil to make it like a solar oven. On this chilly day it was warm in an oddly layered way as the sun came through the plastic and was trapped and bounced inside. This very sensuous experience was, sorry to say, disfigured by aesthetic misadventure. A kind of crunked up shelf of funky albeit cannily conceived art-like objects were merely incompetent biomorphic abstractions of a modernist kind. I am sorry, but this is sort of a museum, guys. LURE should have had Space 1026 do their shelf concept.
But that the groups and spaces here represented specifically do not work together seems to be part of the concept. Neither do the grapes and bananas communicate in the fruitbowl which the ICA proudly wears upon its head, shaking its behind to lure the eyes of international curators to the home of the cheese steak. Perhaps in honor of the recently deceased Marcia Tucker, ICA convened a curatorial committee to invite these groups. These 3 folks’ 3 statements in the gallery notes evince the motives and methods of the committee. “Process” describes their meetings with the chosen artists because “in an unusual move, we’ve ceded much of our curatorial role to the artists.” “Premise” hypes the Philadelphia art scene with its “hipster status.” Hey, move on down, the rents are low and the community’s warm! Finally, “Precedents” cites the authors of collectivity as we know them, you know, artists who do things besides make paintings and sculpture, like Gordon Matta-Clark who started Food restaurant (not), and Claes Oldenburg who opened his Store to circumvent the commercial gallery (no), and, um, Rirkrit and Hirschhorn.
I could start on all that with a plastic knife and fork, and it is tempting. But since the committee promises an evolving downloadable catalogue, I shall invite y’all to do it yourself.
Basekamp has been working for years promoting artistic collectivity. They plan a conference for ’08 entitled “Plausible Art Worlds,” and hosted an in-house tent city of aesthetic collectivistas afrom the U.S. and abroad last summer. Stephen Wright, a translator of Ranciere, co-editor of a 2004 issue of Third Text on collaboration, and champion of the use value of art, wrote a foreword for the project on the Basekamp website.
For the “Locally” show at ICA, Basekamp collected posters on collectivism. These are booked on their mobile table and put up on the blue and white “+ sign” wallpapered wall behind it. The burgeoning mass of info includes a map detailing the “midwestern cultural migration corridor” running through Chicago, the Twin Cities, Madison, and a place I've only heard of called Dreamtime Village near Milwaukee. Another advertises a book called “Manifesto for Counter-Hegemonic Art” (pdf at www.freee.org.uk). Another the “As Yet Unnamed Think Tank” (at http://thinktank.boxwith.com).
Basekamp is playing the role of on-site head trippers, entrepreneurial academics thinking about it all. Through a weekly program of discussions, games and activities they will strive to pull in an egghead public. Can they productively complicate the ICA’s curatorial frame, which is about as solid as cardboard over a broken window? There’s a fair chance, if only because of their superior commitment to the collective concept, and a far deeper investment in playing this particular game. I am sure they will have fun trying.
Finally, while it is a truism that art critics today are disregarded, let me formally congratulate the ICA for serving up this mixed grill of new art. I know it was fashionable, appeases local sentiment and will be cheap to run for two months, but it nevertheless took a certain amount of nerve which very few cultural institutions in this country have been able to muster.
Stephen Wright's essay on Basekamp “Plausible Artworlds” project site