Friday, July 15, 2011

Deconstructing the Department of Alternative Affairs

The current exhibition at the Art Gallery at City Hall is called "The Department of Alternative Affairs" and it is a collaboration between three artist collective groups in Philadelphia: Little Berlin, Extra Extra, and FluxSpace. One of the especially vibrant aspects of Philadelphia's visual arts scene is a growing number of artist collectives, some (but not all) of which may also have physical spaces, usually in areas of the City where really affordable space can be found. We thought it would be valuable to invite in three of these collectives and give them the opportunity to figure out how they would like to use the gallery space.

What they have chosen to do is create a new "City agency" for the duration of their exhibit called "The Department of Alternative Affairs" (DAA). This conceit is carried through in the installation of desks and other office equipment in the space, at which members of the groups actually do their work. There are also performative aspects of the installation as well - more info below.

It is an interesting challenge for a public gallery space like this one to present work of this sort of a conceptual nature, and something we debated about a lot. There is probably more explanatory signage than the groups would have preferred, and the artists really wanted to make the DAA as "official" as possible, including an actual City web site, City email addresses, and City ID badges (not something we were able to do - but they found a way to create great "faux" elements that utilize the City seal). I think this tension is healthy. The majority of our visitors are tourists and City workers, or people in the building to deal with a City agency - not a traditional gallery audience. As a result we - and the artists who are sometimes on site - must spend a lot of time talking about the nature of art, and explaining what conceptual art is. Lots of folks peek into the gallery through our glass door - see some desks and chairs and lack of "art" on the walls, and are hesitant to come inside. The show has gotten some nice press coverage from Peter Crimmins on WHYY, as well as from DoN Brewer on Philly Side Arts.

I asked the director of our exhibitions programs, Tu Huyn, to provide his thoughts on the show. Here is what he had to say:

"The only attitude (the only politics--judicial, medical, pedagogical and so forth) I would absolutely condemn is one which, directly or indirectly, cuts off the possibility of an essentially interminable questioning, that is, an effective and thus transforming questioning."
 - Jacques Derrida, Points…Interviews 1974-1994

It has been 50 years since Jacques Derrida founded "Deconstruction", a philosophy and rigorous form of textual criticism that breaks apart structured modes of thinking revealing its flawed parts.  Through this questioning of the language used to build the foundations of our thinking, we are left with further questions about power and ethics, whether or not a restructuring of the way we think is possible, is the "immediacy" and existential process championed in Modern Art an illusion that is perpetually delayed...on and on?  Essentially, the introduction of deconstruction is an important chapter to the evolution of artists, writers, creative people as critics (and self-criticism of institutions) who not only question of the nature of art and its traditions (be it Western), but by doing so open up a questioning of cultural values and social structures.  Artists became institutional critics.  New structures of thinking emerged, post-structuralists in the age of Postmodernism, Feminism, social activists...the necessary progression of society.

This current exhibit revisits some of these challenges from a generation ago, even using some of its vocabulary, such as "hierarchy/non-hierarchical", "institutional critique" and "structure".  So, while the presentation of art isn't traditionally framed by a white wall or a pedestal, it has its historical context, its precedent in the Postmodern era.  That does not mean that these questions are irrelevant today even though the institutional critics of the 70s are now well established and accepted by the institutions of museums and the art world.  There will always be questions such as: what is art, what it should be, how it can be used, how it is used (as a vehicle, utility, forum...), who should be its authority and whether or not there should be such an entity to begin with, what role art plays in society, what does art do, what is the role of government and the arts, how can art be more accessible, what's the difference between fine art, commercial art, student art and who is to decide on this separation, its quality...on and on?  These are ongoing conversations, and they are healthy ones to have.

We are part of government and as Peter Crimmins from WHYY wrote in his article, we are an "agency up to its neck in city bureaucracy and politics."  So does an exhibit like this hurt the OACCE, seeing that it can also be regarded as a critique of our government hierarchical structure?  I think the opposite, that by allowing these upcoming artists to showcase their ideas about art, the art gallery becomes a forum to discuss these issues and at the same time highlight these three progressive artist-run spaces, their values and alternative approach to the artistic process.  We are embracing this emerging, experimental art scene and the overall spirit of artists as collaborators.  Their artistic process is a collaborative process, a non-hierarchical structure devoid of the traditional curator.  These artists are their own curators, not to mention, they are self-published, their own fundraisers, administrators, cheerleaders, volunteers....That is the other picture that's being presented in this exhibit.  As nonprofit, grassroots organizations that are run by artists, they are also proving that even though they do not sell a lot of art or seldom showcase works that are traditional objects worthy of sales, their work do in fact provide a valuable service.  The questioning of art traditions, cultural values, hierarchical structures is an old endeavor, but it is still a relevant exercise.

On Mondays, Daniel Wallace from Extra Extra puts on his pagan robe and meditates beside EE's video installation depicting a collection of tension building and collapsing moments, colliding and retreating structures.  On WHYY's, Peter Crimmins states that Wallace's Meditation Mondays is a pun on corporate focus groups.  While it happens as part of the Department of Alternative Affairs - one can make that connection - but I think it is also reflective or metaphorical of their creative process - art as necessary collapse and reconstitution of ideas.  The tension comes from duality, contradictory forces, which can mean many things obviously but Wallace's presence is a break from Western duality and introduces a triangle.  The third entity being the artist in reflection and meditation.

The microfilm reader questions the values of technological advances by looking at an obsolete piece of machinery.  Some things are lost information is transferred, digitized, such as the character of the newspaper, the advertisements, the elements that capture a time period, etc.  FLUXspace is also concerned about the accessibility of art - the mundane object is now placed in a new context as a work of art and has new value, which presents the notion that anything can be regarded as art.

Little Berlin is producing an exhibit called "authorLESSity", which asks anyone to email an image that he or she considers as great art.  They will print it out and make an exhibit (in whatever format) during the closing event on July 29th 5-7 pm.  They are also signing up other artists to work in the space and form further collaborations.

An end to this experimental collaboration may include further videos by Extra Extra working in the space, building sculptures...We will soon see.

Here is the official description of the show, with all the show details:

The Department of Alternative Affairs

The City of Philadelphia’s Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy introduces its summer emerging artists exhibition: The Department of Alternative Affairs.  Three artist-run collectives from the emerging Kensington art scene present a collaborative project as the new Department of Alternative Affairs.  Featured artists from Extra Extra, FLUXspace and Little Berlin are utilizing City Hall’s art gallery as a non-hierarchical workspace to create, perform and educate visitors about their respective organizations and Philadelphia's creative climate.  

Participating Artists:
Extra Extra: Derek Frech, Joe Lacina and Daniel Wallace.
FLUXspace: Nike Desis, Angela Jerardi, Susanna Gieske and Warren Miller.
Little Berlin: Kristen Neville-Taylor and Martha Savery (founders), Beth Heinly,
Kelani Nichole, Tim Pannell, Masha Badinter, Tyler Kline and Maria Dumlao.

The Department of Alternative Affairs (DAA) is the second emerging artist show in the Art Gallery at City Hall since the gallery opened in June of 2010.  This annual invitation to grass roots arts organizations is an opportunity to sample Philadelphia’s dynamic visual arts scene and to continually gain insight on the creative people behind it.  This year, the Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy - with assistance from an independent City Hall Exhibitions Advisory Committee - is highlighting artist-run spaces, their values and creative, curatorial processes as an alternative to more traditional presentations and notions of art. 

The Art Gallery at City Hall has been transformed into office workspace where members of the DAA are serving a residency. The gallery is a stage for conceptual performances and a platform to educate and discuss the state of today’s artists as administrators, curators and volunteer workers at group-run art spaces operating on shoe-string budgets.  It’s an opportunity to recognize their uncompromising, yet collaborative spirit, and their challenge to accepted cultural values and structured modes of thinking. Each organization is presenting an installation of desks (two were created by the artists) and office furniture with unique mission statements.  Depending on which artist is on hand, each day may be a different experience for visitors.  During their residency, artists may forge collaborations as they interact with City Hall visitors and staff in this experimental process.

“This use of the gallery is a break from the tradition of art presentation and is a reflection of the unique process and sensibility of these three organizations,” says Mary Salvante, Chair of the City Hall Exhibitions Advisory Committee. “It is new ground for the gallery program as it provides an opportunity for the general public to be engaged by the artists and the installation in a nontraditional context.”

The Department of Alternative Affairs has extended gallery hours scheduled for Wednesdays 7/6, 7/13, 7/20, 7/27 from 5 – 8 pm;  an Open Web Studio workshop by Little Berlin on Monday, 7/18 from 5 – 8pm.  A closing reception, which will be a culmination of their experiences in City Hall will take place on Friday, July 29th, from 5-7 pm.

To learn more about the Department of Alternative Affairs, visit: 

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Our Town Grants Announced by NEA

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) just now announced the recipients of grants under their new "Our Town" arts and placemaking initiative. $6.575 million in grants will go to 51 communities in 34 states that have created public-private partnerships to strengthen the arts while shaping the social, physical, and economic characters of their neighborhoods, towns, cities, and regions. NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman made the announcement during a press conference this afternoon. The full NEA press release and descriptions of all the grantee projects is available here.

I am very excited that the City of Philadelphia (the Office of Arts Culture and the Creative Economy, working with our Commerce Department) has partnered with The Reinvestment Fund (TRF) and University of Pennsylvania’s Social Impact of the Arts Project (SIAP) to secure one of the largest grants awarded, $250,000, to build and launch a Creative Assets Mapping Database for the City of Philadelphia (TRF is the actual grantee). The multi-faceted project will further research related to the relationship between cultural engagement and economic development and will produce a web tool that can inform planning, marketing, policy development and public/ private arts investment strategies. Creation of this geodatabase will allow the City and other cultural leaders to monitor the growth in creative assets and assess their civic, economic and social impacts.

This initiative began with a simple question from Mayor Nutter a couple of years ago - "Can we map all the cultural and creative economy activity in the City and can we then use that tool to drive our policies and decisions?" The answer was that no such tool existed - at least not in a comprehensive enough form - so we began immediately to work with TRF and SIAP, national leaders in studying the impact of the arts at the neighborhood level (more information on their arts work is available here). TRF also operates Policy Map, the leading source of mapped social and demographic data.  We were able to secure a small planning grant from the NEA last year and since then have been working to develop our plans for this project.

Our Town grants range from $25,000 to $250,000 and represent a range of rural, suburban, and urban communities with populations ranging from just over 2,000 people to more than 8.2 million people. More than half of the Our Town grants were awarded too communities with a population of less than 200,000, and seven to communities with fewer than 25,000 people. Grants were awarded for planning, design, and arts engagement projects that strengthen arts organizations while increasing the livability of communities across America. By requiring a partnership between local government and an arts or design organization, Our Town encourages creative, cross sector solutions to the challenges facing towns, cities, and the arts community.

There were 447 applicants to this program, and we are truly honored to be one of the 51 grantees. We hope our project will not only help strengthen what we are doing in Philadelphia but also serve as a national model for other communities. MANY other exciting projects funded throughout the country, and I also congratulate all the other grantees. This is another example of the transformative work the NEA is doing now under Rocco Landesman's leadership.