Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Communication Happens

With our original location in a working class neighborhood with large families, many of them struggling to get by, we often had occassion to explain our current exhibition to a very skeptical, very vocal audience. One exhibition in particular brought out that skepticism with passion. The locals who would peer in to see each new exhibition, only coming in for a closer look if it interested them, seemed to take it personally that this time what we had on view didn't fit their definition of "art." One young man (about 10 years old, I'd say) voiced the frustration his gang of 6 friends displayed with their body language, shouting through the glass, "That ain't art!"

From the street, the installation of Kate Gilmore's video Heartbreaker (see this PDF file for more info) looked like a mound of splintered, splattered planks dangling from the ceiling with gnarly masking tape. Which, from the street, it was. Only after one entered and looked from the other side would the viewer find a video, which showed a woman in a pretty yellow dress, covered in blood, hacking apart a large wooden valentine with an ax. (You can see Kate's work currently in a group exhibition at Mary Boone Gallery.)

One day two burly local men (about 35 years old, I'd say) came in for a closer look at Heartbreaker. I expected the same agressively dismissive response we'd been getting from the passersby. Rounding the pile of rubble, though, they stopped and watched the video and, their body language told me, began to relax. Finally, one turned to me and said "It's about having a broken heart, isn't it?" I could have hugged him. Yes, I said, It's about having a broken heart. The two men left nodding their approval, big smiles on their faces.

I was reminded of this incident while reading the New York Times article about Nina Katchadourian's current project in Lower Manhattan:

Several years ago the artist Nina Katchadourian found herself staring up at the sky full of office windows in Times Square and thinking about the faceless occupants behind them. “You think, ‘My God, all those anonymous people up there, living and working,’ ” she said. “There’s this sense of so much detachment between interior and exterior.”

With the cooperation of one of those anonymous people and the help of the Public Art Fund, Ms. Katchadourian is now trying to build a bridge — or at least, as she says, stretch a tenuous thread — between those two worlds.

Last week, on a windy plaza at the corner of Liberty and William Streets in Lower Manhattan, workers installed a heavy-duty tourist-type telescope. Its lens is fixed on a 17th-floor office window two blocks to the east, and at least once a day for the next two months the corporate lawyer who sits near that window will choose three objects from his office — for instance, a potted plant, a picture of his young son and a calculator — and arrange them on the sill. Anyone who wanders by the telescope can peer into it and see the objects, a kind of occupational variant on the famous lanterns in the Old North Church.

Then, using a pictorial key mounted on the telescope, the observer can translate the lawyer’s messages and, perhaps, divine something about personality or his soul. Or at least whether the deli forgot to put mustard on his pastrami sandwich again.
I have to say, I love this concept. It taps into so many ideas/motifs that interest me (spanning the gap between people with twists on the idea of "commuication," a sophisticated portrait system, interactive durational work that keeps viewers coming back for more, etc.). But it was the comments of a few observers that made me fall in love with this project:

On the first day of the project, only a few observers wandered tentatively over to check it out, seemingly confused about why a tourist telescope was pointed in the direction of nothing particularly touristy. But Bill Fatouras, a project manager for Chase Manhattan Bank, who had walked outside to enjoy a cigarillo, squinted into the telescope and said he would return to make a daily smoke-break check on his nameless neighbor.

“That way if he’s having a bad day and I’m having a bad day, maybe we can get some empathy going, you know what I mean?” he said.

Martin Griffin and Jerry Morgero, underwriters for a commercial insurance company, said they might keep tabs too, but admitted that they didn’t quite know what to think of the project as an artwork.

Mr. Morgero shrugged: “I guess it just goes to show what I don’t know about art.”

Mr. Griffin shrugged too, but then brightened.

“It’s a big, glorified mood ring,” he said. “If that’s what it is, I like it.”

The more I think and write about art, the more I realize whether it works or fails for me personally often has a great deal to do with how well it works as communication. By "communication" I mean specifically: transmitting an idea between two (or more) minds in a meaningful way. The hallmark of successful visual art, for me, is that it communicates something that can't be expressed in words or some other medium, but more basic than that is that it works well as communication, that essential components of good communication are considered: does the mode reinforce or undermine the idea; how is the idea received (i.e., in a setting/form where it can be accessed?); how will the reciever view the messenger (i.e., has the artist considered bias against him/her)...I could go on ad nauseum, but...

When it all comes together...when art serves to facilitate the most magical of moments...when it prompts someone to see the world in a new way, it's among the most rewarding of human experiences. Which gives you insight into one of the major reasons people become gallerists and curators, by the way: you get addicted to seeing that happen.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

hear hear

11/21/2006 10:24:00 AM  
Blogger This Broad said...

This project is so lovely I could cry. She is an amazing artist.

11/21/2006 11:54:00 AM  
Anonymous ruslan said...

you write humbly and honestly about a phenomenon often derided as sentimental or dismissed as populist. indeed, the magic of connection motivates us all.
thank you.

11/21/2006 12:33:00 PM  
Anonymous Bnon said...

I like your description, too. For me, too, art that lets me see the world in a new way is important. Okay, that's just being coy. When I think about it, it's the most basic criterion I can think of. I can't imagine any good art that doesn't meet this goal. It also allows one to dismiss a lot of proficient but empty work.

11/21/2006 03:08:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

I also love this project.

And I totally agree with you. Edward, up to the point where some works are meant to be hermetic, the sort of art meant for the initiated, and I have nothing against that eitheir. The importance for artists is to have a sense of their audience. That audience could be themselves, in the case of abstraction or art that is made by artists who are not so much trying to communicate as seeking an effect, mystify their practice. Art, in the visual and sound sense, is afterall first and foremost an aesthetic experience, not only a mold for communication.


Cedric Caspesyan

11/21/2006 04:05:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Art, in the visual and sound sense, is afterall first and foremost an aesthetic experience, not only a mold for communication.

I think we disagree, Cedric. I'd have put it the other way around.

11/21/2006 04:47:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

Ok, I sort of trapped myself there as aesthetics are a form of communication (whatever comes first, the will to communicate or the aesthetic desire). But I meant to say that art can-could be communicating nothing other than aesthetics, or whatever else it attempts to communicate, it's always the aesthetics that first come through. That is how I say it is first and foremost an aesthetic experience.

Any have opinions?

(Where's Rosalynd Krauss?)


Cedric Caspesyan

11/21/2006 08:04:00 PM  
Blogger fisher6000 said...

I am curious about why aesthetics and communication are separate...

And yes, Edward, I think about this a lot at Socrates. One of the most beautiful things about working there is the Regulars. The fishermen and dog people are some of the keenest eyes in town. They bend over backwards to "get it", are a lot more generous with their time than most gallery-goers (in part because they live with the art) and develop very strong opinions about what works and what doesn't.

And they are generally spot-on, IMO.

This dialogue between art and life does two things. First, of course, the Regulars get to live with art, watch it evolve, weather, change their mind about it. But it's also really profound to have this daily reality-check when you are an artist in residence there. When artists are making and installing their work, the park is open. Artists develop relationships with these dogwalkers, get (unsolicited but valuable) critiques, and have to explain what they are doing to a group of people that is very savvy, and is also completely oblivious to Artspeak Buzzword BlahBlah.

The power of public art... often underestimated.

11/21/2006 08:42:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Aesthetics and communication cannot be separated. In art, communication occurs aesthetically no matter the medium, concept, or context. The language of the finished product is in never ending dialogue between the artist and the viewer. This energy resides in the fourth dimension of inconclusive space and time. That's my input.

11/21/2006 10:30:00 PM  
Blogger kurt said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

11/22/2006 06:25:00 AM  
Anonymous eleventh hour said...

ed, that was the blog version of linus' monologue in 'a charlie brown christmas.' thanks, it was really great.

11/22/2006 07:52:00 AM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

Aesthetics exceeds communication. If I see a tree it is not trying to communicate to me. Or I am merely talking to myself.

Aesthetics are sort of "out there" and then the cognitive process makes you decide what it is you wish to be communicated (without that desire the attempt of communication is passing through your other ear). So aesthetics and communication constantly fluctuate in a zig-zag pattern through cognition but they are not the same. It's offers and demands.


Cedric Caspesyan

11/22/2006 03:51:00 PM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

happy gristle. War is peace.

11/23/2006 11:49:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well now, this is sure sychronicity considering how we've been chewing on this very topic over at Art & Perception.

I am definitely going to start following your writings, Edward. It seems someone sees this too. sigh

11/25/2006 01:44:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's a pleasure to visit this site!

11/25/2006 08:14:00 PM  
Blogger hlowe said...

Gee, Didn't anyone see Rear Window?

11/25/2006 11:30:00 PM  

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