Syllabus sharing! Affect, Art, and Politics – a dialogical class at UWM

Welcome back to another episode of syllabus sharing here at Implicit Art!

City Walks logo by Doung Anwar Jahangeer

This course provides an overview of affect theory and its articulation, activation, mediation, and utilities of manipulation in the realms of art and politics on an international scale. Beginning with a basic understanding of sensation and potential, and how they might be used to shape, for example, national sentiment and thus policy, the course will continue by exploring how our unintentional, affective responses to the outside can and do influence our identity, habits, thoughts, everyday activities, memories, and more. Artists, theorists and historical figures discussed include but are not limited to Brian Massumi, Jill Bennett, Dennis Del Favero, Doris Salcedo, Mary Sibande, Sean Slemon, William Kentridge, Gregory Bateson, Michel De Certeau, Doung Anwar Jahangeer, Richard Grusin, Ai Weiwei, Jane Bennett, Claire Bishop, and Santiago Sierra.

I define affect as, most simply, unqualified emotion. My palms are sweaty; my heart is racing; I have butterflies in my stomach. Is this fear? Anger? Lust? All and none? The body knows, is, and does things, without “my” knowledge, desire, or comprehension. Affect is an embodied sensation and response that does not have a name (… yet). And here affection is a moving-thinking-feeling both before, during, and after conscious reflection, each influencing the other.

Non-human affect is, similarly, matter’s embodied sensation and response – its knowing, being, and doing. Like a human body – its liquids, solids, and gases, its chemicals, cells, and other forms – matter’s various bodies also sense and make sense in and with the world.

And this class fosters dialog and debate around what affect opens, where it guides us, how it works, transforms, acts, and does, and what the stakes are in that for us, and the world around us.

I have offered versions of this class for MFA Graduate Students, where they produced art in response to the discussions, and as a Senior Seminar with dialogical processes in International Studies, where those enrolled wrote responses to the readings and screenings, as well as gave a final presentation and paper – the latter the version I am including.

Affect, Art, and Politics

Every semester I teach this, I switch up the screenings, the artists I invite to talk about their work, a local exhibition we visit. I also always have a reading or two in line with a local conference, and offer extra credit for students who attend any local talk or conference, and write a response to it – so they both experience affect – a lived abstraction – in person, and reflect on it. You’ll also see some of my own writing in this version of the syllabus, which I might update from year to year. But the general readings and overall arc seem to work very well – so I hope you get some use out of them!

Most importantly, every student writes a response to every reading, and then we “conceptually speed date” around it. The former means that there is never any question around whether or not anyone “did” the reading; instead, they help each other understand its import, in relation to their own work and research. And the latter is a practice I learned from the SenseLab in Montreal. It goes something like this:

  1. Choose a generative text.
  2. Choose a minor concept weaving through the generative text.
  3. Ask each person in the group to count off as a 1 or a 2.
  4. Instruct the 1s that they are “posts.”
  5. Instruct the 2s that they are “flows.”
  6. Ask the posts to find a post: a spot in the room where they would like to have a conservation.
  7. Ask the flows to pair up with a post.
  8. Direct everyone to a page in the text where the minor concept occurs.
  9. Ask the participants to discuss the function of the minor concept, staying as close as possible to the text, with detailed attention to how it is constructed.
  10. Notify participants that when exactly five minutes are up they will hear a signal, and that when they hear the signal they must end their conversation immediately, even if they are in the middle of a word.
  11. When the five-minute signal sounds, ask all flows to move to the next post in a clockwise direction.
  12. Repeat 8-10 times.
  13. Bring the group back together and discuss in plenary session what was discovered about the minor concept and the text.

In other words, speed date important ideas from the text, for only 2-3 minutes at a time (I find that time more efficient than 5 minutes), then switch partners. It’s honestly amazing. Not only do the students always show me, and themselves and each other, just how much they know and understand – despite a given text’s difficulty on first reading – but they always teach me something new as well. Andrew Murphie has more on this, and gives a few more pointers on speed dating, too – the latter of which I now use even in my second year classes!

Download the full syllabus and schedule in Word form. Feedback welcome!

Artist Feature: Bryan Cera and Critical Machining

Bryan Cera is a former student of mine (he did both his BFA and MFA with me at UW-Milwaukee), and I couldn’t be prouder. Not that I can honestly take any responsibility for the person and artist Bryan has become – one who far surpassed his teacher long ago; but rather, I am proud to call him a friend and colleague, proud of the hard work he has done, and what he has achieved with it.

Cera was the featured artist at Maker Faire Milwaukee last weekend – the largest Maker Faire in the country – showing off his custom-designed 3D/ceramic printer, and some Daft Punk cosplay, among other things. The former’s main innovations are a vertical shaft worm gear box in order to seriously increase torque, so as to work with standard clay (rather than the over-watery liquid that often doesn’t hold form in most models), and real-time, manual  controls to similarly adjust speed and viscosity as needed. The latter (which gets heaps of Interweb hits), he happily told us, uses an Arduino Nano and addressable RGB LEDs.

But it is not Bryan’s technical innovation nor his open source attitude alone that make me proud. He was always this way, generous and smart, able to figure things out and willing to help others understand them. (See some of Cera’s best tutorial shares here.)

What continues to intrigue and impress me is Cera’s ability to smoothly move between cool pop culture fun, and important questions about how we perform and understand technology, ourselves, and the worlds they together make and change. For him, and for anyone who spends any time with him, art and craft, technology and culture, philosophy and fun, are never far apart – and the stakes in that distance – or the lack thereof – always have consequences.

When I met him, Bryan was making traditional art and going through school on the one hand, playing with technology and his sense of humor on the other. He didn’t see these two lives as connected until he was pushed to explore his fun and geeky side in his (home) work. What initially came out was various versions of Supercontroller – a full-body, interactive interface for Super Mario Brothers. Delightfully fun, we grab coins and jump over (or on top of) turtles to rack up points; this piece’s various iterations also begin to show how digital realms do not enhance our behaviors: they actually limit them in how we must face the screen and interact. Pung – the title a cross between the 80s game Pong and the word sung (like singing) – sees us control the up/down paddles of the classic table tennis arcade game with our voices. Here microphones stick out like robot arms from the screen, and gallery-goers sing and scream into their controllers in order to make it go. It’s a hilarious amplification (literally!) of the weird things we do to make our technologies function (watch the video!), between play, performance, and habit.

These two works embarked Cera on a journey around precisely the tensions between such things. One breakthrough open-source piece that got a lot of attention was Glove One: a fully functional phone you wear on your hand. Though a lot of folks really loved it – you dial on your fingers, do the classic “call me” gesture to speak and listen with your thumb and pinky, hang up by slamming your fist – there was a much funnier, and more critical, joke to the entire gesture. You see, there’s this great hand-phone you can use with natural movements and that looks super cool… and all you have to do is give up all other uses of your hand. You can’t do anything else. Pick things up, hold hands with your partner, wipe – none of it is a go. And Cera’s argument is that we often give up just so much when we adopt our new tech toys. Even when our phones are not there, for example, when we try to shut down and shut off, we feel the phantoms ringing in our pockets, pulling away our attention and our time…

ARAI: Arm For Artistic Inquiry (pronounced array) goes in another direction, but explores similar concepts. We constantly hear how robots are going to outperform us, steal our jobs, become more human. One core argument for this future is so that we humans can spend more time doing important things… What if, Cera asks, we made a robot more human, by having it do the things that humans would actually do in that free time? So… he made a robot that procrastinates. I kid you not. ARAI constantly opens the fridge, peers in, then closes it. It surfs Facebook for pictures of cats. It stares at magazines but does not read them. Ironically, says Cera, the more human the robot becomes, the more useless it is to us. Scary, funny, something to think with… He talks about it brilliantly in the TEDx talk above.

I’m super excited to see what’s next from Bryan Cera. Now an Assistant Professor of Craft and Emerging Media in the Media Arts Department at the Alberta College of Art and Design (that’s a mouthful of awesome right there), he seems to be playing out how more general materials think and act, and how they may change our media, alongside and within them. His beautiful Video Crystals, for example, shape moving images into moving sculptures, and he is in the process of imagining ceramic robots.

Good job, Bryan. Thank you for your work.

Wednesday Sept 27: Morehshin Allahyari at UWM

Morehshin Allahyari is an Iranian artist who moved to the US ten years ago, and produces work across Internet art, video and installation, sculpture, writing, and other forms, all of which explore, she says,  the political, social, and cultural contradictions we face every day.

Two of Allahyari’s recent and most well-known works are The 3D Additivist Cookbook (with Daniel Rourke), and Material Speculation: ISIS. The former is a book of 3d .obj and .stl files, critical and fictional texts, templates, recipes, (im)practical designs and methodologies from over 100 world-leading artists, activists and theorists.

And it is absolutely free.

Download The 3D Additivist Cookbook here, or torrent (yes, a completely legal bit torrent!) the archive here.

Material Speculation is a reconstruction of 12 selected (original) artifacts (statues from the Roman period city of Hatra and Assyrian artifacts from Nineveh) that were destroyed by ISIS in 2015. Allahyari 3D modeled and 3D printed these forms, creating, in the artists words “a practical and political possibility for artifact archival, while also proposing 3D printing technology as a tool both for resistance and documentation. It intends to use 3D printing as a process for repairing history and memory.” She includes a flash drive and a memory card inside the body of each 3D printed object, making each a kind of time capsule with images, maps, pdf files, and videos gathered on the artifacts and sites that were destroyed.

She is also a friend: generous and fun, smart and friendly, I highly recommend you try to make it to her talk this week, September 27, 2017 here in Milwaukee.

Artists Now! lectures take place every Wednesday at 7:30 pm in the Arts Center Lecture Hall on the UWM campus. They are always free and open to the public.

Exhibition Review of ‘This is Bliss’: Jon Horvath at The Alice Wilds, Milwaukee (updated!)

Jon Horvath at The Alice Wilds

Milwaukee artist and teacher Jon Horvath opened a moving and complex exhibition last night, his first with The Alice Wilds – one of the newest galleries in town, whose roster of artists and well-curated shows have already made it a destination.

Horvath’s story goes something like this: about four years ago the artist found himself driving through Idaho, and could not help but exit when an interstate highway sign read “Bliss.” What he found is a town with a rich and complex history – part of the Oregon Trail and first railroad system in the continental US, an inspirational space for Ansel Adams, Evel Knievel, and J.D. Salinger – now mostly abandoned and forgotten. All that is left, Horvath explains, is “one school, one church, two bars and two gas stations” serving about 300 residents.

Jon Horvath at The Alice Wilds

On first entering the exhibition, we encounter the hand-written-esque sign pictured above (top), setting up a tension between celebration and critique: for what once was, for what currently is, for the potential of what is yet to come. Bliss’ story, we understand almost immediately, is the story of America: its promise and its loss, our nostalgia for possibilities which are still possible but further away, our regret for the halt – nay, backwards movement – in progress.

The first room, then (second picture, above – click for large view), is a portrait of portraits, moments and places, people and objects, caught over four visits Horvath paid to the town of Bliss in the months that followed. He learned much of Bliss’ lore in conversation with a resident who was watering a patch of corn in his garden, on his first trip, and consequently collaborated with other Bliss-dwellers on follow-up narratives and images.

This room is by far the strongest on the exhibition. Horvath’s eye is refined and subtle, where he cares for and is generous with his subjects, conveying both pride and humility, hope and not-yet defeat. Each image, and their installation together, moves and is moving, invites us not to look on as voyeurs, but rather see ourselves in the photos, as part of them and that life, here and now.

In transition from this room to the back (a much more intimate space, which I will write about in a moment) is a series of painterly or graphic boards with inspirational quotes from the likes of Albert Einstein and Helen Keller. I’ll admit, I wonder what their significance was, specifically in relation to Bliss and its story. I found them to be interesting and inspirational, yes, but also a bit overdetermined in relation to the rest of the exhibition, which was more subtle and thoughtful. Perhaps that was Horvath’s point? Maybe they were ironic? He is too smart of an artist to dismiss this series as simply “off-topic,” or “failed,” so I welcome feedback in the comments, if anyone has them. They make me think, and ask questions… is that enough? I’m going to reach out to Horvath, and will follow-up if and when I hear back. (His response now below!)

From Jon Horvath, via email to me:

Happy to address your questions about the paintings, as I fully acknowledge how they may appear like an unusual departure from many of the other works in the project.

The paintings are given the broader title of “Senior Class Quotes.”  On the second day of my first visit to Bliss in 2014 I was invited to attend the high school’s graduation (I was quickly and warmly introduced to the town by the local residents).  That year, Bliss graduated a total of seven students and at the graduation ceremony was a digital slide show that contain[ed] inspirational quotes selected by each of the graduates.  As you touched on in the article, themes of idealism and the failed/unexpected outcomes that are often close behind are very present in the larger Bliss project.  So, for me, I wanted to take the occasion to honor the hopefulness of these graduates at a critical transition point in their lives by turning the digital slides into something more concrete in the form of the paintings.  The background imagery of each painting is a close recreation of the graphic imagery that each student used within the video editing software.

So while the paintings do possess the possibility of some irony, I’m less interested in concentrating my efforts on that and more so attempting to honor this moment of sincere thoughtfulness on the part of the graduates.

The last room felt like it was more about Horvath’s personal relationship with Bliss, and is for this reason my favorite on exhibition. Look at that relationship between hair and water, above. Just look at it. Better yet, go to the exhibition and spend time with. I stared at it for quite a while, with wonder.

An artist book (which I purchased), a photo catalog, receipts from his diner visits, some bottles and trees… This was where I briefly chatted pleasantries with the artist while my daughter ate cookies. But I was admittedly distracted by the imagery around me, and eventually told Horvath I had to spend time with it.

You should, too. Both ‘This is Bliss’ and The Alice Wilds are very much worth your time.

This is Bliss is on view at The Alice Wilds in Walker’s Point from September 15 through October 21, 2017.

how to write an artist statement, part 2

I wrote this post on how to write an artist statement back in June 2009, and it is still, to this day, in the top five of visited pages on my site every month. In short, I recommended any given statement for a work of art include three things: what the piece is, what we see or experience, and what is at stake in that experience, for us to practice beyond our initial artistic encounter. I expounded on this a bit more, then went on to offer seven additional guidelines for your text, which should, I recommended, be 300-500 words.

But that’s for individual works of art. What about your overarching artist statement, for a series, body of work, or, yet more difficult, your practice overall?

The answer is simpler than you think. Do a statement like this/the above for three or four pieces, individually, then look for overlaps in the stakes between them, in order to write around them. And edit this all down to fit it into one page, maybe 700 words or so.

Too often, artists begin writing an overall statement about their work in a vacuum, or rather, regarding their personal relationship to their art, instead of their viewers’. But “I’m interested in,” or “my work explores,” and “I research and relate….” are about your practice or what you want your work to do. Very often, such statements only describe the last piece you made, the work you wish you were making, or the processes you used to produce them. The experience of viewership of extant art is a very different thing. And writing a material and/or relational experience for us is precisely how you invite audiences in to material and/or relational art.

Your statement should rather start with something similar to the above. “I make x, which do y, and z is why that is important.”

Then… wait for it… …

For example, in [title of piece] … [summarize one artist statement you already wrote. What it is, what we experience, why that’s important. Refer back to this post when writing!].
Or with [do that again, for another piece].
And in [one more time, another piece].
Overall, the work… TA DA!!!

And so, write the immediately above first. Take your individual works for what they are, and do – even ask others what they are and do for them – before you write around them. And be as concise as you can in this.

But Nathaniel, you may say, your artist statement is SUPER long! That’s true. Yet it follows that same format; it just does so three times in a row, for lots of work, with transitions, so that those web surfers looking for specific pieces I am known for will be able to search for them and know they’ve come to the right place. Remember: I have a 20 year artistic research practice, across printmaking, writing, installation, interaction, networked art, sculpture, performance, and more – and some folks only know one or another of the media I work with, depending on their field. Most people who come to my site already know something about me, and are looking for a specific piece, and I make sure they can find it. I wouldn’t put that entire long statement on an exhibition, or send it to a residency. I would choose three pieces, and perhaps write around those, again. And I recommend said same for all my students and peers, in a given space.

Remember: writing, theory, philosophy and storytelling tell us the stakes of what we do and are, what we might be in the future. Art brings those stakes into the room, as material form, or experience. And so you must always include what your art is, and how we engage, so as to have us regard its import. And then write-with that story, think and share, again and again.

implicit art… restart (on Mo Gawdat’s Solve for Happy)

With the pending release of my new book (Ecological Aesthetics: artful tactics for humans, nature, and politics) in June or July of next year, and all the goings-on of the last couple of years in my life / the world, I’ve decided it might be time to reboot the blog I began back in Johannesburg circa 2002, and which teetered off and eventually died after two continental moves. Whereas that site began with my writings on art and politics, moved into regional discussions of aesthetics and culture and back again, here…. um, well… yeh, it will similarly be on whatever I feel like posting about, that I think is interesting.

For now, the new tagline is “art and ecology, fiction and geek stuff, culture and philosophy, parenting and life, etc”.

Forthcoming: a bit on my new book, some interesting tidbits from students in the classes I am teaching this semester (two Digital Studio courses, and one in Mechanical Engineering, plus some extra-curriculars), and thoughts on some great new art and books I’ve seen and read this Summer. You can expect to hear from me about once per week from now.

For now, a briefiew (yeh, I just made that up, a “brief review” portmanteau.  Tho I’m sure someone else has used it before, and it may not have gone down well. I decided against googling it, and ruining it for myself….) on Mo Gawdat’s Solve for Happy.

There are some lovely, and funny, and sad moments in this book, about a Google engineer’s quest for contentment, where he found and lost and found happiness before and after the death of his son. Gawdat hopes to share, simply, how to live with ourselves, and others, in the moment. He has an actual equation and formula, with numbers and lists and drawings (I’m actually listening to the audiobook, so I just imagine them, tho it comes with a PDF; his voice is very soothing). Honestly, Gawdat’s outlook mostly feels like a contemporary (and geeky) take on Eckhart Tolle’s Power of Now (which my mom likes way more than I do).

In the end, overall, it’s worth your time (even if, like me, there are few self-help books you are into – non-fiction is, of course, much broader than this!). The author is likable, his stories moving, his personality generous and relatable. And I’d like to share my favorite bit, which more or less goes as follows: the voice in your head is not you.

That person, who you think is you, who criticizes the way you eat, or move, or work out? The one who replays conversations in your head (or in my case, out loud), or wonders why that person at work is being that way towards you? That voice, which questions you, or the world, or the ones you care about? Overall, your inner monologue… That person is not you. That’s a construct of a person, the one who got praise or punishment from parents and teachers, and followed suit; he or she is the one who performs for others. That is not the real you. YOU are the one observing that criticizer. And you do not have to listen to the voice.

I’ve named the voice in my head Ferdinand. He is a bit of a dick, and I like to roll my eyes at, and make fun of, him. It has seriously changed things around here. So… thanks for that, Mo Gawdat’s Solve for Happy.