Briefiew of Thor: Ragnarok (with the kids)

There are no plot spoilers in this review! Only a sprinkling of lines/character development appreciations…

The whole family went to see Thor:  Ragnarok on Sunday morning, and it was super fun! Jack and Nonie and I were all always excited for this one, but Kitty mostly only wanted to go because Idris Elba was in it (with a decent sized role, for a change; oh, and Cate Blanchett, too!); and she was very pleasantly surprised (even going so far as to say she now, finally, wants to see the other ensemble cast Marvel films, like The Avengers, with me). It was laugh out loud funny, and there were many “YES! KICK BUTT!” moments to boot.

What was so great about it? Let’s ask our team…

Nonie (11 year old geek girl) says she really appreciated Hulk’s character development. “He was his own character this time, with his own thoughts and feelings, separate from Bruce Banner’s.” Ruffalo’s Hulk, especially when bantering (possibly via improv) with Hemsworth’s Thor, really got a lot across, with minimal words. I always thought that the Banner/Hulk storyline was the best part of the first Avengers film, and this film continues that story, along with others, showing how Banner and Hulk begin to appreciate each other’s complementary parts. And that Wisconsin-born Ruffalo is a fine actor.

Jack (9-year-old boy wolf) says his favorite part is when Blanchett’s character, Hela, challenges Thor to the core (“What are you the god of again?”), and the latter thinks back on his upbringing, his father, his goals and aspirations, what make him Thor (hint: it’s actually not his hammer), and calls up thunder so the good guys (god guys?) win. It’s a nice story, and done well.

From my side (middle-aged art nerd), it was the easy sense of the relationships, the improv, the further development of a lot of already fairly developed characters (22 films or something like that now?). Thor: Ragnarok’s stories and jokes refer to earlier in the film itself (classic improv), but also to the comics, to previous films, to pop culture… but you don’t need to know all the references (or any of them) to enjoy it.

I looked it up, and apparently Hemsworth felt like Thor 2: Dark World tried too hard to be serious, and lost sight of some of what he wanted from the character. He spoke it over with the director, with Marvel, and others, and… they totally went for his ideas, scrapping and re-booting on some level. We used to think of Thor as this long-haired, cape-wearing, hammer-wielding hero, who takes himself pretty seriously. Now? We think of Hemsworth. So… Hemsworth had at him! He tore his cape and tossed it, cut his hair off (hilarious scene, with Stan Lee), lost his hammer, and very often took the piss out of himself. The chemistry between him and Hulk (and separately, Banner), him and Tom Hiddleston’s AMAZINGLY AWESOME (as always) and even more developed Loki, him and Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie, etc, etc. … It’s just obvious they had so much FUN making this film. And I admit: I was even surprised at the end!

Kitty (most beautiful woman in the universe – inside and out) really appreciated… Loki. We love to hate him, hate to love him. He often does good, but we can never trust him.  Also? Idris Elba. Also? Now she likes Chris Hemsworth (I am going to watch the new Ghostbusters with her). Also? We don’t want to give any (more) of the jokes away, but… after you see it, say to yourself…. “we’re not doing get help.” Overall what Kitty really liked was that in addition to this fun and funny super hero film, she was able to engage with her own childhood passions surrounding Norse mythology, which is so rich and complex. Also? The sound track. So eighties!

Thor: Ragnarok’s plot is fun and interesting, there are a lot of awesome tangents and cool-but-throwaway “catch up with the Marvel story” lines – and it all holds together, both from beginning to end, and in relation to MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe).

All four of us recommend this film!

Review: Greg Martens’s Out From the Darkness at Grove Gallery

Greg Martens holds a very special place in my heart.

He was a traveling salesman who dropped out of college and married the love of his life with whom he raised three children, eventually becoming a cobbler out in Wauwatosa, WI – where his whole family helped fix shoes in their busy little shop. At the age of 46, Martens was diagnosed with very aggressive bone marrow cancer, and given two years to live. He shut down his store, proclaimed the love his family certainly already felt, said his goodbyes, and prepared for what he was told would surely come. At the 11th hour, he was offered an extremely experimental surgery that “may or may not work,” and figured, “It can’t get any worse.” After several surgeries, transplants, being in and out of the hospital all the time, financial ruin to the point of bankruptcy, and foreclosure… Greg went into remission. He was given, he has told me many times, a new lease on life. Literally.

And then? He went back to school to study visual art.

ink on paper self-portrait by Greg Martens

This is when I met Gregory Martens: as a non-traditional, working class, undergraduate printmaker in his fifties, happy, and making, and chatting almost all the time – dedicated to telling the stories of machinists, cobblers, and his blue collar peers, all performing their livelihood, and finding their place in the New American System. I watched and participated as he finished that degree, and then a Masters, exploring everything from celebratory woodcut portraits of his fellow Milwaukutians (I am told that this is not a word, but I am going to use it because I like it better than Milwaukeean) to photography and storytelling around his own journey with illness. He now teaches printmaking part-time in the Peck School of Arts at UW-Milwaukee, and works in his own Hip Joint Press studio.

“Out From the Darkness,” Greg’s solo exhibition, recently premiered at Grove Gallery – run by current UWM grad student and entrepreneur, Adam Beadel of Team Nerd Press. According to the artist, the “darkness” he is coming out of (and I’ll admit I have some mixed feelings about this) “refers to letting go of the influences and pressures of academic training” (ha!), as he is “just trying to channel the teenaged kid back in the 1970’s who loved drawing for endless hours while listening to rock and roll on the 8-track.”

update! The artist emailed me, re:above

Regarding the theme of my show, “Out from the darkness” using “darkness” to describe academic training and influence does seem a bit counter-intuitive, but ever since I entered the art world as a maker, the brass ring has been the New York market, Art Basel, and Documenta. Global, intellectual, heady ideas shaped into visual brilliance. Work worthy of the attention of Artforum, Art in America, and Hal Foster. Work that demonstrates a fully realized appreciation, mastery, and relevant commentary of art history, art theory, and art criticism. But aspiring (and failing) to reach these heights left me in a dark place. The heart of it all for me is drawing, and upon reflection, my purest experience drawing was as a long-haired “freak” in high school in the mid 1970’s. So, I have tried to recreate that experience in my studio and the results are the work in this exhibition. No strategy, no expectations, no pressure.

In Distractions, above, we see the artist on an accordion, behind a drum set and guitar, a baby (his grandkid?), monsters, and skeletons, and more. He is in front of a library, and beside a poster for a production (his studio, maybe?)… but that studio is on the move, transporting good(s) via truck. Honestly, his distractions and work both sound a lot more fun than my own bureaucratic, academic emailing and paperwork; heck, I’m having more fun writing about his distractions, and I suppose blogging is one of mine.

As is his usual, odd and graphic style, there is a combination of homage and darkness in all the drawings, paintings, prints, and sketchbooks-as-anthologies on show, which depict, he says, “demons, comics, snakes, skeletons, monsters, crying babies, bad boys, and cool cars,” with a sense of often political humor.

Sadly, I only made it out to Martens’ exhibition today, the last day – and there was some confusion about gallery hours… so the above shot is the utterly glorious window, and I was able to view only this and what I could see beyond, as well as what is on the two sites linked to above. But it, along with what I already know, is enough to recommend curators and galleries consider his work, and artists and art appreciators visit his site, or any other upcoming exhibitions (he’s also got a few pieces on permanent view on the ground floor of the Engineering building at UWM – where I helped to arrange some purchases!). And… definitely speak with him (or Adam about his gallery and print shop!) if you get the chance. Greg is an inspirational person and artist!

Sketching: The World After Us, speculative media sculptures

This blog post is a sketch – something I will occasionally do about my own work, or with others. It will always be a thinking-with of new materials and ideas, with this one coming out of the writing of my forthcoming second book (Ecological Aesthetics: artful tactics for humans, nature, and politics), chats with colleagues and peers and specialists, playing with media objects, proposing a fellowship (I didn’t get), and more. I welcome feedback! I imagine this particular proposal being a years- and perhaps decades-long project, with this first exhibition being produced over the next two or so years… The images are very recent experiments!

THE WORLD AFTER: US SPECULATIVE MEDIA SCULPTURE

What will Digital Media do, after us?

Galaxy (yes, the phone)

The World After Us will be a new series of media sculptures that materially speculate on what our devices – phones and tablets, batteries and displays, etc – might become, over thousands or millions of years. Through research, experimentation, and craft, I will try (and likely fail) to turn phones into crude oil, coal, or other fossil fuels – and put the results on exhibit, in beakers and tubes. I will attempt to mimic geological time, as pressure and heat – through chemical interactions or specialized machinery – on laptops and tablets, then display where that potential lies, as petrified-like LCDs or mangled post-exploded batteries, on pedestals in a gallery. I hope to turn “dead media” computers into efficient planters for edible goods, food for mold, or seeds of their own growth – and show both those experiments, and their results, as videos and sculptural forms. I will also turn ground phones into usable supplies, for example ink and paper, and put them to use in these new forms. The final outcome will be an internationally exhibited body of work, and catalog. It is impossible for humans to truly fathom our planet on an Earth scale, or conversely from the perspective of bacteria. But we can feel such things, through art and storytelling – making our aesthetic encounters both conceptually and ethically vital toward new futures. At stake, whether in our everyday interactions or on a larger scale, are the (digital) relationships between humans and the natural world on the one hand, between politics and commerce on the other.

The World After Us will be a traveling exhibition and catalog, beginning in Milwaukee, and shown in several other spaces internationally. It asks:

What will digital media be and do, after us?
What will my laptop, or phone, look like in a million years?
How will our devices weather over time?
Can we artificially weather our devices, to sense and feel this?

Torch phone (yes, literally)

These are not rhetorical questions. But they are more speculative than they are able to be answered directly and correctly. And with this research project, I will speculate and experiment, wonder and wander, with our materials. I will (safely) mix phones in blenders, press laptops under steamrollers, break down tablets with borax. I will soak iPads in chlorine and sludge, cook iPhones like cakes, inject the Apple Watch with spores and mold. Torch, grind, freeze, flower. Highlight, amplify, ironize, intervene. Resiutate, speculate, wonder, and propose.

Can we use biofuel processes or hydrothermal liquefaction to turn a phone into fuel?
How might a laptop make the most efficient planter, or bed for life?
What would a tablet made of carbon, instead of plastic, be and do?
What does a joule feel like?

Geological time and Earth size, decomposition and regrowth: these are concepts we can comprehend rationally, but they are impossible to truly fathom. I propose that we can feel such things, aesthetically and thus ethically, if we substantiate future potential, artfully, in objects and installations. My experimental project will do precisely this. It will take the form of between eight and 15 objects or installations that might be: beakers of coal- or oil-like matter labelled with the device they once were (ie iPhone 7); laptops growing spores and mold, propagating life in new and different ways; participatory machines that take our energy and convert it into media; new designs for carbon-based phones, which will more easily decompose over time; prints made entirely of media devices: image, ink, paper, etc… These objects will be accompanied by the stories and experiments that produced them (text, image, video), as well as an essay which mediates the research as a whole.

Some relevant reading (not including my not-yet-released book!):

After Gallery: a new kind of space between Riverwest, the East Side, Downtown, and Bronzeville

Vaughan Larsen at After Gallery

It is common for a teacher to learn things from his or her students, especially in the fields of contemporary and/or digital art, which are constantly shifting and changing how we think and act, between everyday culture and high- and low-, and those who make, break, and take that culture. Most recently, UWM photo student Vaughan Larsen – an Imagining America fellow, who has taken two participatory art courses with me, and is an all-around fascinating person – has taught me about some of the more interesting goings-on in my home city of Milwaukee (since 2008!). Specifically, he pointed me to After Gallery, where he was showing Peers, his series of public self-portraits exhibited as part of a group show, to celebrate the launch of After Magazine Vol. 4. Yes, that’s a mouthful; and it’s only a fraction of what the folks over at After have been doing since their launch, just five short months ago.

First, let’s talk space and vibe. With the tag line “Art, Community, Collaboration,” After Gallery is a breath of fresh air in terms of how diverse and welcoming of an environment it is. I got there just as things were getting started, 7pm on a Friday, and, although parking on Humboldt just below North isn’t the easiest, it felt neighborly – especially with several signs inviting folks in, and the Barbie cars out front (apparently from a kids’ race a few weeks before). As soon as I entered, Flow Johnson, the gallery owner and director, greeted me with a warm handshake, invited my son to watch movies in the basement, asked me to look around, enjoy the music, and make myself at home. I brought Jack downstairs, where there were kids both sleeping and playing, other artists chatting – the latter immediately introducing themselves to me as Nate and Natalie.

Back upstairs a few minutes later, there was already a crowd, Jack began playing with two dogs in the space, and I started a chat with Darius Smith about After Magazine (we were later joined by their female intern, a student at MIAD whose name escapes me at the moment – if you know it, put it in the comments and I’ll edit!). This is “a submission based artist magazine with a focus on music, art, fashion, lifestyle and social justice. [They] provide a platform for emerging artists, locally and nationwide, and ask them to share how their environment has helped shape their vision.” At $25 it is a bit pricey, but wow, it is beautiful. I bought it both to show support, and just to have it. Flow re-joined the conversation, and handed me some flowers from Flowers for Dreams, a Chicago-based company that donates 35% of its profits to charity. My partner loved them when I got home. Score.

Originally meant to be a group show, only Larsen and Johnson were on display, which was a bit disappointing. But the work was strong. Larsen is somewhat androgynous in his personal style – to the point where I had to ask his preferred pronoun early in our interactions – and takes self-portraits in public places. Rather than either hiding or flashing his identity, Larsen seems to take pride and revel in his and his surroundings’ awkwardness. The images are charming and fun, and make us laugh at ourselves in how we look and see, act and are.

Johnson’s work is a bit more diverse. Drawings and nudes, children making faces… I think he designed the After t-shirts, too. It matches the space: fun, interesting, inviting. His collaboration with Jenna Knapp is especially clever and intriguing, giving me warm fuzzies around how I interact with others, versus how I wish I did. I think on this as the music starts to blare,  a diverse group is having fun, and there’s so much more going on than I had expected when I ventured out earlier in the evening simply to support a student. Zines and chap books, fashion and mixers, games and play. Seriously, check out their web site. If anything, After Gallery may be trying to do too much. Not to say it can’t be all it wants to be – it already is, in how inviting of a space it feels like, in how a middle-aged man like me can arrive with his son early, and others can stay late and party. But rather, with so much programming, it’s a lot to manage, and a lot can go wrong this early on. Which is to say: be forgiving if things are late or imperfect (like… a group show that winds up being a duo!). New art spaces that last in Milwaukee are few and far between, especially run by young people of color, and they deserve our support. Like they say on their web site: it is our space as much as it is theirs.

After Gallery is at 2225 N. Humboldt in River West, and is open every day but Sunday, from noon-7 (later for openings).

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.