evan moffitt

Month: May, 2015

THE BORDER AGAIN

Human Resources, Los Angeles

Ana Andrade Detail

Published in Issue 171 of Frieze, May 2015

Two hours north of Mexico, Los Angeles can feel like a border town. Its sprawling topography and large immigrant population make it a northern twin to Tijuana. Both cities are in the midst of an identity crisis – straddling the dividing line between their aspirations as centers of global commerce and their endemic poverty, pollution, and political strife. This is perhaps why ‘The Border Again,’ an exhibition of Tijuana artists and others whose work addresses the Sonora-Baja California border, found a receptive audience at Human Resources.

In Ana Andrade’s intimate photographs of people living in the Tijuana River basin (‘Ñongos,’ 2013), hung unevenly in found and handmade frames, it’s hard to tell on which side of the border the subjects reside. The broad, sloping concrete walls framing a ragtag homeless encampment could be the Los Angeles River (itself a geographic boundary between L.A.’s own ‘First’ and ‘Third’ worlds). Jack Heard’s assemblage of graffiti-covered glass panels could have been dredged up from the river’s dry banks (‘some ideas for titles are: absolutely no essence whatsoever, no image after myself, otras obras, Williamstown Massachusetts, lifestyle whatever, Home Alone, Banco Bank, etc…,’ 2013-14). Louis Hock’s politically charged ‘Nightscope Series’ (2000–2003), depicting bodies in the night-vision green of a rifle scope, critiques the militarization of the U.S. Border Patrol and the conflation of undocumented immigrants with enemy invaders. The rifle is also a microscope, scrutinizing the runaway blemish of ‘social contagion’ south of the border, threatening to infect America’s heartland.

Even more unabashedly political is Marco Ramírez ERRE’s wall sculpture, ‘Petrochinga’ (‘Oilfucker,’ 2014). ERRE transformed two oil barrels painted the iconic yellow-red and white-blue colour schemes of oil companies Chevron and Shell (here ‘Cavron’ and ‘Hell’) into police riot shields. ‘Petrochinga’ is especially timely in light of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s politically divisive attempts to privatize Pemex, the major state-owned oil conglomerate untouched by the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). ERRE’s sculpture suggests that Mexico’s natural resources will be sold off by force, with an increasingly aggressive police state serving the interests of global capital rather than the country’s working class.

In NAFTA’s wake, a positivist, apolitical strain of border art emerged. Citing Heriberto Yépez’s book Made in Tijuana, the exhibition primer derides the hypervalorized aesthetic pastiche of ‘NAFTArt’ as a ‘happy hybridity’ that commodifies the contradictions of the borderlands, enhancing their consumer appeal. The show’s counterpoint to Yépez is Guillermo Gomez-Peña, a seminal Chicano artist and self-proclaimed shaman of hybrid culture, who stars in a video on display. In Mariah Garnett’s darkly comic ‘Mexercise’ (2013), Gomez-Peña and Roberto Sifuentes teach a satirical workout routine ‘for the busy modern-day gringa, curling Chihuahuas, stretching in police frisk poses, and mock-swimming across the Rio Grande.

The exhibition was an extension of Otras Obras, a now-defunct Tijuana gallery founded by Los Angeles native Michael Ray Von and New York-based Todd Patrick. When Ray Von moved to Mexico City in 2013, he invited Kelman Duran, who had never been to Tijuana, to come curate the space. Duran discovered a divided community: some local artists were energized by the arrival of new talent, while others regarded the Americans’ presence as little more than benign colonialism. To confront this disunity, Duran began a series of Open Forums, where the terms of artistic engagement could be actively forged through public discourse. Often that meant discussions of Tijuana politics over beer, mescal, and cigarettes – what Duran refers to as ‘unmoderated political AA meetings.’ Topics such as ‘Drugs, Apathy and Politics’ and ‘The Anarchist Everyday’ brought in a diverse sample of the community. At the Open Forum in Los Angeles, part of the Human Resources exhibition, talk was less politically urgent but no less engaged.

For many, the border defines social marginality. It is as immaterial as a line in space and as concrete as a steel-clad fence, dividing the ancestral Aztec land once known as Aztlán and cutting a deep rift through the consciousness of a people. ‘The Border Again’ addressed these physical and psychical complexities with exceptional nuance. Rather than assuming a fixed position, the exhibition explored the interstices of the hybridity debate, mapping its divergent fissures. This was first and foremost a show about people on either side of a geopolitical divide and the borders they carry with them.

In its title, ‘The Border Again’ expressed fatigue over border politics even as it confronted them head on, in part because the border always asserts its presence upon those who live in its shadow. As Gomez-Peña wrote in his anthology The New World Border, ‘Once I get “there,” wherever it is, I am forever condemned to return, and then to obsessively reenact my journey. In a sense, I am a border Sisyphus.’ Less like a line and more like a Möbius strip, we encounter ‘The Border Again,’ and again, and again, always locked in its cycle of conflict, always peering through the fence for a glimmer of change.

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CHARLES GAINES AT THE HAMMER

Hammer Museum, Los Angeles

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Published in Issue 1 of CARLA, the Contemporary Art Review of Los Angeles, April 2015

For fifteen years, Charles Gaines lived his life on the grid. Between 1974 and 1989, Gaines employed the grid as a visual tool to explore the terrain of conceptual art and develop a system of representation purged of subjective expression. This period is also the focus of Charles Gaines: Gridwork, 1974-1989, an exhibition which traveled from the Studio Museum Harlem to the Hammer Museum in February, providing much-needed critical insight into these formative years in the artist’s career.

Most of the series in the exhibition begin with a set of three images that present a single object in three formats, reminiscent of other pioneering conceptual artworks of the time period—notably Joseph Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs (1965) and Martha Rosler’s The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems (1974-75). In Gaines’Walnut Tree Orchard (1975-2014), which opens the show, a photograph of a tree is displayed next to a line drawing of the same tree on hand-drawn graph paper. In the third image, the tree’s coordinates are meticulously plotted, numbers spreading out in ascending order from a central axis to suggest an underlying symmetry intrinsic in all organic life forms.

This first trio then expands into a matrix of seemingly endless combinatory possibilities: in the next three images below, a second tree is photographed, plotted, and overlaid with the first tree. The second tree is visible through the voids between the branches and leaves of the first, its numbers demarcated in a different color. The series represents 27 trees documented in this format (in a total of 81 panels), so that in the series’ final image 27 trees overlap in an autumnal explosion of color, forming a palimpsest that collapses space and time into a single gridded frame. Through the methodical sedimentation of his plots, Gaines acknowledges the inability of pictorial and linguistic systems to render subjects totally comprehensible . His grids obfuscate rather than clarify their subjects.

The grid dominates throughout the exhibition (including its title), and its presence begins to exhaust. Recognizable subjects—trees, flowers, human faces—appear all over the gallery walls only to disappear under the weight of their successive plots. Rosalind Krauss has observed that as a modernist trope, “the grid announces, among other things, modern art’s will to silence, its hostility to literature, to narrative, to discourse.”[1] Although representational, Gaines’s grids silence individual narratives in favor of an objectively reproducible system, signaling what Roland Barthes called “the death of the author” (or artist) and the subsequent “birth of the reader” (or viewer). Gaines allows viewers to interpret the images for themselves, unmediated by his subjective expression.[2]

In Faces (1978), on display in the exhibition’s second gallery alongside the impressive Motion: Trisha Brown Dance (1980-81) series, this restoration of agency becomes politically charged in a move toward human subjects. Similar to Walnut Tree Orchard, the collection of overlapping and colorblind facial contours—friends and relatives of the artist—resists the typological and ethnological categorization historically used to justify racist criminological and colonialist enterprise. In this regard, the work also questions the presumed objectivity of photographs, linking Gaines with his “Pictures generation” cohorts, such as Sherrie Levine and Louise Lawler. The coordinate plots are themselves insufficient: flattening heterogeneous subjects into a numerical code and layering them until they become unrecognizable. Gaines codes the face, but the face cannot be reassembled from the code. The material logic of the grid falsely promises the viewer an accurate portrait of the subject imprisoned within the austere and silencing aesthetic plane of modernism. Race falls prey to the grid’s dissecting logic.

The poetic power of Gaines’s work—which is often mischaracterized as a coldly minimalistic conceptualism—is the grid’s violent tendency to rupture the identity of the subject, rather than to portray it objectively. Each set of coordinates attempt yet ultimately fail to identify the subjects they code, challenging the common poststructuralist refrain that “everything is discourse” by rendering such discourse illegible.

Gaines has called marginality “a complex co-presence of textual spaces,” resisting coherent representation. “It almost begs a simpler form, a diagram perhaps, that will give shape to an impossibly complex machine, a coding that will make the difficult choices for us, to relieve us of the annoying spectacle of its insurmountability.”[3] Gaines transforms himself into such a machine to depict the futility of such an enterprise. The resulting work in the exhibition can seem Sisyphean, relentlessly repetitive, and even pointless. But this sense of pointlessness is intentional, reflecting the hard truth that no diagrammatic system in language or art can code the lived complexities of marginalization.

[1] Rosalind Krauss, The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1985), 9.

[2] Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” Image-Music-Text (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977), 143.

[3] Charles Gaines, The Theater of refusal: black art and mainstream criticism (Santa Monica, California: Delta Graphics, 1993), 20.

THERESA EIPELDAUER

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Published in Issue 2 of Foundations, April 2015

Theresa Eipeldauer speaks a familiar yet indecipherable language. There is certain comfort in her abstracted gestures, her curling calligraphic brushstrokes, her hard and sculptural angles. It’s high expressionism without any of the messy bravado.

I must confess: I have a love-hate relationship with semiotics. Perhaps I was told too many times in school that everything in this visual world stands for something, that all images are really just symbols—symbols that some people can read and others can only ponder. But then there are those unmistakable moments when I know I’m looking at language struggling to make sense of itself. Those new desktop icons, foreign street signs, strange advertising logos, and scrawled handwritten notes all must have meaning. Theresa Eipeldauer’s work speaks to me because it embodies this ambivalence. With a wide variety of media—painting, drawing, lithography, sculpture—Eipeldauer revels in the clarities and confusions of human language.

In her series Errata, a grouping of four prints clearly illustrates this linguistic ambivalence. In the first, each letter of the series’ title is printed over the other, so as to become almost totally illegible—the eye makes out the curling serif of an “a”, the base of a slender “t”, and the horizontal edge of an “e”, but little more. In the other three prints, the compressed word has been stretched out into groupings of two letters: er-ra-ta. The Latin word means “errors in printing or writing”, and the work looks as if Eipeldauer forgot to hit the spacebar on a giant typewriter. Formally and conceptually errata are endemic to her work. The entire series suggests that we cannot always trust our eyes to adequately translate images into ideas. Some languages cannot be put into words, and our brains become stubborn typewriters trying to understand them, hammering away at the same old keys, getting nowhere.

Language, insofar as its realized form (in writing or speech) consists of combinations from a limitless set, indicates both a presence and an absence. It presents a series of ideas through symbolic representation, while at the same time it denotes what has not or cannot be expressed. In the exhibition statement for her series “Inside Corner”, Eipeldauer acknowledges this notion of absence as her starting point: writing, for her, is “a reduced form of a block by which a rhythm is produced.” By reducing the set of formal possibilities to a simple set of abstract shapes, Eipeldauer creates a visual rhythm, a new system capable of serial repetition.

Eipeldauer’s printmaking is the perfect expression of this process. Artists created the first prints by carving wooden blocks and reducing their cubic mass. Although woodblocks were inscribed with the individual traces of their carvers, the prints these blocks produced were not direct effects of the artist’s hands but translations of them, infused with ink transferred onto paper. Nearly all of Eipeldauer’s works are translations, some faltering like Errata. By working in the print medium, she ensures that her original contact with the transfer sheet is reduced to a bare minimum in the finished work; at the same time, her prints are all editions of one, preserving the privileged notion of artistic authenticity and uniqueness.

Like her prints, Eipeldauer’s drawings challenge notions of the individual and the collective, of authenticity and seriality. Her drawings are hung like her prints, on glossy paper pinned at their top corners to the wall (allowing the bottom to curl upwards). From afar, they appear to be prints themselves. Dark linear “strokes” meeting in hard geometric angles are fine yet painstakingly straight, as if Eipeldauer dragged a wide brush across the paper. Each fine grain is in fact a line in graphite, made with a perfectly steady and anonymous hand, producing a delicate, minimalist geometric abstraction. The suggestion of quick expressionistic brushwork gives way to a methodical process of precise and repetitious gestures.

By purging her work of personal traces, and by repeating these “anonymous” forms, Eipeldauer offers viewers an honest look at language, both verbal and visual. Through the words and symbols she employs, the speaker or artist expresses not herself (as conventional wisdom would have it) but the referents to which her language refers, serving as a mouthpiece for a complex system of communication rather than as its originator. In the context of creative expression, this challenges widely-held notions of artistic mastery and genius, most often claimed by men. Eipeldauer’s painting series RGM, which recalls the postwar school of abstract expressionism dominated by male painters, brilliantly resists such masculinist posturing.

It may seem like a stretch to call Eipeldauer a feminist artist, but her configurations resist hegemony from every angle. A sculpture from Inside Corner, for instance, appears at a distance to be a pair of elegant white pillars. Up close, though, they are little more than paper rolls, filled with air and held together at their base by a modest wooden frame. The pedestal, that phallic fixture of masculine and institutional power, is revealed as a flimsy construction.

RGM interests me because it addresses such conventions through a highly traditional medium, Her paintings are beautiful all at once by their simplicity and their intricacy. Small gestures much like handwriting cover each canvas in a dense field, again introducing the serial, repetitious rhythms of Eipeldauer’s visual language. Colors transition seamlessly from black to gray, green to tan, pink to white. These gradations in shade are literal and metaphorical shifts in tone. As the eye scans the paintings, their moods swing: dark to light, opaque to translucent, brooding to balletic.

In a formal sense, Eipeldauer’s gestures loosely resemble the looping babble of Cy Twombly’s Roman Letters, or the abstracted calligraphy of Brice Marden’s Chinese Dancing. But hers have an unmistakable cohesion that the others (perhaps intentionally) lack—each form is bonded to the next, creating a unified picture plane and a supple chromatic gradient. This gradient reflects another characteristic of Eipeldauer’s work: what appears solid from afar dissolves into discontinuity, and what appears discontinuous up close merges into a harmonious whole. Such a reading recalls the theories of Clement Greenberg, whose forsworn fealty to the flatness of the picture plane and the medium-specificity of painting corralled the creativity of countless postwar painters. But just as soon as Eipeldauer’s paintings hint at this self-aware flatness, they swell with depth. Like the paper columns, the image here unfolds itself in an intricate spatial dialectic with the viewer—providing different images from different angles and distances. It embraces the subjectivity of the viewer and rejects the supremacy of the master artist.

To return to language for a moment, such a spatial dialectic reflects our individual relationship with voice. Between the one who speaks and the one who is spoken to, communicated meaning is highly determined by each subject’s physical and social positioning. Language—on a page or a tongue—cannot be treated as objective.

Eipeldauer never makes such a claim to objectivity. Her art is highly reactive. The flat planes of her paintings unfold layers of depth. The expressive marks of her drawings and prints calcify into repetitive rhythms. I know somehow that it is all trying to speak to me: if not an explicit message, then about its condition of indecipherability. Yet Eipeldauer’s work embraces this condition. It lingers in the shadows of Babel’s ruin.

JOSHUA LEE’S PUFFY CLUB-KID INSPIRED SCULPTURES

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Published in Issue 2 of Gayletter, April 2015

Joshua Lee’s art practice inhabits a fantastical dreamworld. His sculptures are creatures of his febrile imagination, great beautiful profusions of multicolored fabric and glittering ornament. They recall what Aldous Huxley once wrote of the hallucinatory unconscious: “Like the giraffe and the duckbilled platypus, the creatures inhabiting these remoter regions of the mind are exceedingly improbable. Nevertheless they exist, they are facts of observation.”

Lee’s sculptures are like a toddler’s toy box bricolage, masses of mangled Beanie Babies and plush pillows forming phallic tendrils that reach out in every direction. Velvet, silk, cotton, and polyester clump together in dense thickets that threaten to grow mutant and amoebic. They resemble Yayoi Kusama’s fabric sculptures of the early 1960s, household furniture covered in stubby, protruding fingerlike pillows. Kusama’s interventions made everyday objects queer; Lee’s sculptures, on the other hand, are queer from their very conception. Exuberantly kitschy, if not a little camp, they explode across bodies and rooms in supernovas of shimmering cloth. Their forms are alien, hybrid, bizarre—like deep-sea creatures of the deep subconscious. Lee gives them titles that hint at their figural models: Septapus, Macro nano bot, Baby toy for alien. But these are just further examples of the artist’s whimsy, meant not to directly reference a natural form but rather let one’s mind wander through fantastical, dreamlike pastures.

Lee grew up in Colorado, where his mother, a quilter, taught him how to sew. “I make three-dimensional quilts,” he says. “I like being in the pop art world, but the world of quilting is also interesting to me. It’s such a traditional way of expressing yourself that can be modern and beautiful too.” Although his art practice began as a hobby, Lee has created hundreds of sculptures in a wide variety of scales over the last fifteen years, some requiring a tremendous amount of detailed and dedicated labor. The opalescent lunar orb in Sun, moon and stars, for instance, is covered in hundreds of tiny seashells and glittering urchin-like puffballs, the kind exposed on sandy shores by the moon at low tide, all sewn into a fabric ball over more than a hundred hours. Such intense labor makes Lee’s sculptures a part of his own body, interwoven with his personal sweat and touch.

Lee cites the documentary portrait photography of Phyllis Galembo and the tribal art-influenced “sound suits” of Nick Cave as major influences. He’s also inspired by the outlandish DIY fashion of 1990s club kids. Like those party provocateurs, Lee gets his materials anywhere he can find them. A pattern-setting company next to his studio discards heaps of fabric that he digs through for curious and colorful scraps. He’s even stolen a vinyl poster of naked men from a porn shop to cut up and sew into soft, tentacular forms. His sculptures take shape through a long, additive process. Lee often uses pieces from older works, and the finished products can be very different than what he originally envisioned. He embraces this chance element: “It’s a very natural, fluid process.”

Some works—cotton-stuffed hoods and headdresses like knobbly, tangled cacti roots, for example—were made specifically as props for photo and video collaborations with provocative queer artist-partners Slava Mogutin and Brian Kenny, whose erotic and irreverent collective SUPERM has often featured Lee, along with queer talents like Bruce LaBruce, Vaginal Davis, and Gio Black Peter. In SUPERM’s short film Heaven and Hell, for instance, porn superstar François Sagat reads poems by Arthur Rimbaud while wearing several of Lee’s colorful headpieces.

As an explicitly three-dimensional art form, sculpture is designed to be experienced in the flesh. Lee makes tactile objects, intricately beaded or velvety-soft to the touch, as much about the way they interact with bodies as their final appearance. Although Lee hasn’t formally exhibited his work yet, in his collaborations with SUPERM he’s found a way around the limitations of photography’s two-dimensionality by incorporating live models, occasionally himself. Neither fully art nor fully fashion but something in between, the sculptures become bodies as they move around the skins of live ones like great, fantastical carapaces. Wearing his sculptures, Lee quite literally becomes a part of his art, folded into the soft shells of his wild and outlandish dreams.

TOM OF FINLAND

David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles

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Published in Gayletter, February 2015

Tom of Finland, born Tuoko Laaksonen in 1920, was the granddaddy of modern gay culture. His fetishes and fantasies, inked on paper and seen around the world, reconceptualized what it meant to be a gay man. A series of his drawings spanning 15 years are on view in the inaugural show of David Kordansky’s new space, and it’s interesting to see pornographic works made for back bedrooms and underground gay bars in the clean white cube of a contemporary art gallery. How times have changed.

Tom’s wartime experiences furnished him with the visual vocabulary of hypermasculinity. The show’s earliest works, completed in 1944 when Tom was serving in the Finnish Army, depict military men wearing butt-hugging riding pants in explicit sexual trysts. They’re a testament to Tom’s bravery and openness in a severely homophobic time, when drawing gay sex privately could have landed him in prison. Other graphite drawings show sailors, cowboys, and motorcycle studs with ballooning muscles and impossibly large cocks. In many the only “sexual” contact is passed off as locker room fun or friendly roughhousing, probably because the images were made for circulation and had to pass European censors. But the figures are beautifully detailed, each bronzed hunk glistening under imagined sunlight, further evidence of Tom’s expert draftsmanship. By 1972, Tom proudly defied censorship with Kake (pronounced Kah-keh), his leatherdaddy alter-ego, who appears in a comic strip storyboard called T.V. Repair, a centerpiece of the show. Kake lures a hunky TV repairman over by unplugging his set and, well…you can imagine what happens next.

Tom’s characters created a new gay culture that queered the masculine codes of straight society and made it possible for men to feel like men while loving other men. His masculine archetypes liberated gay men from homophobia, giving them confidence in a world that stripped them of it. After Stonewall, city streets around the world were packed with Tom’s sailors, athletes, and leather daddies. A new culture had been born.

HARDCORE HOME MOVIES

REDCAT, Los Angeles

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Published in Gayletter, March 2015

Light flickers through a darkened auditorium. On the screen, the face of a skinhead appears, smirking slightly. The camera pans over his naked body, flecked with occasional grains from the aging Super 8 reel. This is one of the members of queercore band Fagbash, filmed by Jonesy for a projection at a legendary 1992 sex party, Fiend, in New York’s Bowery. The three minute film was the brief opener to Hardcore Home Moves, a program of queer DIY/experimental films curated by Dirty Looks NYC founder Bradford Nordeen, hosted by REDCAT at downtown L.A.’s Disney Hall on March 2nd. The lineup included films by G.B. Jones, Jill Reiter, Greta Snider, and Rick Castro, and offered an insightful (and nostalgic) view at the vibrant underground queer punk scene that exploded in cities like Toronto and New York in the early 1990s.

“Queercore” as a genre is a playful oxymoron, a mashup of two things once considered incompatible: queerness and hardcore punk. It spoke to the many queers who were more at home in mosh pits than on disco dancefloors, but who often felt doubly marginalized by punk’s flagrant homophobia. Befitting its name, the films Nordeen assembled defied comfortable categorization, with elements of documentary, satire, and nonlinear narrative. Greta Snider’s Our Gay Brothers mashed up children’s instructional videos and gay porn clips to interrogate gay men’s attitudes to the female body, while Jill Reiter’s Birthday Party reimagined a girl’s “sweet sixteen” as thrown by her drag queen mother and some guest strippers. The Salivation Army was a gripping documentary about the Toronto gang by the same name that filmmaker Scott Trealeven helped found, whose widely-read zine helped spark the formation of a dangerous cult network of queer skinhead punks. G.B. Jones’s The Troublemakers followed a group of unruly shoplifters from supermarket aisles to a condemned house, the camera work spiraling out of control as the characters come under surveillance. The funniest film was Rick Castro’s 3. Dr. Chris Teen Sex Surrogate, which featured Vaginal Davis and Bruce LaBruce as “drag queen lesbians” having marital problems who invite a Freudian sex therapist over to spice things up.

As part of their ongoing series of L.A. screenings, Dirty Looks will be recreating a gay porn theater in the basement of artist collective Machine Project’s Echo Park studio for 24 hours starting midnight on March 20th. Visitors can stop by in the middle of the night with popcorn and lube to watch classic skin flicks and be transported to a time when gays reveled in basement shadows, when our intimate erotic spaces were literally “underground.”

BERNHARD WILLHELM 3000

Museum of Contemporary Art, Pacific Design Center – Los Angeles

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Published in Gayletter, February 2015

There were cockrings and cockatoos galore at the opening of Bernhard Wilhelm 3000: When Fashion Shows The Danger Then Fashion Is The Danger, the iconic German designer’s first American museum exhibition, at MOCA PDC in Los Angeles. Artists and fashionistas—including Luke Gilford, KESH, Niko the Ikon, Michel Gaubert, and Pamela Anderson—socialized over gallery floors carpeted in blue Astroturf. Along walls covered in blue and yellow paint splatters, Wilhelm and longtime collaborator Jutta Kraus installed photographs of models, birds, and the designer himself (in crotch-hugging spandex suits), the forehead plumage of white cockatoos mimicking Wilhelm’s spiky bleached ‘do. In the center of the main gallery, eerie mannequins with glowing tongues folded through miniature cockring-ballgags assume defiant poses, dressed in Wilhelm’s fall collection: a profusion of mesh, camouflage, straightjackets, and giant zippers like an Orientalist military assault on a mental asylum.

The show was designed as a site-specific, “thinking-forward” installation, announced by the title’s “3000”: the photographs, paintings, sculptures, and new fall clothing line displayed are an irreverent response to the uniformity of fashion in the 21st century and a radical manifesto for fashion in the 30th. Wilhelm presents viewers with a playful, postapocalyptic vision of the year 3000, when fashion will finally be liberated from an endless recycling of past styles.

Wilhelm and Kraus recently moved their studio from Paris to Los Angeles, following the likes of Saint Laurent and Rodarte. If this exhibition is any indication, Los Angeles’ playful and image-obsessed culture promises to surface in Wilhelm’s rebellious, punk-inspired designs. As the show’s title suggests, Wilhelm’s clothes are radical precisely because they reject the bland uniformity of mainstream couturiers. He shows us the danger of becoming the same and offers us the tantalizing danger of difference.

 

HAL FISCHER’S GAY SEMIOTICS

Cherry & Martin, Los Angeles

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(Published in Gayletter, January 2015)

Gay men have a language all their own. Or so suggests Hal Fischer in his series Gay Semiotics, on view at Cherry & Martin Gallery in Culver City. Fischer photographed men on the prowl in the Castro and Haight Ashbury districts of San Francisco in 1977 for a tongue-in-cheek photoessay, labeling the elements of each man’s outfit as part of elaborate cruising codes. The result is a conceptual look at the “gay uniform.” It explains howitems totally innocuous in the straight world like handkerchiefs and keychains, when worn in the street by gay men, tell other men about the wearer’s sexual fetishes.

The “semiotics” in the series title refers to semiotic theory, which claims that images and even objects—like words—carry abstract, symbolic meaning. A close-cropped photograph of two asses clad in tight jeans with handkerchiefs in opposite pockets explains the semiotics of “Gay Hanky Code”: “A blue handkerchief placed in the right hip pocket serves notice that the wearer desires to play the passive role during sexual intercourse”, and so on. Other more traditional portraits are broken into types: the Street Fashion Jock in labeled satin gym shorts and Adidas, the Street Fashion Leather in chaps and leather boots, the Street Fashion Basic Gay in flannel shirt and Levis. By merging gay subcultures with art theory, Fischer pulls conceptual photography out of the museum and into the streets (and the back alleys). The black and white images of mustachioed leathermen in high-wasted flare jeans feel a little dated, maybe because cruising has gone digital. In today’s gayborhoods, though, uniforms have changed but are still in fashion. Fischer’s exhibition is actually timely: it makes us ask how our rapidly evolving hook-up culture has changed the way we communicate and express ourselves in public spaces.

Squatters Under Siege: Berlin and the Flight of the Temporary Autonomous Zone

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Published in Issue IV of Graphite Interdisciplinary Journal of the Arts, May 2013

What began as a light patter of raindrops grew quickly into a torrential downpour. As lightning illuminated the Berliner Dom’s golden cupola, I ran through the streets of Mitte looking for shelter. For one of Berlin’s only remaining neighborhoods still a chaotic tangle of medieval cobblestoned streets, Mitte was eerily empty. Flaneurs like myself had already found warmth in dimly lit bars along the River Spree. Thoroughly soaked, I ducked under the relative shade of a condemned building on Oranienstrasse. Down the street, the Fernsehturm (TV Tower) glowed dully, the monumental relic of a socialist Germany now faded away. It was my first of many nights in the city, and feeling dispirited by the wet weather (I had arrived from arid Los Angeles), I began to plan my commute home when a voice spoke to me from the shadows.

A portly woman had emerged from the doorway behind me, clutching a half-smoked cigarette in her right hand. She invited me in, toward a wash of turquoise light and the opening bars of “Blue Monday.” I looked more carefully at the building, its crumbling stone exterior pasted with countless concert bills, colorful posters, and spray-painted scrawl. Above the door a rubber gorilla and a penguin held a dripping banner that read, “Where shall we go now?

The woman led me into a gallery, art tacked to the walls from floor to ceiling. Slogans stenciled on cardboard hung forty feet above us, near a splintering ladder that led to an attic loft. Flyers and zines lay scattered on folding tables. A few people sat at a makeshift bar, drinking beer and passing around vinyl records. I was informed that I had arrived at Tacheles, a center of countercultural activity and illegal squat. The building had been repurposed in 1990 after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when vacant, derelict buildings were used as exhibition spaces and dance halls by jubilant East Germans who were finally free from state oppression. But now, she told me, it was all over. Tacheles would be closed in only a month’s time; the property owner had finally made eviction orders, and the Berlin police intended to act on them. She led me through another door, once an entrance to a beer garden and tent village that covered the muddied ground behind the former department store. It had been barricaded with scrap metal, old junkyard items like discarded dishwashers and car parts, made intractable by police intervention. “They want to stop us from getting in,” she lamented. “This is our workplace…our home.”

It was the last time I would go inside Tacheles. Several weeks later, the squatted building lay empty and shuttered, its entrances blocked by more debris. The last of many squats in Berlin, Tacheles was formed out of the creative ambitions of a few artists who used the vacant structure for studio and gallery space after the Wall fell. Like many other squats in Berlin and northern Europe, its inception was motivated by political and social interests and not by a need for housing. “Protest squats,” along with communal squats like Christiania in Copenhagen, functioned as experiments in alternative social and political organization. While I had never before seen squatting used as a protest tactic, I learned upon further investigation that a prolific squatters’ movement in northern Europe had been doing so for decades, transforming “dead” urban spaces into vibrant community centers.

A partially destroyed Jewish department store cum squatter’s art center, Tacheles was one of many squatted structures occupied by its activist residents not out of economic need, but out of political and artistic solidarity. Squatting has a significant place in the history of proletariat uprisings in northern Europe, giving a wide variety of activist groups, from anarchist cells to architectural preservationist clubs, a platform from which to broadcast a political message while exercising their fundamental right to housing.[1] These communes have saved historic landmarks from demolition while obtaining legitimacy as centers of community action through municipal “buy-outs” or self-imposed renovation programs. There is a shocking disparity of critical research on such groups’ collective action against state control and corporate land ownership, and I believe they constitute what ontological anarchist Hakim Bey calls a “Temporary Autonomous Zone” or TAZ, a temporal community that excises itself from the state and declares its existential independence from systems of external control, unified in purpose by its members’ shared convictions.[2]

 

2. The Siege of Kreuzberg: Beginnings of the Squatters’ Movement in Berlin

The German word for squatting, besetzung, translates to English as “besieging.” An extremely active word, “besieging” conjures up military campaigns and violent revolutions. In describing the unlawful occupation of buildings, besetzung implies decisive, purpose-driven action. Squatting, in the German mind, seems to begin as a public statement, made manifest by the active takeover of an unused, private structure. Far from the images of homeless vagrants in condemned tenements that the word “squatting” may conjure in the mind of an urban-dwelling English speaker, the word besetzung pulses with political energy. This understanding of the act as a “siege” of the established order made the German-speaking world a fertile ground for the squatters’ movement, whose primary objective was political change rather than an end to homelessness.

The housing crisis of the late 1970s and ’80s was another factor that made Berlin a perfect home for the most vocal factions of the squatters’ movement when it first emerged. West Berlin in the late 1970s was still busy rebuilding from the ravages of the Second World War. Far more advanced in its reconstruction efforts than its eastern half, West Berlin was nevertheless plagued by inflated real estate prices and a shortage of affordable apartments, despite the profusion of empty flats. A 1978 study by the Berlin Senate reported that some 80,000 people were registered as seeking apartments, yet 27,000 apartments remained uninhabited.[3] This manufactured housing shortage was a result of the prevailing ethic of redevelopment in the city: “House owners and housing associations deliberately allowed houses to become derelict with the expectation that they would be able to demolish and re-build or fundamentally modernize them using government funding, and eventually charge correspondingly higher rents.”[4] At the same time, a growing alternative movement in Berlin organized in bars, cafés, and bike shops. Their opposition to heavy-handed police tactics, government victimization of political radicals, and the state-approved “yellow press” of Axel Springer led the radical leftist and student movements to protest in a variety of forms, none more appropriate than besetzung. As a visible and locally significant act of resistance, squatting emerged as the perfect expression of leftists’ frustration with West Germany’s suppression of civil liberties and manipulative housing practices. “Its intervention in urban restructuring, preoccupation with the problems posed by apartments standing empty, the housing shortage, property speculation and displacement—all these issues constituted an opportunity for the movement to go beyond…personal concerns.”[5] This new form of resistance synthesized disparate political platforms within the alternative movement by appealing to a common concern: the housing crisis.

Surrounded by the enemy East German state, West Berlin was an unattractive destination for many West Germans, and the Berlin Senate declared all university education free and all its male citizens exempt from military draft. In the 1970s, dozens of nineteenth-century tenement complexes (Mietkaserne, or “rent-barracks”) lay empty in Kreuzberg, a neighborhood once shadowed by the heavily fortified Wall that proved an undesirable living space for Berliners of economic means. Young men eager to capitalize on free education and draft exemption found derelict flats free for the taking, along with a diverse neighborhood of politically active and creative transients—a crucible of radicalism on the Cold War’s primary battleground.

Four days after the December 4, 1971 police shooting of Georg von Rauch, a militant leftist and resident of the Wieland commune in Berlin-Charlottenberg, members of the Berlin punk rock band Ton Steine Scherben (known in English as The Shards) led a large audience of students from the Technical University (TU-Berlin) in the siege of Bethanien, a nineteenth-century Deaconess hospital just steps from the Berlin Wall. Von Rauch, who earlier that year fled trial for assaulting a journalist, had been walking in the neighborhood of Schöneberg, Berlin’s traditional home of artists and intellectuals, when he was caught by a plainclothes policeman. Accounts about the ensuing firefight vary, but it left the young radical mortally wounded. “Rauch” is the German word for smoke, and Von Rauch’s death inspired Ton Steine Scherben’s takeover of the hospital complex’s smokehouse, which became a base of operations for punks, vagabonds, and radical leftists. Their squat lasted until April 19, 1972, when the police raided the premises; until then, Ton Steine Scherben and their young Kreuzberg following made a successful (and widely publicized) stand against police brutality and state oppression. Although the squatters were removed from the complex on Mariannenplatz, the gothic brick hospital survived as a center for countercultural activity. In 1973 the Berlin Senate purchased the property from its owner and established Künstlerhaus Bethanien, an art initiative that today hosts twenty-five social and cultural institutions.

The defeat of the Social Democratic Party in West Berlin’s senatorial election of 1981 led to a radicalization of the prominent alternative movement in the city, in what urban sociologists Andrej Holm and Armin Kuhn call “Revolt 81.”[6] Already in February 1979, the Kreuzberg citizens’ initiative SO36 had organized the first “rehab squats,” which took over crumbling apartments and refurbished them for public use. Revolt 81 saw a surge in squatted houses throughout Kreuzberg and its western neighbor, Schöneberg. The new besetzer’s “practice of occupying houses and immediately starting to renovate them was meant, on the one hand, to point out the long-standing deterioration and emptiness of the apartments and, on the other hand, to create acceptance of this method of civil disobedience.”[7] The growing popularity of squatting as a means of resistance fractured the alternative movement, already a patchwork assembly of diverse perspectives and political programs. Some squats were forcibly evicted by the West Berlin police, while others were negotiated with landlords. The lucky few, like Bethanien, were legalized by government decree and survived as cultural centers in the community. West Berlin’s transitional mayor during Revolt 81, Hans-Jochen Vogel, said in February 1981 that he wished to turn squats “into legally ordered conditions that are also in complete harmony with civil law.”[8] Factions of “negotiators” and “non-negotiators” emerged within the broader movement, pushing the more radical “all or nothing” squatters deeper into the trenches of resistance. Those willing to compromise with property owners were, in certain instances, allowed to remain in the apartment rent-free upon the completion of their refurbishment project, or granted temporary, discounted leases. The non-negotiators, on the other hand, refused to give in until all demands were met, political prisoners released, and a permanent solution to the housing crisis found. They “began to differentiate themselves from the alternative movement by referring to themselves as ‘autonomists’ (Autonomen) and accused negotiators of giving up the political struggle and of resorting to the mere preservation of their own spaces.”[9] The militant Autonomen gave a famous face to the squats, often dressing in ski masks, heavy black clothing, and helmets and causing the German press to dub them der schwarze Block, or “the black block.” Building barricades and throwing stones or Molotov cocktails, they successfully defended squats on Hafenstrasse in Hamburg, and protected many other squats in West Berlin. The German Autonome movement, tied to Marxist autonomism, rejected the imposition of state control. Some Autonomen declared their complete independence from authority, and defended it aggressively in buildings they squatted as “part of an extended and differentiated alternative subculture that centered on the inner-city districts of Kreuzberg and Schoneberg.”[10] Their resistance pushed squatting to the end of its political tether, using occupied buildings to declare autonomy from state control. All squats, in rejecting the authority of land ownership and legal order, exercised their independence from the governing status quo, many operating as self-sufficient communes. The most vocal participants in Germany’s early squatting movement, the Autonomen defended the guiding principle behind besetzung as a method of resistance: a wholehearted rejection of authority.

 

2. Squats and the Temporary Autonomous Zone

The autonomy of squats encouraged the development of communal societies in buildings wrenched from private ownership and municipal control. Such communes live and work as bands, functioning as what Hakim Bey calls a “Temporary Autonomous Zone” (TAZ).

In the Paleolithic Period, much of human society ordered itself in bands, each consisting of roughly sixty members, who survived together as a nomadic hunting collective. Bey argues that the band, often the seedling of larger tribes or clans, operates as a basic social unit reemerging to replace the crumbling nuclear family, a product of the Neolithic agricultural revolution that has (according to twenty-first-century critics) fallen prey to divorce and sexual libertinism. As nomadic tribes worldwide began to form stationary agricultural settlements between 10,000 and 5,000 bce, the nuclear family formed to support rapidly growing communities that required more laborers to till the earth and secure city walls. However, Bey argues that in our post-industrial age, such a system “closed…by the hierarchic totality of agricultural/industrial society” must be replaced by a social unit open to anyone sharing similar life convictions. The modern-day band, a hodge-podge of coworkers, lovers, social media networks, and the like, seems to shatter the secure reclusiveness of the family unit; “the nuclear family becomes more and more a trap, a cultural sinkhole…and the obvious counter-strategy emerges spontaneously in the almost unconscious rediscovery of the more archaic and yet more post-industrial possibility of the band.”[11] This possibility has taken root in our post-industrial, postmodern society, the modernist notion of “truth” now fractured into a multiplicity of equally valid viewpoints. This postmodernism, “in some ways a de-centering of the entire ‘European’ project” and in some ways a reflection of Nietzsche’s proclamation a century earlier that God is dead, “was attained at the expense of inhabiting an epoch where speed and ‘commodity fetishism’ have created a tyrannical false unity which tends to blur all cultural diversity and individuality.”[12] Bey continues, “this paradox creates ‘gypsies,’ psychic travelers driven by desire or curiosity, wanderers with shallow loyalties (in fact disloyal to the ‘European Project,’ which has lost all its charm and vitality), not tied down to any particular time and place, in search of diversity and adventure.”[13]

Bey’s vitriol is coupled with optimism for what the global transience of divergent postmodern identities can create in a new age without one God and one accepted system of authority. His list of “psychic travelers” seems to describe the colorful milieu of Berlin’s squatting communities well; any visitor to the squatted art-house Tacheles, even in its twilight days, was likely to meet Heinrich, the bald-headed blue-goateed gallerist, or DB, the Rastafarian house DJ from Antwerp. The transients there relocated to Berlin from the far corners of Germany and the world beyond, forming bands of their own, tied together by mutual interest. Tacheles’ inception as a center for wayward artists in the once-depressed East Berlin neighborhood of Mitte fostered the growth of a vibrant artistic community for over twenty years, housing work by hundreds of street and performance artists and sculptors, while also hosting dance, music, and theater performances.

Known as the art department store, Tacheles “focused on creating spaces that would primarily help squatters achieve self-realization. [Its] function as a place of residence was merely secondary.”[14] Other temporal squatting groups, like the group of senior citizens that besieged a community center in the East Berlin neighborhood of Pankow during the summer of 2012, united under a political cause. For the seventy- and eighty-year-old squatters at Stille Strasse 10, the cause for solidarity was resistance against the destruction of community resources and cuts in social welfare benefits. Their resistance, along with the appropriation of the derelict Tacheles complex, constitutes what Stephen Pearl Andrews calls in his preamble to the constitution of the International Workers of the World “the seed of the new society taking shape within the shell of the old,”[15] a TAZ for the modern era. It is precisely this “seed” of freedom from the state that flowered in the crumbling shell of the pre-Nazi department store on Oranienstrasse, where the Gestapo had once imprisoned political dissidents.

……….

To read the rest of the essay, and view a complete source list, download a free copy of Graphite IV here