Sunday, February 10, 2013

Now Dig This! From LA to NY Symposium

Sanford Biggers' "Cheshire"
Sanford Biggers' "Cheshire"
As part of the Museum of Modern Art PS1's current--and excellent--exhibition, Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-1980, a day-long symposium took place on Friday, February 8, 2013, at MoMa's Manhattan headquarters, in the Roy and Niuta Titus Theater 2. The symposium's aims included exploring the connections and parallels between the African American artistic communities in these two cities through an examination of the social and cultural atmospheres in both during the 1970s and early 1980s, in part by giving voice, literally, to some of the artists, gallerists, and critics featured in the show. Now Dig This! originally ran in Los Angeles as part of a series of exhibitions gathered under the theme and title of Pacific Standard Time, and will continue at MoMA PS1 until March 11, 2013. See it before it's gone!

Linda Goode Bryant, showing photo of David Hammons selling snowballs on NYC street
Goode Bryant showing a clip of David Hammons selling snowballs
Linda Goode Bryant, talking about episodes in the 1980s NYC artworld
Goode Bryant showing a clip from her film
Tearing up the paper to make fodder for Goode Bryant's vermiculture projects
The foolscap strips
The first panel, which I was unable to attend, took up this thread directly, with organizer and scholar Kellie Jones, Cheryl Finley, Komozi Woodard, each delivering talks, moderated by curator Franklin Sirmans. The first afternoon panel focused on the legendary Just Above Midtown Gallery, a black-owned space on Franklin Street that served as a laboratory, launching pad, training ground, and "club house," as its founder, filmmaker Linda Goode Bryant put it, for a number of figures who have since gone on to great fame, including David Hammons, Fred Wilson, Lorraine O'Grady, Senga Nengudi, and Ulysses Jenkins, the latter three of whom were present and all gave presentations or performances related to their experiences with and at JAM. Naima Keith moderated the Q&A session that followed.

Benny Andrews
Benny Andrews, in a clip from Goode Bryant's film
Ulysses Jenkins
Ulysses Jenkins
Still from Lorraine O'Grady's Central Park project
Lorraine O'Grady, showing a clip from her diaporama
A still from Ulysses Jenkins's video of Houston Conwill's *Cake Walk* (1983)
A still from Ulysses Jenkins's film of Conwill's "Cake Walk" © 1983.
I'd heard of the gallery but knew little about it except that it had been a cynosure during its existence, but seeing Bryant's film clips, and hearing her talk about how and why she started it, who passed through, and what the gallery meant and still means was illuminating. One of the video clips showed Hammons urging artists to stay out of/away from the gallery world, an admonition it's clear most of the younger generation, who can more easily and freely participate in a system that excluded their elders, have ignored. As she spoke, she invited everyone in the room to tear pieces of newspaper into strips which she would later use as part of her vermiculture efforts at community gardens all over New York.

Jenkins showed an excerpt from and talked about making his video Cake Walk (© 1983), which captured a performance by Houston Conwill and other dancers at Just Above Midtown. Jenkins talked about the challenges then of video-filmmaking and the shifts occurring since that moment. He also talked about how important the experience was for him personally and for his artmaking. Lorraine O'Grady, who is also well known as a critic and theorist, showed stills--together forming a diaporama--of her 1982 Central Park performance, RIVERS, FIRST DRAFT, an allegory of her journey into the art world, and which featured a very young Fred Wilson, among others. With and against the captioned images she read first an introduction, which discussed her and others experiences at JAM, followed by a more poetic text. Finishing the sesions, Senga Nengudi strolled the perimeter of the theater, calling out "The people all said sit down, / sit down if you're rocking the boat," as she kicked a box around the room, stopping only when she reached the stage, whereupon she broke it down, transformed it into a small sculpture, and then proceeded back to her seat.
A still from Lorraine O'Grady's Central Park performance, 1982
Lorraine O'Grady, showing a clip from her
diaporama of RIVERS, FIRST DRAFT
(Fred Wilson is the young man in the green shirt)
The panel discussion that followed contained a lot of quotable lines, but one of Goode Bryant's first comments struck me most. She noted that the words "They won't let us..." annoyed her tremendously, and that her response had been to defy such expectations or lack thereof, and say "Fuck them. Start our own." This was part of a larger ethos, certainly, of the moment in which she and the other artists worked, and it continued well into the 1990s, though institutional creep, conceptually and materially, has changed the terms by which many younger artists think and operate. Senga Nengudi eventually echoed Goode Bryant's comments, penning "AGAIN / FUCK / 'EM" on a clipboard. Goode Bryant underlined that her guiding idea was "being in integrity with" oneself, an approach she and many of the artists in her milieu had striven to adhere to, and, as is clear with her current projects, that "art can directly affect the condition of the environment where it is made." Both she and Nengudi invoked the late musician Lawrence "Butch" Morris, who had been one of many talented music makers in the constellation of artists around the gallery and in the New York black and broader arts scene.
Senga Nengudi performing
Senga Nengudi's performance
Now Dig This! panel, MoMa
Keith, Goode Bryant, Jenkins, O'Grady, and Nengudi
Senga Nengudi writing a response at her Now Dig This! panel, MoMa
Nengudi writing on the flipboard
A final panel comprised five younger, contemporary artists--Xaviera Simmons, Hank Willis Thomas, Kira Lynn Harris, Steffani Jameson, and Sanford Biggers (of "Cheshire" fame)--who spoke about the influence of the earlier generation as well as their individual experiences with the contemporary art world. Every single one of them showed formally polished artworks. Kalia Brooks moderated the discussion following their presentations, and nearly all these artists appeared to take a different approach from their predecessors. Hank Willis Thomas put it as bluntly as a hammer blow when he stated that he doesn't "believe in the engaged artist," or the statements "art is..." or "the artist should...." Although she concurred, Xaviera Simmons ended the panel discussion by stressing a point she'd made earlier, which was how "fortunate" all of these younger artists were, in part because of the sacrifices and gains of their predecessors.
One of Sanford Biggers's installations
A detail from one of Sanford Biggers' installations
A still from one of Sanford Biggers' videos
A detail from one of Sanford Biggers' films
The contemporary artists, MoMa
Brooks, Harris, Biggers, Willis Thomas, Jameson, Simmons
Assembling the room-sized piece, MoMa
Hassinger's piece
Concluding the day's events, Now Dig This! artist Maren Hassinger involved the entire audience in the auditorium in a participatory art project, which entailed extracting a length of rope, all of differing lengths, placed beneath everyone's seat, and then extending them and tying them together to whomever they reached. When completed, the entire room had been transformed, we had individually and collectively created a network and new environment, and the resonances of using the rope were no less powerful.  Both simple and effective, it was a demonstration of the ideas and practices she and her peers have been conveying for years in their work, made visible and material for everyone present.
Hassinger's group sculpture
Forming the links
Creating the group sculpture (Xaviera Simmonson the left)
People right next to me (Simmons at left)
Maren Hassinger's group sculpture
A view from above
Maren Hassinger's performance
Maren Hassinger herself

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