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Eye Exam: Politics as (Un)usual

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By Bert Stabler

Seemingly poised to become the Fox News of local art punditry, the blog Chicago Art Criticism has (albeit from a purportedly post-Marxist perspective) been keeping up a sustained attack on contemporary social practices in art. Recent articles by Laurie Rojas, Ian Morrison, Chris Mansour and Jamie Keesling have all taken a hard party line in wringing their hands over the supplanting of the heroic artistic and cultural vanguard of the twentieth-century heyday of Modernism by the post-Fluxus proliferation of social and ideological practices being cast as artwork—practices like community kitchens and gardens, pamphleteering and swap meets. A screed on the blog by Platypus Journal contributor Bret Schneider targets the work of Chicago artist Claire Pentecost in a vitriolic diagnosis of (to use two of his go-to terms) art’s “dangerous” effort to recuperate the “failed” activist politics of a bygone era. Citing precious little theory or research to substantiate them, he offers epic-sounding generalizations, such as: “the undaunted optimism of social art practices glosses over suffering and constriction altogether in its wriggling away from historical trauma.” Or, “There is no fundamental condition of human existence yet, at least hopefully. Believing so is a major setback and an arbitrary nostalgia.”  Nostalgia bad, historical trauma good, got it.

But can art simultaneously fail and be dangerous? Well, if it fails to be art, hopefully it can do so by aspiring to be dangerous. As Pentecost said in a 2006 interview on the art podcast Bad At Sports, “If you’re talking about art as just the kind of stuff that gets validated by museums and galleries, maybe what I do isn’t art. But I think that art is a much bigger and broader human enterprise. I’m more interested in building movements.” And, while she describes change as a slow, multifaceted process, the things she makes, organizes, presents and participates in reflect her belief in the potential of producing knowledge publicly and collectively. Pentecost has worked on biotechnology experiments with the collective Critical Art Ensemble, helped to run and program the active community cultural space Mess Hall in Rogers Park, created seminars and publications in association with the Continental Drift project and The Midwest Radical Culture Corridor group, documented the encroachment of corporate-style farming practices in Europe and South America, created an installation and a newspaper about food economics and, closer to the purview of “real” art, presented a series of wall drawings as photographs, created monumental sculptures made from processed snacks, and commissioned miniaturist painters in India to render her portrait from staged tourist snapshots.

Pentecost’s upcoming show at Threewalls will also presumably be recognizable as art. There is a wooden tower with panels affixed to it bearing drawings of various models of unmanned military drone aircraft, constituting an erect symbolic exchange of interchangeable icons that simultaneously connote lethal imperialist surveillance, toy model kits and historic sketches of flying inventions. Hidden in the shadowy interior of the tower is an odd assemblage of lumber and an animal’s tail, perhaps a suggestion of the structure’s forgotten origins. Making the installation into something of a grim monochromatic Maypole, streamer-style strings of glamour-model head shots, screenprinted on rawhide, radiate outward to the edges of the room in a fantasy ejaculation conflating ideal beauty and genocidal carnage.

Monitors will be stationed at either end of the gallery, displaying talking-head videos documenting the responses of a group of artists, academics and activists to a given word; on one screen the subjects will be sharing memories, insights and emotions connected to “awe” and, on the other, “compassion.” But the aircraft and the rawhide faces have one additional element that is absent in the relationship of the videos. There is no parallel to the assemblage of lumber and fur inside the tower. The odd pile expresses the indigestible remainder of commerce and militarism, but the viewer is left to imagine what irrational leftover might supplement the reasoned discourse of the reflective intellectual interviewees.

The imbalance between the two parts of the installation reminds me of the invisible barriers that Pentecost identifies as shutting the majority of people off from powerful knowledge embedded in professionalized discourses and advanced technology. “We are in an asymmetrical relationship to the forces we’re trying to remake,” she said. While engineering and science offer many people easier lives and greater autonomy, “the ‘humanities’ are where we discuss the meaning, the value. And I think there’s a real problem there, in that bifurcation, in that whole division of labor.” And this labor is tangible. On April 16 she helped host representatives of the Madison-based Family Farm Defenders, part of the international small-scale farmers group Via Campesino, who did a presentation on their work at Mess Hall; Pentecost told me, in regard to farming, “All over the world there’s been so much contestation; it hasn’t been a smooth ride for the corporations.”

Similarly issue-driven, her presentation on May 6 will use a variety of media to spark thought and discussion around the use of military drones. These sorts of provocative educational situations seem to express less a utopian dream, as Bret Schneider would have it, than a belief in contemporary popular resistance as a reason to make art. Instead of pursuing monolithic models of aesthetic endeavor and political organizing, perhaps, as Pentecost says, “we all need to be able to do things that structure our contribution in a way that reflects who we are.” There may be idealism here, and scaled-back, non-revolutionary standards of gradual political efficacy. But in the wake of a century of unparalleled bloodletting and consolidation of power in the Modernist era, the most dangerous failure may indeed be nostalgia.

Claire Pentecost shows at Threewalls, 119 N. Peoria, April 23 through May 22.

2 Responses to “Eye Exam: Politics as (Un)usual”

  1. rszott Says:

    What I love about Chicago Art Criticism is that it embodies the starry eyed Stalinism found so commonly among art school twenty something puritans. I’d love to see these October wannabes taking their “revolutionary” rhetoric to the streets of Little Rock. God bless their earnest critical fantasies.

  2. Bret Schneider Says:

    Seems pertinent to mention that a lot of these issues will be addressed at a panel discussion on April 27th, featuring Claire Pentecost, as well as Chris Cutrone of Platypus & Stephen Eisenman. It is at SAIC at 6 pm in the Columbus Auditorium.

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