Tag Archives: art

art and meaning

My friend Gabe recently asked me: “When did art become important to you?”

It’s a question I’ve never been asked — it made me pause and consider something that I haven’t ever really given my specific attention to before.  It’s clear that art is important to me, as one can tell from the alleged thematic devotion of this blog and, if you know me, the concerns about my future as “an artist” (whatever that is…) that keep me awake late at night and drive me to wander the streets in a sort of divine despair.  But I guess I’ve tended to treat the importance of ‘art’ as sort of a posteriori knowable, when in fact it is, from most perspectives, a construction of vast cultural construction.  This is not to say that what we call art is itself culturally constructed — there are works that are intrinsically whatever they happen to be, perhaps even pre-culturally, so the application of the label, ‘art’, is independent of the thing in itself.  But does it change the thing, in itself?  It changes, at least, our perception of it, since culture is fairly inescapable, and depending on whether you believe in phenomenology, maybe this changes the thing itself simply by changing how we create, psychologically, the thing itself.  Hmmm.

All that aside, my response in the moment was to tell a particular anecdote about a time that I had stood for nigh on an hour, transfixed, before a certain Mark Rothko painting that hangs in the MoMA.  I mythologize this moment for myself as some rite of passage, a recognition of my true Self and an utter giving up of that Self to a work of ‘art’, to the power of vision and the patience to be — the patience to be moved.  I find I tell this story often, actually, and now I question the sincerity of my intention in telling it.  Maybe, at age 15, I did stand there and know the importance of art, but now the more I tell it, the more it seems like a prop in my artistic, hipster-clad, surface-oriented, post-modern presentation of self, a tale of appropriate name-dropping and passion, rather full of sound and fury…but signifying something.

Photographs hardly do him justice.

Perhaps I was so moved because I had recently seen a documentary on Rothko, or because I was at the appropriately self-constructing and angsty age at which I happened to be, or because it was a very hot day and my subconscious mind knew that my body did not want to leave the air-conditioned space of the exhibition hall or even to move a few inches…who knows.  Context, and knowledge, and everything that is decidedly not pre-cultural, could very well have come to bear on this.

I can think of any number of other instances in which art has, I suppose, ‘moved’ me, and these all seem to rally as proof of its importance, if for no better reason than that I am selfish for emotional and sensual experience, that it is good to be moved.

But Gabe’s question: when?

Have I always valued art?  I know I haven’t always liked the same art throughout my lifetime, but what of my evaluation of art as whole, as a thing distinct from other things, as something that we seem to elevate as a culture?  I don’t remember suddenly beginning to find it important, some precise transition from a dis- to acknowledgement…such a transition would require a negative value judgment to begin with, an awareness that could be switched, like poles, into the positive.

But art is never not a part of life; I go back and forth about whether art is life and life is art.  So when did I know that life was important?  Perhaps in my first brushes with death.  Perhaps, too, such brushes with the potential for eternity and for nothingness are what awaken me to the power of art.  Perhaps this is why, in spite of my misgivings about my most hispterish intentions in its telling, I keep coming back to the story of the art of Mark Rothko, who himself made the decision to plunge into eternity.

Now, to answer Gabe’s question: if only to remember the moment I knew that I would not live forever.

telephone feat. gps

After several years of utter bliss with my Sanyo Katana, I was recently forced to recognize its growing ghetto-ness and make the plunge: upgrading to a smartphone. Consequently, I am now the proud owner of a Samsung Transform with Android technology. (And sadly, no, I am not getting any kickbacks from anyone for these opening lines of blog post. Lovely as it might be to actually make a little money this summer.)

Aside from transforming (!) the way that I communicate via text message, the acquisition of a smartphone presents interesting opportunities and ethical questions to the developing psychogeographer that I am. Many of the coolest things that are happening in (what I am dubbing, for lack of a better term) “organized psychogeography” rely on online integration with mobile technology, such as Tim Clark’s Ice Cream Island at Figment NYC or any number of urban games and reimaginings that involved QR codes and the ability to link an individual in the real world to an online network or augmented reality.

In this overwhelmingly digital age, we tend to assume that everyone is pretty much internet capable, all the time, at least in the Western world. But what about people who can’t afford to upgrade to this new incarnation of the teched-out cellular device? Before I got my own smartphone, I had been ruminating for some time on my own exclusion from large sections of the psychogeographic community and playground, and had some moderately grand designs on creating some psychogeographic trek/art piece that addressed what I see as a modern tendency indicative of underlying issues of privilege and socioeconomic disparity. I may still craft such a piece, but part of me feels that it would lose its impact in light of the fact that I now possess Android capability, wherever I should wander.

More broadly, this raises the question: should the elevation of life by the power of art be restricted based on means or access to technology? In the best of worlds, of course not. On the one hand, not having a smartphone could be comparable to simply not living in New York, if you want access to The Met, but it still presents an interesting opportunity to consider the disparities in wealth and access to art that do, undoubtedly, exist. Also, this isn’t just a psychogeographic issue: consider the $20 entrance fee at the MoMA. (Consider it, artists, and then check out how to culture jamufacture your own pass.)

However. Now that I am Android equipped, there are a lot of cool directions in which I can (and am already beginning to) expand my own practice of psychogeography. Honestly, the main reason that I begged my father for an upgrade was that it was much cheaper and more multi-functional than purchasing the independent GPS tracker that I had been dreaming of as a means to track my progress through the strange and mysterious urban jungle of the Big Apple. Thus, I have initiated myself into the branch of the field that Tim Clark’s professor has dubbed ‘obsessive psychogeography’ (and realizing that I had already been doing this by hand with distances, routes, and times for cycling adventures since the impressionable age of 14 or so). Here is one of my tracked treks as yet, using the opensource technology for Android, MyTracks, exported very simplistically to GoogleMaps (I will do fancier, more artistically abstract things with raw GPS data once I get the hang of this and develop some conceptual frameworks):

chasing light, instead of ice cream trucks


One other worry that I had about getting a Smartphone was that the navigation apps would put an end to my frequent practices of finding myself truly lost – a skill at which I am shockingly adept, given my chosen path in life, although it is perhaps an indication that I will at times diverge, perhaps inadvertently, but ever with the sense of greatest adventure, from that path. Or maybe it’s just that becoming a full-time psychogeographer allows me to legitimize for inherent inability to navigate by the shortest distance from A to B without serious preparation and/or practice.

My sudden discovery that I was deep into Queens for the first time yesterday afternoon was proof that this is not an issue: I can carry a smartphone, and still lose myself. I was attempting to bike to the Upper West Side to do some filming for my documentary on Tick Out of Time, and having made the trip twice before, I thought it would be interesting to see if I could do it now without using the directional assistance of my Samsung. It did prove interesting, in all the best psychogeographic ways. Knowing I had to head vaguely northwest to cross the Pulaski Bridge and then the Queensboro into Manhattan, I set out in that general direction. Unlike the Ritter Sport gridding of The Island, North Brooklyn and Queens (I have yet to discover quite where one becomes the other) comprise a whole different candy bar. I have never been to Queens proper, and somewhere around 51st ave, I turned a corner to be confront be a sea of graves, spreading out beyond the horizon it seemed: the Mount Zion Cemetery.

Over 210,000 departed Jewish souls.

And then, returning, I crossed two bridges over an unexpected tributary of the East River, the first a great green steal rattler that, I noticed only after having traversed it, exhorted cyclists to “dismount and walk across”. This thrust me into the winding, wheel-rattling back roads of an industrial park that seemed to capture my first impression of Queens: towering factorial edifices and trucks scuttling between unreal cardboard blow-ups of Honest Tea and Vitamin Water.

At some point I re-encountered Bushwick Avenue, by pure luck and general reorientation of the self/cycle combo in relation to the river, which I followed home, musing on my first, sweaty encounter with Queens. My thoughts followed my pedaling feet down a consideration of the way that psychogeographing via bicycle transforms the practice. It’s much less tempting, and much more of a hassle, to pause and photograph at such apace, at least in the way that I have become accustomed to making pictures. When I take out my Nikon, I tend to be deliberate, focusing on enigmatic bits of humanistic evidence or pieces of light and angles of buildings that strike me. But, if I learned anything at all from watching Art School Confidential last week, I am awfully young to be having my own style — especially in how I manifest my psychogeographs. I may start taking pictures with my phone, or taking continuous video, or consider means of attaching cameras to my body (ala the Looxcie, which I may get the chance to ogle this evening!), or even going, on occasion, to the Will Self-ian extreme of pure literary presentation (more thoughts on that illustrious fellow to follow in due course, I assure you). Of course, the medium of translating any performance piece, if we are considering psychogeography to be as such (and I think it is, but maybe only sometimes), must depend on the nature of that piece. So ‘psyclogeography’, if you will pardon my coinage of a new and rather excruciatingly punning term, may call for a unique brand of recording and understanding, just as it must influence the nature of the psychological and physical journeys that it enables. Either way, it showed me Queens as I had never (quite literally) seen it before.

My trusty two-wheeled psychogeographic steed.

transitory thoughts

So…what was that?

After almost three months abroad, I am about to return to U.S. soil this afternoon.  Taking time to reflect is fairly unavoidable.

I began this blog in Spain; it has followed me from Barcelona to Switzerland, France, Germany, Denmark — and now both The Semioptician and I are returning home, as it were.  It seems a little strange to think of a blog as having a corporeal ability to return to a physical home, but so many of the ideas and curiosities that underlie this project were sparked on the Carleton campus, where I will be arriving roughly 12 hours from now, give or take some time difference.  So if this blog has any home, it may be Carleton.

But of course, part of the beauty of the internet is its lack of fixity — some may argue for it as a ‘non-place’, but there must be a point at which the growing proliferance of non-places in the world simply results in a newer sense of place, such as an online place that is hypertextual and expansive and yes, largely virtual.  But the thoughts in these virtual statements are no different than any thoughts that I might set to physical paper with a real-life pen.

‘Real life’.  An interesting concept.  I was recently discussing (via the ‘virtual’ means of Facebook chat, no less) this established dichotomy between the lives of college students and this nebulous outer world of adults and jobs which is somehow more ‘real’.  Obviously there are inherent contradictions in asserting that any aspect of life is more real than any other, but this invites all kinds of complications about how one perceives ‘reality’ and whether we can ever be certain about our perceptions of it, and other things that keep angsty pseudo-philosophers like myself lying awake late at night.  But in returning to the ‘real world’, as I will undoubtedly slip up and term it in the next few days, after these three months of such foreign and varied and exhilarating experiences in Europe, this is something I am thinking about, in spite of logical fallacies (which I have a habit of pushing past in many of my lines of reason).  My return to the ‘real world’, where that means America and the life I knew before I left in March, corresponds with a departure from ‘real life’, that is, back into the Carleton Bubble, as we term the insulated space in which we academiate, incubated.  Ironic?  Perhaps.  Totally thrilling and daunting?  Yes, very much so.

But am I going back to the same life?  The goal of study abroad, we are so often told, is to change us.  Through academics and language, through experience, through culture shock, through the opening of doors we didn’t know were there.  My study abroad has been more than dynamic, all told.  It has certainly changed my trajectory in the immediate and possibly long-term future.  I have new scars, literal and metaphorical.

"Soft Self-Portrait with Implied Scarring."

At the risk of sounding cliched, my way of looking at the world has changed — quite literally.  As a student of visual culture, I have come in contact with a dizzying array of art and artists (and a bit of academics and academia) over these months.  You know how so many authors tell young aspiring writers to simply read (and read and read some more)?  I think this applies more broadly to the arts (and life) in general, and so much exposure to a billion new ways of visualizing meaning and emotion and experience cannot help but sensitize me to what I as an artist and theorist can and ought and want to be doing.

And on a completely practical level, I have put in the long hours of work that are the foundation of being a photographer — shooting every day, over 10,000 pictures later, I have failed enough to begin to find a style that speaks to me.  There may even be a couple hundred photos among those thousands and thousands that are actually good, and of those couple hundred, several dozen GREAT photographs.  In practice, photography is chance married to concept, and an understanding of why you are shooting.

Conclusions: I really dig concept art.  I still dig modern and contemporary art (already knew that, but good to get some confirmation).  I will probably not ever been in the mainstream film industry in a productive capacity.  I will never be a commercial photographer, but I have learned to love photographs for themselves and, I think, understand a bit the many things they can do and mean.  I may be an experimental filmmaker.  I will live in New York City for at least 3 months of my life.  And I really need to sit down and read, completely, everything that Jacques Derrida has ever written.

I am not the same person who flew out of MSP almost three months ago; life has been happening, in various shades of reality.  And life is about to continue to happen, for all of the new incarnations of my Self encountering all of the visual worlds there are to see.

including photography!

Normally when I’m at Carleton, seeing the campus announcements Digest arrive in my mailbox produces a groan, or at least a sigh of resignation.  This is because the Digest always arrives around 2 am (standard central time), so being awake for the moment of its digital transmission is a clear indicator that I should actually be in bed.  Unfortunately, I was in the habit of experiencing this early-morning herald way too often last term.

But now that I am living in Barcelona, where everything happens seven hours in the future (and I do of course still check my Carleton email), seeing the campus announcements arrive is a good thing – it means I’m awake and functioning at a reasonable enough hour to take the time to caffeinate before catching the metro to class near Placa Catalunya.  (That being said, the fact that I am checking my email first thing in the morning/often enough to see this particular missive arrive is itself a rather interesting reflection of the centrality of the digital, technology, and of course the internet, to life in the modern Western world – a reliance that was made all too clear to me this morning when I arrived at class and discovered I had forgotten my laptop and felt utterly cut-off in both a social and academic sense…)

But what struck me about this issue of the campus announcements was not so much the way in which how my temporal shift influences my interpretation of how I receive them, but rather a minor semantic choice in one of the announcements itself:

“Send submissions of poetry, art (including photography), short stories, plays…”

I have no intention, as some photographers might, of taking any offense at the Manuscript staff for the implication that photography is in fact not art (as the need to specifically include it under this category suggests), but this minor detail reflects a major historical debate that I find fascinating, and this is an excellent excuse to revive it.

The question: IS PHOTOGRAPHY ART?  Back when Pictorialists like Rejlander and Robinson were exploring the newness of the medium in a way that would not forget the art of painting, with photo-composites and darkroom manipulations, photography was considered as something of a ‘hand-maiden to the arts’, to quote Rejlander.  The struggle to legitimize the practice in the face of accusations about its mere mechanical nature has shaped much of the history of photography since then, with movement away from such blatant manipulation in the late 19th century now coming full circle in the era of Photoshop, such that some current branches of photography are, to my mind, a sort of Neo-Pictorialism, although with differing goals than the original Pictorialists.  Modernism and Post-Modernism have removed the driving need for authenticity, or for strict adherence to a definition of art that is classically painterly or sculpturely – opening up expansively the extent to which photography falls into the classification of ‘art’.

The Two Ways of Life, Rejlander's most famous and controversial photograph, which is actually a composite of seven different images.

In trying to say whether or not photography, as a massive and polysemous practice, is art, we forget about the multiplicities of meanings and uses it can have.  Commerical sports photography is not Paul Strand is not Cindy Sherman is not the contents my most recent Facebook album.  Perhaps not all photography is art, and of course not all art in photography, but if art is that which is expressive and interpretable (even if that expression and interpretation is located, meaning-wise, in the viewer-interpreter), then by all means a photograph can be a work of art.

The underlying question, then, is what is art?  I want to claim that photography is not not art, but part of me has a hard time saying that most of the pictures on Facebook fall into the category.  I have further reservations about my own reservations, because I sense the cultural and societal construction of the meaning I attach to this word ‘art’ – or rather, an entire shifting discourse that surrounds it.  A discourse structure by the gallery, the art museum, the whole world of ‘art’ which privileges some things over others – high art over low, or when we wish to be provocative or transgressive, sometimes low art over high.  Perhaps in broadening a definition of art, we need to privilege the very fact that art cannot be simply segregated into low or high – there is a continuum, and the point along that continuum where any given practice or piece of art (including photography) falls is steeped in its own socialization and subjectivity.