Buy Nathan Sharratt: Requested Exhibition Statement
From March 21-25, 2016, I presented a thesis art exhibition at the Welch School Gallery of Georgia State University titled Buy Nathan Sharratt: A Requirement of the Masters of Fine Arts Degree of Georgia State University.
I have been asked for an artist statement explaining the exhibit as it pertains to privilege, oppression, and cultural appropriation. Rather than delaying a response until my thesis paper is presented to GSU at the end of April, 2016, I am releasing this abbreviated statement. A more comprehensive statement will be published in the near future through Georgia State University as my written thesis document, which will include footnotes and additional references.
This statement isn’t meant to define the only interpretation of the exhibition, nor will it unpack every aspect or relationship within the installation. However, I hope it will serve as a starting point for discussion and understanding.
The exhibition was presented as a complex ecosystem, and its meaning should not be reduced to a particular object or objects, especially if removed from the context of the installation. Its intended context was within an art gallery.
Please note this statement is not comprehensive and the final document may change based on feedback from my thesis committee. And while issues of privilege, oppression, and cultural appropriation are important aspects of this exhibition, they are not the exhibition’s only focus, and exemplify why it is important to view the installation as a whole within its intended artistic context.
A few of the other themes the exhibition speaks to are: the difficulty of determining fact from fiction in mediated discourse in a post-internet age (how do I know this statement on Facebook is true?), how meaning is altered through amplification (what happens when I click “like” or “share?” What are the implications and consequences? What ambiguities are created?), the transformation of the self from Subject to Object through simulated realities (my Instagram self is my idealized self that I pick and choose how to sculpt and present), the societal expectations of identity attached to the projected and inherent self (what other people think I am versus what I think I am versus who I want to be), and the mediation of identity through these performances (how I perform as my self on the Internet shapes how I perceive my self inherently).
Much of the language and text surrounding this exhibition has been performative, including the previously released exhibition statement; due to the frequent use of this fictional and artistic language and text in my practice and this exhibition specifically, I would like to explicitly clarify that this statement is not meant to be viewed as part of any artwork, but as an authentic presentation and analysis of my thought processes and motivations regarding this exhibition, with a particular focus on the issues of privilege, oppression, repression, and cultural appropriation.
The exhibition Buy Nathan Sharratt was a multi-disciplinary installation of post-institutional critique that was presented as a retrospective of a fictionalized, established, world-famous artist at the height of his career named “Nathan Sharratt.” The exhibition included objects, artwork titles, performative text, social media as art, promotion and marketing as art, a continuous livestream documentation, performative docent tours, video and audio, and a continuous performance by myself as the Persona of the exhibiting institutional artist “Nathan Sharratt.” Much like Stephen Colbert’s persona on The Colbert Report, this Persona uses my name but does not necessarily share my personal views. And, like the Colbert persona, the line between truth and fiction is blurred to reflect the confusion and difficulty of determining fact from opinion or outright falsity in modern discourse.
The exhibition was divided into four main viewing spaces:
- The gallery: “Null Object: An Institutional Retrospective of Artist Nathan Sharratt” The title refers to a “null object,” which is a digital animation tool that has no visible content or substance but can be attached to other objects to control their attributes. This was the presumed ‘main event,’ the reason why everyone is coming to the gallery. This is the ART. Only, there is no physical “ART,” just a collection of ceramic tiles with museum-style wall text describing artwork that is real but not present. In the performative tours, this experience was heralded as better than seeing the actual art, since for the artist, it can never be criticized and, for the viewer, it can exist infinitely in the viewer’s mind as anything they want. It is always immediately available and transcends even the phrase “immediate gratification.” It is the ultimate “Necker Cube of Pleasure©”—a situation upon which we project our own desires and modes of thinking, and the resolution of truth is a paradox that doesn’t need to be resolved because we have already been gratified. On the ceramic wall-tiles, didactic museum-style text contextualizes the work through bombastic language that gives mostly factual statements twisted through the lens of my personal anxieties and fears. These are thoughts that run through my mind as, for example, I imagine critical responses to my work or conjecture about why a work might not have sold during an exhibition, or how that artwork could be harming me because, as unsold inventory, it is not translated into money that I can use to pay my cell phone bill. These thoughts are typically fleeting, and my rational mind dismisses them for what they are: emotional reactions based on limited information. Here, those reactions are allowed to run free and are treated as fact.
- The project space: “L’Objet” was a mini art studio and administration office where I performed continuously for the entire duration of the five-day exhibition, 43 hours total, as the Persona of world-famous artist “Nathan Sharratt.” I also announced to viewers in the gallery and on social media that I would be performing. From "L’Objet", I livestreamed the day-to-day activities as I worked on my art practice. My performance philosophy was that I felt it was important to provide continuous access to the artist for dialog and education, both online and off, rather than just showing up for scheduled performances. I would perform as the bombastic and narcissistic Persona for tours, but then shift to my personal self if anyone asked me a question directly outside of those performative tours. My decision to work in the space was also an expression of labor, and connected to several objects in the exhibition that referenced labor as it relates to commodity. This spoke to the idea that objects don’t just appear from the ether, fully formed and perfect. There are people working to make all the products we buy, and somewhere along the chain of capitalism from raw material to iPhone in your pocket, there is most likely exploitation and repression. I wanted to make labor visible. The work I did in "L’Objet" was a representation of all the drudgery artists have to do that isn’t making art, all of the things I don’t always like to do as an artist but feel like I have to do to sustain my career: increase my ‘brand value,’ price my work, commodify it, title it, present it in a pleasant way so that it will be attractive to buyers, assert its importance, insert it into the art historical conversation, promote it, document it, make sure it gets out into the world. The titling was especially important, since this allowed an opportunity for me to counter the Persona’s excess and to provide entry points to deeper meanings for the viewer. For example, sunglasses with the NS seal laser-etched into each lens titled, “I Can See Clearly Now.” GSU sketchbooks titled, “Container For Your Hopes And Dreams.” Laser-etched pencils titled “Tools For The Invisible Hand.” A LEGO mug titled, “Let’s Build This Thing Together.” A pair of coasters titled, “I Am Complicit” and “I Am Complacent,” whichever the buyer thought was worse was the more expensive coaster.
- The virtual space: “L’Intermet” consisted of a continuous and publicly-available live broadcast on YouTube, an accompanying chat box, social media performance, and performative texts and essays posted on the Internet. Social media posts that were meant as art were hashtagged #buynathansharratt as much as possible. If someone asked me a direct question on the Internet I responded as myself, not the Persona. I have since made the archives private due to automated YouTube copyright claims stemming from the background music.
- The gift shop: “Obiekt—The Curated Retail Experience” (“Obiekt” is “object” in Polish, my family’s maternal heritage). This was where the bulk of the energy and floor space of the exhibition was dedicated. In addition to artifacts from my own previous performances, numerous appropriated commercial, historical, and artistic commodities were branded with an “Official Artwork of Nathan Sharratt” seal and logo. The seal is the embodiment of unchecked expansionism, narcissism and greed. Some of the objects in the shop had the intentional appearance of empty vessels—like tchotchkes, souvenirs, knick knacks and toys—but others were more highly charged historically/culturally speaking. Each item was carefully considered, and the arrangement of objects was important. The pencils, for example, were lined up side by side to be etched with a single image or phrase, but were presented in the shop separated, with gaps between them. The message couldn’t be understood unless the pencils were pushed back together again. Throughout the shop the theme of division and reunion was repeated, as were objects that functioned as opportunities for directed creativity, such as coloring books, Create-Your-Own Vinylmation, puzzles, cross stitch, and scale models: crafts that allowed you to create something beautiful or interesting without years of training in art. The crafts I chose are activities I enjoy in my personal life. In several of these objects I “got things started” for you by, for example, coloring some pages (and then logging my labor) or die-cutting phrases into notebooks so there would be less intimidating blank canvas to fill. Many objects were priced according to whether I “did the work for you” or not. The coloring book was priced at $10 per page. The more I colored for you, the more expensive it was. The Disney/Kinkaid cross stitch had two prices, one if I intervened upon the “kit” but left it for you to stitch, and one if I did the whole cross stitch for you. There were also objects that spoke to division, such as four roach motels (a reference to Trump’s divisive comments on immigration) with the “Make America Nate Again” slogan cut into each, and painted CMYK. This spoke to the media’s complicity in amplifying divisive rhetoric, as well as our own for paying attention to it. A red hat with “Make America Nate Again” burned out of the fabric is a call to return America to the proletariat.
The work I’m interested in creating has a very slippery conceptual surface; it is so fluid and external that without using my name, body, and likeness to provide a grounding, the viewer may, at first, have very little to hold onto. For the shop, the viewer may get stuck at the surface level, since it appears to be nothing BUT surface. A knockoff Jeff Koons Balloon Dog next to a Nefertiti bust next to Stupid Garden Gnomes at first appear to have little in common. However, by presenting them at the same level within the same hierarchy, they represent the flattening of culture, or repressive desublimation. Items with basically no symbolism/content next to manipulations of significant historical artifacts with enormous amounts of symbolism/content bring high art and low art so close together that we can’t tell them apart from reality.
How are we to find meaning in the world when, through this flattening of culture and history, we can’t always tell the difference between what is meaningful and what is meaningless? What is real and what is not? What is and what is not reality? Does the assignment of meaning then become arbitrary? What does it mean for me, as a white male artist, to approach the topic of cultural appropriation or repression? How is the meaning changed if I discuss these issues versus a person of color doing so? Everything I do, as a white, male, straight artist comes from a position of privilege. I know that if I am pulled over by a cop it’s probably not because of the color of my skin. I have the privilege to not think about racial injustice constantly because the system is not set up against me as it is set up against others. I chose to approach this exhibition as a non-linear narrative that tells stories on multiple levels from multiple perspectives in order to use contextual clues to deconstruct those narratives.
Every major museum exhibition has a curator. Buy Nathan Sharratt‘s meta-exhibition “Null Object’s” fictional artistic narrative was “curated” by “Arthur Fantastic,” a character I invented and gave a mysterious backstory to so that “Null Object” could seem more official and impressive. To be clear, Arthur Fantastic does not exist, it is a character I invented and it is different from the Persona. I never performed in person as Arthur Fantastic for this exhibition, only for written texts.
Two performative texts on http://nathansharratt.tumblr.com were published as if written by the fictional “curator” Arthur Fantastic: an exhibition statement and a critical essay titled Losing Friends and Alienating People: Social Media As Artistic Medium. To reduce confusion, I have edited each with a note informing the viewer that these are artistic texts.
The performative exhibition statement in the gallery was etched into a ceramic tile and contained the following text, also written by the “curator” Arthur Fantastic (the online statement linked above was expanded, but likewise performative):
American, born 1978
Buy Nathan Sharratt: A Requirement of the MAsters of Fine Arts Degree of Georgia State University, March 21-25, 2016,
MFA Thesis Exhibition, Continuous Performance, Livestream, Gift Shop; Reception March 24, 5-8pm, GSU Galleries, Alanta
#BUYNATHANSHARRATT: In the tradition of the glorious neoliberal patriarchy, invisible∞hand artist Nathan Sharratt presents his first comprehensive career retrospective in a major American Institution. Sharratt is an important voice in the superpositional dialectic of in-group/out-group family circus of value. Since the death of Institutional Critique in the early 1990s, Sharratt has been practicing Institutional Embrace™, a form of post-contemporary art that celebrates the role of the Artist As Institution™. Through the Spectacle of Transactive Banality™, Sharratt’s practice becomes a scaffold around which platforms of control and desire may grow organically into a Necker Cube of Pleasure©. Through his personal life as a person, Sharratt knowingly participates in the Repressive Desublimation of Culture™, while his artistic practice invests in glue and shiny objects to put it back together.
There are several clues that would lead a viewer to recognize that this is a performative text, even if they were unaware of my previous work or there was no one in the gallery to clarify. First, the text existed in the Gallery area where the “art” is. Second, the text was published with #buynathansharratt, which is my announcement and documentation system for performative social media texts. I announced on my Facebook page:
“Upcoming Social Media Performance Art.
Fair warning: I'm going to be doing a lot of social-media performance art on my accounts leading up to and during my thesis exhibition March 21-25. I'm discussing the artist-as-institution and how we navigate the noise of social culture to find (or not find) meaning. So I'll be using institutional platforms, including social media, to comment on that disconnect by mimicking the language and style of attention currency. So yes, the posts will be intentionally click-baity :)
I know the #artwar onslaught flooded your unsuspecting feeds with strange posts and confused the heck out of some people who were unprepared. Sorry about that! I hope you'll go along for the ride with me on this one. Xo #buynathansharratt #makeAmericaNateAgain”.
Third, there are numerous intentional typos (such as “Alanta”) and strange symbols, including absurd trademarks and copyrights, that would not typically be present in an academic statement for an MFA candidate’s official thesis exhibition that determines whether they graduate or not. Fourth, it ends with an out-of-tone line that references “glue and shiny objects” followed by an undefined hashtag, and finally it is intentionally dense and art-speaky, and mixes invented phrases, such as “Necker Cube of Pleasure” with actual academic phrases, such as repressive desublimation of culture, a topic I was researching for this exhibition.
“Nathan Sharratt,” as related to this exhibition, is a performed Persona. To avoid confusion with my personal thoughts, beliefs, or motivations, I will refer to the performance of the fictionalized artist “Nathan Sharratt” as a proper noun in quotation marks, or as Persona with a capital “P”, to distinguish it from me, Nathan Sharratt, the person and human being who is an artist and who is writing this statement.
Finding a balance between the Persona and myself was tricky, and for me it represented the choices we make when performing as ourselves in different situations, such as public versus private, or in our workplace, or on social media. Sometimes we act the same in different spaces, sometimes we act differently in the same space.
In the context of this exhibition and my recent body of work, the Persona of “Nathan Sharratt” is obsessed with stamping his name and brand on anything he can get his hands on in order to make money or increase his fame at the expense of just about everything else. Art is only a means to an economic end; it is an unfortunate hurdle to jump over on the path to riches. Fame and notoriety are likewise a means to power and economic gain.
The Persona had a series of tasks to complete during the week, including refreshing stock, drawing price tags for objects in the gift shop (which also function as and are formatted to look like artwork titles), training docents, promotion and social media, administration, tech support, documentation, etc. Essentially every working artist’s practice. There were not enough hours in the day to accomplish all tasks. By the time the show closed, there was still unfinished work to do.
It was important to blur the line of authenticity with much of the content of the exhibition, and although I left many “breadcrumbs” to guide the viewer, I understood that complete confusion was counter-productive, so, excluding performative “tours,” any question a viewer asked the Persona directly about the exhibition was answered honestly according to my personal beliefs, to the best of my ability. Docents would sometimes tell the truth as I explained it to them, sometimes they would invent wild new stories about where the objects came from and why they existed. Both paths were correct for this exhibition.
I chose to have the Persona use my real name to acknowledge my complicity in the degradation of culture and discourse. Every time I buy an object I want but don’t need, I contribute to the repression of culture. Every time I click a link to some sensationalist story, I feed advertising dollars to that website, encouraging them to create more sensationalist stories as “news.” Every time I engage with a social media post, I tell the algorithm to amplify that post and show it to more people. The Persona represents getting lost in the “click hole,” where meaning becomes lost and the pleasure of immediate gratification drives our choices. The Persona is an unreliable narrator, and its syntactic role reflects my own confusions as I try to navigate this world of abbreviated excess and micro-pleasures to find meaning and agency within.
Another reason for giving the Persona my name was to put me in a more vulnerable position, so that I can look at the world and my place within it more critically. I specifically chose not to use a pseudonym for my Persona, because, as an artist, I am my own brand, and at the same time, I am my own person. Both modes exist within me, they are disconnected but together. My name, when attached to an artwork, gives that artwork some symbolic and economic value based on how strong the foundation is that is holding up that brand: how many people have seen my past work, where they’ve seen it, what they’ve said about it, what I’ve said about it—an artist’s history is their value. Their provenance is their authenticity. The Persona uses my name to create a focal point that is more relatable and accountable than if I had used a pseudonym.
If I had created the exhibition as a retrospective of a completely fictional artist, the viewer would be too comfortable in the security of the fiction, and agency would be removed from the viewer. A fictional pseudonym is an Object; it is acted upon. The Persona is a Subject; it acts, although that agency is mediated through my own lens of personal experience. The Persona is necessarily narcissistic to the extreme as a reflection of our “pay attention to me” culture and the simulated performance of self on the Internet. (Simulation And Its Discontents by Sherry Turkle and The Presentation of Self In Everyday Life by Erving Goffman may be useful here, though Goffman’s work, written in 1959, must be parsed as a historical text that reflects the time in which it was written). The Persona facilitates the exchange of attention currency by serving as a locus of attention and functions as a starting point for conversation about cultural repression through desublimation.
This idea of repressive desublimation of culture discusses, in very basic form, that people may unwittingly repress themselves through, for example, consumerist excess, and that this act contributes to the degradation of culture and the repression of its peoples. Or, as Oxford Reference describes repressive desublimation of culture:
Herbert Marcuse's term for the process whereby art (in the strictest sense) is rendered banal and powerless. In One-Dimensional Man (1964), his million-selling account of the changes to society wrought by late capitalism, Marcuse argues that the real problem posed by the culture industry for critical theory and hence society itself is not its blurring of the distinction between high culture and low culture, but rather its blurring of the distinction between art and reality. [...] Marcuse argues that the mass production and distribution of art and its concomitant permeation of almost every aspect of daily life has destroyed what was most potent in art to begin with, namely its antagonism toward the ordinary [...] Where before in art and literature representations of artists, prostitutes, adulterers, and so forth testified to an other, perhaps utopian, life, now they are simply an affirmation of the existing order and carry no power of negation. Desublimation is in this sense repressive. So-called sexual liberation, Marcuse argues, comes at the price of the destruction of Eros, which leaves us with an intensified sexual existence but no resistance to the present, no space that can be considered ‘other’.
In other words, as I interpret it: instantaneous gratification sucks the energy from social critique, and instead of being liberating, it becomes repressive. And, through technology, we aren’t able to discern a difference between art and reality in capitalist society. This is a topic I find important to this exhibition and will be discussed more thoroughly in my thesis paper. The discussion of “cultural flattening” has connections to the Japanese Superflat movement, the manifesto of which was written by artist Takashi Murakami.
One of my primary modes of thinking about my work is the journey we take to find, or not find, a signal within the noise. Do we successfully navigate the obstacles and find meaning? Or do we lose ourselves in the Brave New World of pleasure and distraction, to the point where we no longer want to find meaning? (Amusing Ourselves To Death by Neil Postman sheds some interesting light on the change from a typographic to a teleological mode of discourse and its repercussions). Both ways are valid, because both exist in the world. Though discourse is not dialectic and exists on a spectrum, the presentation and expectation is often of a binary system. Sometimes, in the dark, we look and see nothing; no light is reflected off of the objects and environment in front of us. The world appears empty. But the world is not empty. Our other senses then have the opportunity to shine: to feel, hear, smell, and taste what is around us. Or, we can become fixated on the lack of visual response—which is understandable since it is our primary means of navigating the world—and despair that everything has vanished, and we seem to be alone.
To discuss the dangers and implications of attributing reality to a binary system, I did not believe that making another overtly anti-Trump or anti-colonialist artwork would speak loudly enough to be heard over the constant distractions of sensationalism, novelty, and entertainment currently presented as news and discourse. I also believed that remaining silent on these issues would not be productive. I wholly encourage dialog around the issues in this exhibition.
The exhibition should not be read literally or taken at face value. With conceptual and post-conceptual art context is crucial. Though I recognize that decontextualization is always a possibility with the ease and fluidity of networked media, and that viewers (or non-viewers) are free to voice their opinions and interpretations however they choose, the objects are not meant to be isolated from the context of the gallery and considered as whole on their own. The objects were not created to be ironic nor flippant and they were not created to promote violence, oppression, nor privilege; I consider the issues this art discusses to be incredibly important, which is why I chose to build the exhibition the way I did.
Some objects were created intentionally to appear on a surface read to be problematic, but their surface readings are not anywhere near my personal beliefs, and their intended context is critically important to their ultimate meaning.
Part of what I was trying to explore in this exhibition is how people decide what is “true”, and how they come to their conclusions in a social-media based world of news-as-entertainment, confirmation bias, and echo chambers. The objects within the installation were created, in part, to reflect this state of institutional excess and to serve as points of departure for discussion and critique of colonialism, cultural appropriation, violent rhetoric and commercial excess that leads to repression. I do not support any of these things. I believed it was important to talk about these issues and that the objects should be used as catalysts for discussion in the context of the rest of the exhibition. We cannot discuss what we cannot see, and that, for me, would be perpetuating privilege. Privilege’s biggest strength is its invisibility; its quietness. I wanted to make it visible and audible. The decontextualization of specific aspects of the installation that has occurred was not my original intent, and is analogous to someone taking a scene from a fictional film in which a character, played by an actor, kills someone, and then removing that scene from the context of the rest of the film, and presenting it as proof that the actor is a murderer.
According to Gestalt psychology, people experience life and learning as whole units and not as individual segments. Gestalt is when the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts.
If you were to isolate one instrument from the rest of the orchestra, you would not truly appreciate the intent of the composer. Conceptual art is a symphony.
I pointed out the problematic nature of the objects during several of my performative “tours.” I also chose a livestream application that included a chat window to allow people who might not want to—or were unable to—approach the gallery or artist directly to have access to me. My social media accounts were posted and available for anyone who visited the gallery but might not have been comfortable approaching me directly or was uncomfortable criticising the artist at his own show. I instructed my docents to engage the viewers and ask them questions about the objects and why they thought the artist might have created them or placed them within the context of the exhibition and to give them opportunities to discuss issues they felt were important related to the exhibition. The following is an excerpt from my docent training text, which can be read in full here: http://www.nathansharratt.com/docent
Q: What are some questions I could ask the audience?
A: The most important question to ask is "why?" Why is this thing the way it is? Why do you think the Artist chose to do XYZ? Think of the Socratic method. Give strong declarative statements and then ask the audience to unpack those statements. Or don't. Contradictions are okay. The world is a series of ridiculous contradictions, confusions, and inequalities, and that's what we're reflecting.
* Try to engage them in dialog about the themes being presented in the exhibition, or issues you find important related to the exhibition, such as commercialism, institutionalism, repressive desublimation, Donald Trump, labor, artist-as-brand vs artist-as-person, news as entertainment, corporate sponsorship, mass media, celebrity, etc.
A main point of this exhibition was to encourage people and artists to discuss these heavily-charged and long-standing issues that are uncomfortable and messy in an honest and hopefully constructive way, but also with the understanding that conflicts viewed through social media usually end up warping and transforming the narrative in ways beyond any one person’s control. How much do we question the information that surrounds us, how do we know who is telling the “truth” or who is “right”? Is it even possible to know?
There are several reasons why I chose to create the Nefertiti bust and included it in my exhibition as a way to talk about the dangers of colonialism and cultural appropriation. To begin, the 3D file was initially purported to be illegally scanned by two artists at the Neues Museum in Berlin, Germany and released as a free download that anyone could use, modify, and/or print themselves. This appeared to be a liberating act since the museum acquired the bust under dubious circumstances; a way to return the object that was stolen to the world. A few weeks prior to the exhibition’s opening, on March 8th, I learned that the artists’ act was revealed to be a hoax; the scan was actually commissioned by the museum and belonged to the museum. So what does this say about the value of truth? Does it matter if a thing is true if the intended consequences are real? The subversive and liberating act, while not technically true, still allowed a conversation about cultural appropriation and repression.
A quick Google search shows there are thousands of examples of Nefertiti busts available for sale, by artists, with their name on it, or by commercial reproduction companies, also with their name on it. By purchasing any reproduction of Nefertiti, or any other historical cultural artifact, you are complicit in cultural appropriation, as am I. Some may not be problematic, but is it possible, in our reality, to truly know which are and which aren’t? Is it even possible to follow the rabbit hole to its source?
There are many, many actions and choices that make us complicit to oppression and repression in a capitalist society. This was my point in extruding my name on the Nefertiti bust, shrinking it to hand-held size, 3D printing it from wood—which will organically decay—and leaving most of the the snake-like support structures that are necessary for the production process, but through removal permanently disfigure the surface. This is also the only object in the exhibition where the seal was applied prior to the object’s primary production method; it is part of the object’s DNA. It has now become inherent. The title is “It’s Important To Own History.” This refers to both the negative connotative interpretation as well as the accountability interpretation, as in, it’s important that we take responsibility for history, and the things we’ve done to each other throughout it.
Other objects were intentionally placed near the bust. On one side of the bust I placed a Disneyland Hong Kong puzzle that my wife and I put together so I could burn the logo seal, my Internet contact information, and the phrase “Made In America.” We logged our hours to determine its economic value by plugging those hours into my invoicing program with our respective hourly rates. I placed the invoice as a mechanically-drawn artwork in a frame next to the puzzle. The text was highly distorted due to the automated vector-tracing process required to draw by machine. The resolution on the original invoice file wasn’t high enough for the program to make a clean trace. This represents the fuzzy source of many of our products, like iPhones, and the unseen labor that is involved to create them. These shiny objects do not materialize fully formed from the ether. There is a complex hierarchy involved in their manufacture and distribution, many aspects of which would likely be found to be problematic or oppressive. But, we want our iPhones, so we usually overlook them. Sometimes we start to feel angry about these injustices. Sometimes we choose to stop buying iPhones. Sometimes we turn to social media to express our outrage. We think: This is awful. It shouldn’t be happening. I’ll share this post, and if I yell loud enough maybe someone else will hear and do something about it. We want the work to be done for us.
To the other side of the bust was a 3D print of another publicly available and open-source 3D scan of an ancient child’s skull. It is titled, “I Come From A Very Long Line” and was impaled on a large galvanized nail. The reference is to the auto dá fe and the ritual display of penance, and the display of public executions in Medieval Europe as a form of social healing. This is a topic I researched for a previous body of work about guillotines and social control called “Distillation of Complex Ideas Into Manageable Chunks.” I included a maquette of a guillotine in the shop. But it also serves as a sentinel, a warning, that history is present and it is full of cycles of oppression and violence. And how do we work to end that cycle? By examining history honestly; by pulling back the surface to reveal the machinations beneath, and by really looking at the processes, structures, and energy sources that fuel those machinations and considering them next to those that still exist today, and then we look at our own roles within these machinations.
Dominant cultures have whitewashed, revised, and rewritten history countless times to oppress people, and continue to do so in the present. It is not possible for me to understand what it is like to be a person of color, to experience that history of violence. This work was not designed to perpetuate violence or oppression, it was designed to make that history visible to those who might not otherwise think about it.
Stamping my name on objects is a critique of anyone anywhere who tries to own anything they cannot own. Stamping my name on a thing does not mean I own it. It is an act of accountability. It is a an act of transparency through the repressive economic and social machinations that we are all a part of in capitalist society. We are all complicit and we are complacent with this complicity. That is what this facet of the exhibition is about. It’s me taking responsibility for my complicity. It’s me saying, here I am, here is something that we all do, we all contribute to repression and cultural degradation, but I am doing it openly so you have a focal point, and a choice. We can continue those cycles by painting more targets and attacking them without true understanding and based on limited information, or we can work toward greater education and understanding. My hope is that we will choose to try to understand why those targets exist, so that maybe we won’t need to paint targets anymore.
While working on the exhibition I had several discussions about its meaning and my intentions with other artists. The work was still new and raw, and I still hadn’t finished making it. I was in production mode, not analysis mode. As an artist who works with conceptual processes, I understand that it is sometimes difficult to explain the concept of an “idea” as an art material, and to explain the meaning behind art that is not yet visible, or may never be visible.
Sol Lewitt’s Sentences on Conceptual Art is a good primer for the conceptual artist’s process, and is a document I refer to often. I have reproduced a few sentences I find relevant to this conversation, in no particular order:
- The artist cannot imagine his art, and cannot perceive it until it is complete.
- If the artist changes his mind midway through the execution of the piece he compromises the result and repeats past results.
- A work of art may be understood as a conductor from the artist's mind to the viewer's. But it may never reach the viewer, or it may never leave the artist's mind.
- Since no form is intrinsically superior to another, the artist may use any form, from an expression of words (written or spoken) to physical reality, equally.
- If words are used, and they proceed from ideas about art, then they are art and not literature; numbers are not mathematics.
I do not believe the conversation around this exhibition should be about divisiveness, it should be about understanding each other. There are centuries of oppression against people of color that I cannot ever truly understand. But why is “straight white maleness” seen as derogatory? One can no more control the color of his skin, his gender, the environment he was born into, or his sexual orientation any more than one can control the phases of the moon. Does the circumstance of one's birth automatically dictate the course of one’s life? Beliefs? Practices? To think so would deny us our free-will, our opportunity for growth and change.
“Sectarianism, fed by fanaticism, is always castrating. [...] Sectarianism mythicizes and thereby alienates [...] and because it is mythicizing and irrational, turns reality into a false (and therefore unchangeable) “reality.” [...] For his or her part, the sectarian of whatever persuasion, blinded by irrationality, does not (cannot) perceive the dynamic of reality—or else misinterprets it. Should this person think dialectically, it is with a “domesticated dialectic.” The rightist sectarian [...] wants to slow down the historical process, to “domesticate” time and thus to domesticate men and women. The leftist-turned-sectarian goes totally astray when he or she attempts to interpret reality and history dialectically, and falls into essentially fatalistic positions.” —Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 1970
On the night of the reception (Thursday, March 24, 2016) my paid studio assistant stole a piece of artwork from my exhibition. University security followed policy and filed a police report. That night, I posted a message on Facebook asking the thief to return the artwork. The next day my assistant released a statement bemoaning the fact that I would not abide by his mandate that I censor my work to his liking, and accused me of promoting white privilege and the exploitation of African labor and culture. This theft was not part of my artistic practice; it was not part of my #artwar project. I had no prior knowledge of the theft, nor the subsequent statement, nor its contents. I have not conspired with my assistant in any way to manufacture this incident, and had no control over the University’s decision to file a police report. The artwork he stole was not even one of the pieces he objected to (Nefertiti, Trump); it was a modified 3” Disney Vinylmation figurine.
No one person can or should dictate what an artist—or anyone else—must and mustn’t express. I did not, and do not, feel that censorship promotes anything but more censorship. I know firsthand how censorship works and its “chilling effect.” In late 2010, while I was an undergraduate at SCAD Atlanta, a photograph of a male with visible genitalia taken by a fellow student was censored by the administration from their Open Studio exhibition event. A photograph of a female nude was allowed in the exhibition. I, the censored artist, and several other students staged a protest of the Open Studio event and actively spoke out against this act of institutional censorship by attending the event to passing out flyers of the censored work and repeating phrases from SCAD’s own published values that contradicted their actions. After security removed us from the event, we contacted the National Coalition Against Censorship, who also spoke out against the censorship. I then created and led Censored By SCAD, a blog dedicated to exposing censorship and unpacking its implications. More recently, in 2014 I protested the censorship of a GSU professor’s artwork from the Zuckerman Museum of Art, which was later reinstated.
"Remember: defending someone’s right to speak doesn’t mean you agree with what they say. Defending the right to read a particular book, or view a work of art or a film, doesn’t mean you like it or agree with its message. Recognizing that others have different views about art, politics, literature and religion, and that their views are entitled to the same respect and protection as your own, is a form of tolerance required of all in a pluralistic society."
-National Coalition Against Censorship
The theft was not a symmetrical act of “institutional critique” because I am not an institution. I am not the Tate Modern. I am not the Guggenheim. I am not Georgia State University. Nor am I the social institution of privilege. I am an artist who was performing a role at an art exhibition. I am an artist who hired and paid—in advance—an assistant to assist me, not to dictate the content of my exhibition. If the theft was so important that it warranted violating artistic ethics and defamation per se, wouldn’t the logical conclusion be to allow yourself to be arrested as a political statement? Who would choose the act of silently stealing as a form of subversion? An act that no one was supposed to notice and that was supposed to be addressed in private, when there was an offered opportunity to engage in real conversation with real people in real time?
Who defines artistic ethics? Is stealing from another artist’s exhibition ethical? What is unethical about the reproduction of oppressive forces that people face in real life when presented in a closed and safe environment. Is art to be stifled because it is offensive?
Removing artwork from its intended context, especially charged artwork, is dangerous and irresponsible. What this does is remove any possible agency from the viewer. The viewer is no longer able to act on their own; to consider, to ask questions, to be ACTIVE. It also privileges the interpretation formed by one viewer over that of others. It removes from the majority of viewers the right to form their own opinions about the work. The viewer is now acted upon, and harmed, because these charged objects are presented in the worst possible configuration with no way out; no way to find any other meaning. Yes, these objects COULD harm; by decontextualizing them he ENSURED harm. The issues these objects speak to, as part of a greater narrative, are incredibly important and difficult subjects to talk about. By decontextualizing them and reconfiguring their meaning, you remove the possibility of discussion or resolution or understanding; the only thing left is anger and ego and division.
I don’t have all the answers for society’s injustices, but the one thing I do know is that I absolutely don’t want this to divide us any longer.
April 1, 2016
Thank you to my volunteers, friends, and professors who helped me in the creation of this exhibition. You have my sincere gratitude. Thank you.
The reader who is interested may read my complete thesis when it is uploaded to GSU servers at the end of April. If you would like to discuss the issues presented in this exhibition, please contact me, I would like to hear about your life experience so that I may better understand you, and perhaps, you may better understand me. I would love to see what you’re reading on the issues presented in this exhibition, and I’d be happy to share some of the literature I’ve been looking at for this thesis, some of which I’ve listed below.
Please contact me if you would like to schedule a studio visit to discuss the exhibition’s underlying levels of meaning. Objects from the exhibition will be out of context, but a discussion with me might help shed some light on their intended function and their connection to the larger narrative.
Some publicly-available reference books that I’ve been looking at in my research for this exhibition:
The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age - Astra Taylor
Pedagogy of the Oppressed - Paulo Freire
Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle - Chris Hedges
Amusing Ourselves To Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business
- Neil Postman
Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture - Henry Jenkins
The Presentation of Self In Everyday Life - Erving Goffman
Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity - Erving Goffman
So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed - Jon Ronson
Simulation and Its Discontents - Sherry Turkle
Evolution of the Social Contract - Brian Skyrms
Institutional Critique: An Anthology of Artists’ Writings - edited by Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson
Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies - Noam Chomsky
Militainment, Inc.: War, Media, and Popular Culture - Roger Stahl
The $12 Million Dollar Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art - Don Thompson
Networked: The New Social Operating System - Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman