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Picture yourself on a float on a river…

There are about 30 or so of you out there on that lazy river, drifting along under the summer skies, a little chilly but not really cold  -just enough to give you goose-bumps. It’s laid back and a little weird, you here so close with all these people you barely know, racing lazily along. To pass the time somebody starts to sing and before you know it you are joining the chorus, gloriously failing an attempt at a unison Bohemian Rhapsody:

Is this the real life?
Is this just fantasy?
Caught in a landslide
No escape from reality
Open your eyes
Look up to the skies and see…

Just like there is a taboo in the art world on curating yourself, you are not supposed to review your own shows.

As such this is not a review, but more an account of my experience at the Great Poor Farm Experiment, but off course that can not come about without relating it to the (art) world surrounding it, and as such re-viewing it from there or vice versa.

Or, in the original meaning of reviewing, namely: giving a critical appraisal of, I will sing the Poor Farms critical appraisals in the following.

Much like my musical example in the introduction, this particular Bohemian Rhapsody “has no chorus, instead consisting of several sections: a ballad segment ending with a guitar solo, an operatic passage, and a hard rock section.”[1]  

(Or something to a similar affect.)

Because, just like Queens masterpiece, The Great Poor Farm Experience, is not one experience, but many.

But what is this place called the Poor Farm?

Actually, I will not really describe the physical space to you in too much detail. It is what it says; a big old Poor Farm out in Wisconsin. It is surrounded by undulating hills and cornfields and whatever supplies you need you will find up the road. Ten miles in one direction will bring you to Festival Foods in New London, which sells local beer 24/7 and ten miles up the other way will bring you to the local super store Fleet Farm which will outfit you with everything from house paint to hardware to western saddles to fishing gear to ladies underwear to fishing rods to whole sale candy to aerosol cans to ammo to hand weapons to this t-shirt we saw with a picture of one. It read: “Keep Calm and Carry One” Another one we saw had a picture of the state of Wisconsin and, beneath it, the state of Illinois. It read: “Illinois is beneath us!” So there.

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But this is not a local place for local people. In fact the local people call it “The Art Farm”.

(My grandmother always used to say: ”What do farmers know about cucumber salad?” meaning that refinement and finesse is an a required taste, and I guess she was right. What the locals seem to say here is that “we don’t need your education!” And I guess they are right too.)

So we don’t mingle. What this means is not that this place is not open to the public –any public- but it means that this is not a place that seeks to “socially engage the community” or anything associated with what has been dubbed “the social turn” in the nineties, but more about that later.

It also means that it is remote from what is normally perceived as the glamour of the contemporary art world.

It takes a while to get there, from anywhere loosely associated with that art world, so that when you get here to this little oasis, you want to stay for a while and that is key.

It makes for a different kind of viewing experience –now that you’ve come here you want to make sure that you’ve seen everything, you might as well. And for the artist it makes for a different kind of showing experience.

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This explains, perhaps, why time is somehow perceived different at the poor farm. It is nor real time, nor hyper real time, but rather real real time, where pockets of boredom suddenly pours full of the most meaningful contemplation just because the usual gallery small talk has been abandoned in favor of a conversation with a beautiful stranger who just spent the last hour in your installation –in your installation!- listening to the audio that you recorded, meaning that he has already been listening to your ramblings for over an hour now, but he still wants to hear about your connections, to pop music, to feminism, to childhood, to the mythical potential of childhood experience, so the least you can do is to pick it up, there on the spot and ramble on.

It is intense, so perhaps you need a break?

Perhaps you need to go and listen to Lucio’s ramblings on a guided tour in a fictive language that he invented together with his autistic brother?

It sounds like Italian and yet it doesn’t, and it doesn’t make sense and yet it does, and it unravels the semiotics of “art speak” in a way that is not clever or ironic (not even post-) and least of all cynical. It just reveals that even when we are speaking in tongues (as we have since we began to speak) we speak to each other.

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Or perhaps you need to go visit the subterranean homesick blues of Abigail’s tomb? A mudroom more basic than the basement you are in, as if by descending the half flight of stairs into the basement level you have descended yet another level into the excavation of some ancient burial sight… so what’s with all the broken windows and the uniforms?

Mama, just killed a man,
Put a gun against his head,
Pulled my trigger, now he’s dead.
Mama, life had just begun,
But now I’ve gone and thrown it all away.

-She’s so heavy! Yes, she is heavy and that is a good thing because it grounds you and even if it can get you down, that is where you want to go, into the earthy interior of the basement.

So you turn left this time, surpassing the Mothership, as it is occupied:

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(I am most happy when the Mothership is occupied, and I fear to go near because I don’t want to spoil my presence in the room with my presence in the room. As a mother I run a sloppy ship, but I peak around the corner and expect to find it empty and –oh joy! There are people in there and they are chilling and listening and goofing around and eating marsh mellows and I feel this weird maternal pride and gratefulness to all of them, that they actually eat up what I provided, and hopefully it will be plentiful and nourishing so that they will spit out something much more powerful and smart.

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The Poor Farm has its own school, the summer school, for which kids come down from Minneapolis and up from Milwaukee, and for which I was lucky enough to be giving a lecture.

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When I say I was lucky it was not in the sense that I was lucky enough to find a media through which to get my message out, but lucky to be mediated in a way in which the message (not the media) is the message. In that sense, the summer school is not about who is lecturing who, the point being that you are willing to learn.)

So, instead you turn left to the sensory overload of the lightshow in the jail cell, because that’s what the brain wants in the sensory deprivation of jail and that’s why Jonny put this strobe-lit spider-web of a brain there, as a response to an unspoken request of the cells previous inhabitants.

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I see a little silhouetto of a man,
Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the Fandango?
Thunderbolt and lightning,
Very, very frightening me.
(Galileo) Galileo.
(Galileo) Galileo,
Galileo Figaro
Magnifico.

Go up the stairs to the minimalist theater of the (post)modern in Lars and Lucio’s airy galleries. It’s not a lot, it is pared down and stripped bare and in fact it is just enough to connect the past to the present and the organic gesture to the geometric stringency with a gutsiness that was last seen in the Memphis 80s.

That doesn’t make it retro, not in the least, it just gives you a breather, a break, from the ever present glamorous contemporaneity of contemporary art.[2]

As Lars Bang Larsen writes in his essay The Long Nineties

Unlike the slippery ’90s, which haven’t yet found their closure, there is some certainty to be found in the ’80s. The art of that decade took distinct forms – such as appropriation or neo-expressionism – whereas ’90s positions were summed up in a single term: ‘contemporary art’.[3][…]

But,If the nineties obsession with “the contemporary” implies that art can only exist “in the present” it would imply that art ceases to be when you exit the room: like a solipsistic game of pick-a-boo: Now you see me/ now you don’t.

(Or, as babies are allegedly experiencing this first existentialist lesson: Orphan/Not Orphan/Orphan/Not Orphan/Orphan/Not Orphan…)

I guess Tino Seghal was spot on when he nailed this perpetual contemporaneity in the work he did for the German pavilion at the 2005 Venice Biennial, in which he hired operatic custodians to follow the visitors around mocking them (selves) with a melodic chant of “//This is so contemporary, contemporary, contemporary/ This is so contemporary, contemporary, contemporary//(rep ad libitum).” There is no escaping here…”

But as Lars Bang Larsen points out:

As the social persists as a theme in artistic practice and art history, as well as in the ‘social practice’ programmes of art schools, it seems urgent to articulate the limit of art’s integration into society. Perhaps it is time to re-conceptualize the aesthetic as a mode of thinking in order to articulate difference, new outsides and the transcendental, understood as the condition of historical practices and that which lies at the edge of social relations. The present cannot only be changed from its inside. To regain its futurity it must be reconfigured from afar, too.

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Like that moment of bliss out in a field, as the summer night falls, watching a film (not a video, mind you) a silent movie film with a live string score, of farmers out in the field, of their crops being traded on the stock exchange, of the stocks plummeting, of the stockbrokers going down, of the farmers going down with them, going hungry because they can’t afford the bread that’s being baked from their own crops… so alarming and reassuring at the same time: it’s the same old, same old, it’s a 100 years old brand new retro and yet this connection of the past with the future makes the poor farm experience so poignantly present, but least at all “so contemporary”.

(So, now that we’ve escaped the “Contemporary Art” of the “Long Nineties” does that mean that we have become post-contemporary and that we are now, briefly, remotely, living in the future? I think so.)

Because I’m easy come, easy go,
Little high, little low,
Any way the wind blows doesn’t really matter to me,

As you continue up the stairs to the upper level, the exhibition becomes more curated, more cerebral, and less connected to the physical space and that’s o.k.

There is a reading room up here with a collection from the Indie Architecture archives, a room with some hand colored lithographs and another one with some more paintings.

There is a collection of video works that Margot curated, and she gives you a guided tour. One of the works is very beautiful and you loose interest in the tour as you are mesmerized by this work:

A monitor lays on its side on the gallery floor. On the screen is a black and white still image of what appears to be a motorcycle crash, but the driver who is laying half next to and half still mounting the wreck looking out of the picture at you looks like a cross between a pre-Raphaelite socialite and a cross dressing glam rock drag queen from the 1970s (what you are about to learn is that she is the worlds first female stunt woman and hails from the silent movie era). Superimposed on this still, silent image is the blinding light from the motorbikes front light. Its beam moves slowly, almost imperceptibly so, anticlockwise across the screen as if filtered trough a prism and burns itself onto your retina like an afterimage of a sunset you can faintly remember. It is retinal and it is beautiful.

My daughter who is sitting next to me as I write, asks: “mom, sometimes I have this yellow or purple spot in front of my eyes and I can’t see what I am looking at” I tell her: “that is the afterimage. Sometimes when you are looking at something bright it burns a little scar in you inner eye, and it takes a little while for the eye to recover” She asks: “did you ever have that as a child?” and I reply: “I still do.”

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This after image of the nineties is what we are still staring blankly at, the blind spot of the art world, because: what comes after contemporaeinity?

Infinity?

Let’s stare into the abyss of infinity for a moment…

This is the moment where, shrouded in the invisibility cloak of the pitch-dark Wisconsin night you may want to go to the Julius Caesar confessional booth and confess:

“I am 44 years old and when I was your age, I just thought I can’t hang another painting on another gallery wall and I was this close to just leaving the whole damned art world behind, you know, after being told that painting was dead, after being told that the gallery system was dead, after being told that the institution was dead, after being thrown out of the gallery system and finding out that the misogyny of the institution was alive and well, when I was pregnant again, after being told by my (now ex-) gallerist that that didn’t have anything to do with anything, whereas in my view it had everything to do with everything and that just made me so damned bitter, after being told in so many words the old truism that The most Somber Enemy of Good Art is the Pram in the Hallway, although not exactly in so many words, because who would dare to speak those words, literally, after being told that I was a whore for making commercial work, after being told that I was living of handouts for receiving grants, after being told that I was just a part of the system for assessing other peoples grants applications and deciding which were worthy of handouts, after seeing the whole handout system being dismantled and hearing my friends report back from the frontlines that now they were being singled out as the enemies of the state, the leaches, the lefties, and then being sent to be reeducated (for the states money) so that they would be ready for the advertising business, after the frontlines of the avant-garde had been stretched and washed out and pushed so far back into the “real world” that you and me and everyone we knew had had our stint at community art service as socially engaged neighborhood artists , without no real social engagement emerging from it, because Q: how many artists do you need to make a social change? A: an infinite number as long as there is no political backing or will to put their money where your mouth is, down there where it counts, after swallowing your pride along with so many museum-sponsored, gallery-sponsored, sponsor-sponsored, Grolsch beers, Absolute vodka shots, Bloody Mary’s, Edible arrangements, Thai curries, Empanada’s and so many social soups from so many social soup kitchens that you swear you are gonna get sick… So I was like, ok just get me outta here while you still have the brains I still have the looks to be a total footballers wife and we can just go to Hong Kong and I can just go twisting by the pool and drink corporate-sponsored gin and tonics and lead the glamorous life… “

(Let me go) Will not let you go.
(Let me go) Will not let you go.
(Never, never, never let me go) Ah.
No, no, no, no, no, no, no.
(Oh, mama mia, mama mia) Mama mia, let me go.

Ok, so that’s all behind us now, and we are still here, but lets sidestep for a moment and contemplate the idea of the glamorous life, shall we?

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In his essay Bang the Whole Gang Neil Mulholland writes:

In the twenty-first century, the bitter glitter of 1970s trashy glam has been usurped by an older, much more conservative, idea of glamour. Glamour has no past and no future. It has no cracks to paper over; it offers a hermetically sealed surface. Today everybody runs their own PR campaign of virtual preening, broadcasting narcissistic accounts of mundane events as if they signified a life of sovereign aestheticism. In contrast to glam, glamour is consumed with the pursuit of virtuosity, with the creation of airlessly immaculate effigies for the self [4]

In my experience, the Great Poor Farm Experiment offers a retrograde (if not in the least reactionary) movement away from glamour to glam. It offers a makeshift aesthetic as an alternative to the “sovereign aestheticism”, in which the cracks are not there to be papered over but to be examined and excavated – or even mined for nuggets of insights that are easily overlooked. This movement both facilitates and necessitates stepping outside of the comfort zone of contemporeinity.

(It is not ironic, not even post-)

Neil Mulholland also notes that:

Such is the hold of the art of the 1990s, we can only imagine the art of the 1970s through the prism of a feedback loop that continues to be generated by contemporary art […] While, on the face of it, glam would seem to emerge from a very different decade to the one we think we know, it shares, in theory at last, egalitarian countercultural roots with the social turn.

Whereas Lars Bang Larsen finds that:

The social sculpture of the ’90s was never really a discussion about freedom. Emancipatory thinking figured as modestly on the agenda as it had in the post-Structuralist theory that informed so much ’80s art.

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I will argue that the “egalitarian countercultural roots” of the social turn of the nineties rely on a fallacy. Its inclusiveness only went as far as to the boundaries of the gated community of an art world in which “we are all equal, but some are more equal than others”. As institutional critique goes, the demolition of “the institution” was more of a refurbishing job, adding a little patio to the Museum, where we could all hang out.

The Great Poor Farm Experiment is not egalitarian in the sense of the “relational aesthetics” of the social turn of the nineties, it does not reach out to “the community” but rather offers a community, a counter culture of it own, a counter culture that is still rooted in the otherness of the artwork as a made thing, in which it is not the interaction that is the artwork but in which the interaction with the artwork is more limitless and fluid, glamorously so, both in time and space. A kind of object based spacing out, if you like. The egalitarian message being: if you can spare the time and the space, for this time of aesthetic contemplation and education you are in!

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(You are, in fact, already in!)

… And as you gaze up into the high clouds of summer skies or into the iron rich waters of your lazy river which ripples round you finger tips and shimmers like the neglige of some long lost siren you realize: this is no fantasy, this is the real world. It is also deeply glam.

 

 

 


[2] I went here with Eleanor and she exclaimed: “I like this!” and I said “Yeah, it’s kind of minimal, isn’t it?” and she looked me straight in the eye and said: “Mom! A mini mall is like two stores, or one if it is really big!” So there.

 

[3]Larsen, Lars Bang: The Long Nineties, Frieze # 144 Jan-Feb 2012: http://www.frieze.com/issue/article/the-long-nineties/

 

 

 

[4] Mulholland, Neil: Bang the Whole Gang

 

While typing out this passage I am reminded of Lucio’s Summer school lecture, in which he made recollected some of his early actions “we didn’t have the word Performance back then” in Italy in the early 1970s. One of them led to his arrest, after which he was interrogated at the local police station for several hours. “The police officer asked me if I was a communist and I replied that I was an artist and that I was making an aesthetic action. The police officer then asked me: “How do you spell ‘aesthetic’?”