On Good Readers

I came across a post about a new Interactive Book app: Frankenstein, and sent it to my father.  I knew he studied Frankenstein at one point and was curious what he thought.  He replied with “Good Readers and Good Writers,” an essay by Nabokov.  (My father is an English Professor at UT Austin which is why he has things like essays by Nabokov lying around).

My father intro-ed the essay:

The problem I have with [the Frankenstein app] is the problem that I have with the way most people read (or misread).  As the article says, “the options have more to do with personality and interpretation, beliefs and ideas. As a result of the reader’s choices, the characters seem more like him- or herself, with a concurrent ratcheting up of emotional investment.” This is exactly what “minor readers” do with the work of “minor authors,” according to Vladimir Nabokov.

Nabokov lays out what makes a good reader (and a good writer) and I think much of what he says flies in the face of what we are taught as interactive designers and what we’ve come to expect as digital consumers.  There very notion that there are good readers and bad readers or, to a lesser degree, major and minor authors, upends the notion of “democratized” art, or that we can all be good at everything.  It’s been established at this point that there is, and will always be, a need for “experts” and “professionals” and I don’t think it sounds old-fashioned to say that there are major and minor artists.  Perhaps they now need to make room for more amateur producers, but it’s a large enough (cyber-)space.

My question is how do we — as interactive designers, as platform builders, and engagement facilitators — encourage visitors/readers/audience members not only to engage with content, but to engage with it well.  How can we encourage them to be good, not bad, readers?  How can we teach them to read, not just relate?

This shift in thinking articulates my hang-ups with completely dissolving authority in artistic spaces (like museums) and why I was so relieved to hear Koven Smith speak up for experts within the museum space (paraphrased: expertise is what the museum has to offer to the conversation among the visitor, the object, and the curator).  It is this curator/exhibit-designer role who can teach visitors how to look at a work of art.  I understand the difference between a novel and a painting, and Nabokov speaks directly to the difference in his essay, but its interesting to think of facilitating reading, not relating.  So much, I think, of interactive design is focused on “How do we get the visitor to relate the the object so that she will have a personal connection.”  Nabokov makes clear that the personal connection is not the only, and may not be (he is more definitive) the best kind of interaction to encourage.

notes from an artist, Jeff Wall at the Hammer

Last month, I went to the Hammer Museum to hear artist Jeff Wall speak.  Wall’s photographs stuck a strong chord with me when I first saw them at MoMA a few years ago.     I think, subconsciously at that point, I was beginning to think about theatricality in formats other than the theater and so was taken with his use of character and his cinematic sensibility.  His lecture at the Hammer addressed these ideas, and many others, too, in complete eloquence and mastery.  Below are my notes and a few thoughts.

Wall first spoke about the history of photography. For a long time, photography relied on its newness as a technology.  But now, he later claimed, if photography is depended on the tech, then it loses the opportunity to act like other artforms.  Photography could be an act of “emphatic picture making” or of “reportage;” both intentions had meaning.  When photography is an act of picture making, it still lives within the world of reportage.

A photograph in a gallery is a picture in a special condition.  It hangs vertically, opposite the viewer, unchangeable.  The photo has an autonomous relationship to the viewer.  Wall mentioned Poussin’s idea of the “intervening air.”  I want to find a reference for that.

Wall next turned to the idea of an artist’s studio and making “studio pictures.”  His first example was his photo “The Destroyed Room.”  The tableau he presented was entirely fabricated.  It is a studio picture.  The studio can be concealed and unconcealed.  Fabrication is “allowed” when it is in a studio.

Photography is supposed to represent actuality.  Wall finds this statement both legit and unacceptable.  It is within that paradox that he finds movement and out of the movement he creates art.  He later described the movement of an artform as a simmering tension.

In a studio, sets can be reconstructed and repeated (if desired) and elements of reportage can apply (if wanted).  Sets are constructed out of necessity.  The format of a studio is malleable.

If the set is successful, it doesn’t matter if the viewer knows it is artifice or not.  Wall spoke at length at his use of sets and so-called fabrication.  ”I hired these men to work for me, to photograph them.”  They were just doing their job.  If something happens in a photo, it (still) happens.  Wall avoids the term “fictional” because he thinks it applies more directly to literature than to photography.  ”Fabrication” is important, but it is secondary to what is happening in the photo.

This rang true for me in terms of acting, too.  When working in the Growtowski method, we spent much of the time crafting “actions.”  They weren’t activities and they weren’t playing at doing something.  We were doing the action, much in the same way Wall photographs events happening — even if they first happened before.  I wonder if wall sees himself as a director or more as a composer. I wonder what role the “actors’” self-consciousness plays in the scene.  Are you able to get beyond it with a single frame (unlike an ongoing theatrical event)?

on creating art: “If you have an advantage, you should dispense with it immediately.”

on being “obsessed” with details in his photos: “Did Donatello make his sculptures down to the last detail?  I think so!”

on looking at art: “I try to enjoy it.  I let it come to me.  And I judge it.”  Wall was clear to say that “judgement” has unfairly been given a negative context and that judgement is an important process of both looking at and creating art.

Lenses to view participatory asks

As we build a participatory event — anything from mission for users to go on to a simple question — we look at them through the following lenses. Each lens offers further insight into how the even can be improved. Something adjustments will just need to be made to the language and phrasing, other times these lenses help to reveal a potentially unsuccessful event.

Gut Lens
How does the ask make you feel? Are you excited to answer it or to contribute? Would you want to share your answer with your friends? Does your answer fit in with the general environment you’d hope to create?

Connectivity Lens
How can other users contribute and react to one another’s contributions? How can conversation between users best be encouraged and gleaned for information?

Hats Lens
What are the different hats your users wear? How will your different kinds of users want to engage? Examples of kinds of users: creators, judges, observers, explorers, curators. What are the different levels of engagement available for each ask? How can different kinds of engagement asks be built to satisfy different kinds of users?

Ego Lens
How can a users’ contributions make them feel better? How can your reaction to users’ contributions make them feel better?

Viral Lens
Where are all the opportunities for a user to share? What is shareable – their contribution, their reaction, the initial ask, etc.? Are the opportunities for sharing easily accessible? Are they integrated smoothly into the flow?

Time Lens
How are contributions encouraged over time? After completing one contribution, how is a user encouraged to something again, or something else?

Kiss, Kiss: non-performative performance

Walking into Kiss, Kiss, the performers are already at work. My first thought was, Thirty years will change a performer. I have no way of knowing how close to the original choreography what I saw was, but I got the feeling that the three people moving on stage, occasionally throwing pieces of wire or rearranging the accumulation of stuff, were doing so a little slower than they had in the 70s. Their actions were deliberate, but thoughtful, almost hazy at times. There was a sense that they were honoring the movements, if not completely investing themselves in the actions.

And then the singing begins. The one male performer finds a hat and begins Fly Me to the Moon. He sings sincerely, slowly, simply. The song ends with the line, “In other words, baby kiss me!” and the two female performers begin kissing his body. His shoulders, his arms, his chest. It is not sexual, but incredibly loving and sweet. They make loud smacking “mwahs!” with each kiss. It’s cute and funny. “Kiss yourselves! You’re worth it!” they declare. I watch as all three performers then walk into the audience. The stage is the center of the room; chairs seat most of the audience on one side and the rest (myself included) stand in a semi-circle around. They begin kissing each audience member: taking each pair of shoulders, leaning in, and kissing each person on the cheek.

At this point, I’m watching one of the women circle around the audience opposite me and begin a series of new movements and so am completely taken off-guard when I feel two hands on my shoulders. Without stopping to think, I lean in and kiss this man on the cheek, as he does to mine. In part because of the surprise, but mostly because of the absolute sincerity with which I’ve interacted with this stranger, I am completely overwhelmed with emotion. My eyes well with tears as a new song, “This Little Light of Mine”, begins.

The performers visit each audience member again, this time to give them a little votive candle. I’m rapt watching the man who just kissed me now struggle with his prop bag; the candles are stuck, but he keeps singing and his partners go through the chorus again and again until he’s out of the dark.

I’m struck by how little performing is going on. It’s not even dance. Movement maybe, but there is no artifice. These three people are trying to give us — the audience — something. A candle, a kiss, a little insight, a shared moment.

And, like that, it’s over. The song ends. There’s no blackout. There’s barely a pause before the man thanks us for coming and dedicates the performance another partner who has presumably passed away. We applaud. I shuffle out with my candle as the performers hug and greet friends in the audience.

Hammer App: Pretty but Shallow

The Hammer recently released its iPhone App.  When I went to the museum last, I think it must have come out that morning because the girl behind the counter was very excited that I try it.

The app looks beautiful.  It’s exactly what you’d expect from a hip art institute.  The graphics look great and even the navigation is very smooth, though it did take me a long time to click those three button in the corner.

Each exhibit has a section where you can swipe through the images.  It’s seamless and informative, like having a little magnifying glass for each wall text.  I loved swiping through the images, especially after having left the museum.  What I really wanted, though, were some sharing options and when I finally got around to clicking the three buttons, I was presented with some familiar icons:

The star is a great idea.  As I go through the exhibit, or afterwards, revisiting the exhibit on my phone, I can easily star images I particularly liked or wanted to know more about.  Creating my own collection is the kind of opportunity for visitor-curation that can work really well for a lot of visitors.  Unfortunately, the collection of my starred images, available from the homepage navigation, seems a little broke:

I think certain information about each piece needs to be available from this page: the name of the work, an image, and the name of the artist at least.  Once you click on an image, the detailed information from the wall text, which shows up now, is great.  I can imagine after going to many exhibits, I’d want these images to be sortable and searchable, too.  Sortable by created date, visited date, and alphabetical by artist would be good for starters.

The Facebook and Twitter shares were also a let down.  I’d wanted to tweet out a piece I liked or post a particular piece on a friend’s wall.  I don’t know what kind of restrictions are on the images, but if the museum has enough authority to put them in an app, I’d think they could at least link to them as well.  Instead, the tweets and shares seemed to be about the app itself — “download it now!” kind of phrasing.  Neither the post nor the tweet actually worked for me anyway.

These kinds of shares — pieces of the exhibit that I’m really excited about and want to share with my friends — create the kinds of viral loops I’ve spoken to before.  If museums want to create social buzz, they can draw directly from this strategies of startups.

One exhibit, the really nice Paul Thek “Diver” retrospective, included an audio tour and additional videos to watch.

I was horrified to realize the Audio Guide did not come out of the phone speakers, but rather the main speakers.  You’re supposed to wear headphones.  I scrambled to turn off the volume as the guide starting playing — loudly — in the quiet hallway.  Does anyone know if it’s possible to play audio through the phone speakers so that you could hold your iPhone to your hear without needing headphones?

While it’s great having the audio guide with me and on my own equipment, and the videos are actually a nice addition — better than huddled around a small screen with other members or waiting around for communal headphones — I was disappointed to find that they were really the only extended information about the exhibit.  What can you do with a phone that you can’t usually do with exhibits?  Where do the Wikipedia links in the exhibit lead?  With the Ed Ruscha show, I immediately wanted to know more about the connection between the paintings and On the Road.  What if each image linked to the part in the book so you could read where in the book the painting “takes place?”  What if they linked to a map of the book so you could see where in America the characters were and how it compares to the setting of the painting?

The themes of Thek are maybe more obtuse, but his use of Catholicism or tar babies could lead to any number of different explanations or images.  The wall text of the exhibit often mentioned the ephemeral nature of his exhibits and how the curators didn’t want to try and recreate something that had been intended for a different time.  Maybe, though, the app could be a good home for images or renderings of the original exhibit.  The Thek show included scenic designs he’d done for Robert Wilson — it would be awesome to have seen stills or scenes from the actual production.

The app also has a map, which is another great idea in theory, but again seems only half finished.

The maps are images which don’t refocus after zooming.  The text is really small at full size and so doesn’t really work as a guide.

Seeing all the galleries is cool, but, again, because they’re just images, there’s no interaction.  When I’m using a map in a museum, it’s usually to find a particular gallery (or a bathroom).  If the numbers of the galleries were links that took me to explanations of what was inside, I could easily navigate the museum and use the map as, well, a map.  The links would be update-able.  I wonder if there’d be any desire to link to past exhibits from here, too (there is a link on the Exhibits screen of recently closed exhibits), for those of us with spatial memory.

All in all, the app looks great and works well.  It could benefit so much, though, from taking an extra step towards interactivity between the artwork and the visitors.


Ruscha @ the Hammer

I didn’t know anything about Ed Ruscha before visiting the Hammer last week and I’m not really a huge fan of On the Road, either. But there I was, standing in a very empty, very white room, trying to make sense of the text and images before me.

What I do remember about On the Road was the sense of openness — of the road, of the country, of the people.  I remember feeling exhausted two-thirds of the way through because they were setting out across the country again.  The monotony of the striped lines, the telephone cables, the fields and trucks and cigarettes.

And, of course, the language of the text itself.  The language I didn’t completely understand all the time and the rhythm of which I understood to be important, but couldn’t quite recognize.

I experienced similar feelings with some of Ruscha’s work, but not with all of it.  Because I had such a clear relationship with On the Road, as I assume most people seeing show would have — some opinion or feeling towards the iconic book — and the exhibit offered no real alternative rendering, I saw all the pieces through my own lens.  In some ways, I really appreciated the museum’s choice to let the artwork speak for itself; on the other, I wonder what context you’d want to see both Ruscha and Kerouac’s work.

The first gallery held paintings with fragments from the book in white lettering.  Some of the fragments were phrases and others seemed like little stories.  One included a piece of dialogue:

My favorite was “Mañana:”

This little story was written on a mostly blue background, with a few wisps of white clouds and the very top of a snow-capped mountain in the lower fourth of the painting.  This piece mostly directly captured what I feel when I think of On the Road.  The proportion of the mountain to the sky was what I imagined they saw for days out the car windows.  The text seems to hang in the sky, filling the canvas but not crowding it.  That is, the painting was about these words, but the words didn’t overwhelm.


did overwhelm.  I didn’t understand the relationship between the text and the background.  I think the choice of text, too, felt off.  I knew there were other characters involved in the story, but to refer to them in such an abstract context was a little disorienting. (Although, Mañana refers to a “baby.” Maybe it just sounds more like an internal thought that a direct address?)

The painting that the exhibit used as it’s main image:

was cool and I got it and I liked the mountain and the night sky, it just reeked of a kind of precious-ity I couldn’t forgive.  At least not standing in downtown LA.

I thought Brakemen Eat was also one of the more interesting pieces:

The phrases best captured the sound of beat writing.  And the background was just so…strange.  The mountain top’s blues and orange are stylized to almost look like clay and the orange, out-of-focus background makes me feel like I’m looking at another planet. The lettering, like “Mañana,” seems to fit really well in the frame, whereas in Fit and Slick:

the phrase had a similar sound, but the lettering overwhelmed it.  Is the stuttering supposed to juxtapose the phrase?

Reading these two pieces in particular made me want to hear the rest of the text.  While On the Road was published as a book, isn’t it a book best read aloud?  The Hammer’s new iPhone app is a perfect resource for this kind of ancillary media.  That part of the story between Kerouac and Ruscha, the element of sound, became something I was really interested in as I walked through the exhibit.  This desire is a perfect example of the kinds of opportunities an exhibit can offer it’s visitors.  Not everyone needs to be forced to listen to a reading, but for those who are interested, it is provided.  It would be a link in the Wikipedia article of this exhibit.

The second room in the gallery displayed an artist’s book which Ruscha had put together of the entire text of On the Road.  Large pieces of paper were divided into sections of text and illustration that seemed like found images Ruscha had collaged together.  Some images were fragments in the shape of the thing they were of, while others were cut into squares with the image in the middle.  I’m not sure what made me notice this difference, but I was curious about the choices behind the two kinds of illustration.  What I did get from the artist’s book that was notably absent from Ruscha’s text paintings in the previous room, was how much the book focused on cars.  Car parts — wheels, hubcaps, bumpers — were all over the pages of the book.  These specific images gave a sense of tangibility to the otherwise dense print.  With the entire book, the text was tightly packed, and the little fragments of image only broke it up for a moment.  It made me think of the fragments of text with large images in the other room in contrast to the landscapes of text with only little pieces of image in the artist’s book.  I think that’s why I responded to the sense of space in Mañana — this little fragment of text needed a large enough image, or sense of image, to be balanced.

Art in the Streets @ MoCA

I have a love/hate relationship with free nights at museums. I avoided them at MoMA because it was just too crowded.  And crowded with the “check-list” kind of visitors: visitors who come in, see the Monet, and check it off their list.

Seeing “Art in the Streets” at MoCA on a free Thursday, however, felt like just the right time to see the show.  The space — the sprawling cavernous hanger of their Little Tokyo location — fit everyone.  And even when it was crowded, it felt like New York.  It’s how graffiti is supposed to be seen.  It was fun and loud and all sorts of people were there.  I found myself just having a really good time.  In fact, it was the first time at a museum I’d witnessed groups of friends run into each other.  It seemed like members from the LA graffiti community were coming to gather, to see their history on display — it reminded me of that last scene of A League of their Own where all the women are walking around, remembering the games and tournaments from the pictures in the museum.  It was awesome.

People were having so much fun because a part of their lives was being recognized. I’m realizing more and more how crucial that relationship can be to the success of a show.  (It’s something we’d talk about in theater all the time, both as an actor — connecting the characters experience to your own — and as a director –creating moments in the play where the audience can directly relate.)

Even people who aren’t part of the graffiti world experienced those jewels of experience where you see something and recognize it as a part of your life.  My husband, for example, having grown up in New York City in the 80s was so surprised and so thrilled to see this newspaper stand:











“It’s the Cost guy! He used to be everywhere!”

One very well-dressed woman recognized the Marc Jacobs bag, on display as an example of graffiti in mass production.  ”I love the bag,” I overheard her say.  The space behind the Marc Jacobs bag opens up to the middle of one main hallway with an incredible display of cars and the roadster/hot rod part of the street art movement (an interesting inclusion I’ll speak more to later).  It included graffiti on a highway sign, complete with some plastic bags stuck on.  ”Awesome bags!” I overheard some dudes exclaim.

That being said, the show wasn’t without it’s weird incongruities.  Graffiti may belong with a crowd, but seeing it in a museum is not, and can’t be, graffiti’s intended viewing space.  You get weird rifts in what you’re seeing and how it’s being presented:

Banksy’s room kept in line with his tongue-in-cheek relationship with the artworld and street art.  This piece greeted visitors, putting the act of graffiti on display in literal robotic fashion:











The act of tagging was distilled to an almost absurdist level, three friends stacked on top of each other, spraying up and down, up and down.  The whole craft is snidely put on display: here’s what you all think graffiti is, here’s the act right in front of you, you can watch us all day if you want.  I actually thought it was real people from a distance and got caught up in the thrill of seeing a “real-live graffiti artist!”  When it dawned on me that Banksy had rigged an anomotronic artist, it shifted the way I saw the entire show.  I suddenly felt a little embarrassed and little like an armchair sociologist.  It was “safe” to see graffiti here.

I wonder, though, if Banksy’s sarcasm isn’t more precisely aimed at galleries, not museums.  The commodification of street art is different from the acknowledgment, celebration, and education of street art. One of the pieces in Banksy’s room, I had seen before.  The surveillance camera bird’s nest had been a part of his pop-up pet shop in the West Village last year.  There, it had been surrounded by other animals made from machines of surveillance and watching and security.  It had been part of a world he had built to be experienced by people not quite sure what they were experiencing.  Here, it was an art piece.

While that sounds cynical, seeing the birds in a museum let me appreciate Banksy’s work in a different light.  And, at the risk of going from cynical to pretentious, I could take in his oeuvre from a distance here at the museum: see the work, recognize themes, get the jokes.  No, it isn’t in the specific site for which it was intended, but the museum setting can open up new viewing angles even as it closes others.

The newspaper stand I mentioned before had this affect.  Seeing it in a museum opens up all newspaper stands everywhere as possible canvases.  If this was “art” because is in a museum, then our definitions of art, of museums, of work, of intention all start to shift, even if only very slightly.  This is a serious power and responsibility the museum holds.

The room preceding Banksy’s was created by a group of artists and focused on similar themes of commodification and included a super sarcastic infomercial about how dangerous graffiti can be.  It was the same as Banksy’s robots, but from a slightly different angle.  Both pieces gave you want you wanted to see, or thought you would see, and played directly on those expectations.

Getting back to what a museum can help us see in graffiti, almost all of the wall text was written by the artists.  The wording was a little awkward and a little obtuse at times, but it provided such a direct insight into where these guys were coming from.  The artwork made up only one part of the entire movement — write-ups like these reveal the artwork to be a by-product of a whole way of living, of naming things, of seeing the world, of dressing, of interacting with people.











One of the reasons the show felt so successful was the breadth of its coverage of all these aspects of street art.  The rap scene had a dedicated space, along with skating and Blondie and neon.

In fact, Wes Anderson’s skating video was one of my favorite pieces. He filmed skaters in the familiar parking lots and staircases, but then added intensely crazy explosions after each move.  The skaters were heightened to epic proportions.  It was awesome and hilarious and worked as a film in the context of the show.









There were at least two other films which documented street art in action — much like the beginning parts of “Exit from the Gift Shop.”  While MoCA seemed to say that these documentaries warranted a space because they were a part of the movement in and of themselves, it didn’t feel quite right.  If nothing else, they were hard to see — mostly filmed at night and grainy, they required a completely dark room and a lot of focus.  At the same time, it took me out of the immediate artwork literally painted onto the walls around me to watch other similar work being done on an LA billboard.  It was too much to watch a documentary about the work I was seeing at the same time.

A few days before the show opened, MoCA released a security video of the installation.  As much as it feels like a commercial, it almost works better because at least it’s documenting the graffiti on the walls of the museum and is connected in that way.

With the other less obvious street art, it felt weird at first to come across a very “artsy” sculpture among all the skateboards and Polaroids of subway cars.  MoCA was very smart here, though, and I accepted the work as one part of what I was realizing to be an increasingly complicated movement.  By simply including and dedicating space to this work — as well as the cars and the neon and the photos — the museum educated without condescension.  I understood a little more about this movement and culture.  Again, it was the breadth and far reach of their inclusions that made me trust what I was seeing and the entire show more successful.











I almost missed more traditional educational information throughout the show.  The wall text explained the pieces on display were primarily from New York, LA, and Sao Paolo, dating from the 1970s forward.  I craved a little more of a narrative that I could follow — this movement led to this which led to that…  No artistic movement, let alone something as grassroots as graffiti, is so linear but I guess I needed help letting go and making the leaps in geography and time.  If I’m going to see graffiti in a museum, I want a few more options to take a step back and look at it academically.











But in the end, it’s fine that those elements weren’t there.  And even when they were there, like the placard above, you’d then catch a little Space Invader in the corner saying, “You can’t label me!”  The show had been invaded and the work inside could never be completely contained.











Finally, I really wanted to know which museums didn’t suck in 1988.






“unfinished” at the Gagosian


I went to go see “Unfinished” by James Franco and Gus Van Sant because I heard the Michael Stipe had scored the film which was part of the exhibit.  Indeed, the music was one of my favorite parts, but the entire show made me think about celebrity, artifice, and Hollywood as well — themes perhaps unintended by the artists, but certainly unmistakable in the work and the presentation of the work.  On second thought, I’d like to believe they fully intended these themes; I’d like to give Franco and Van Sant that benefit of the doubt.

The Gagosian Gallery is in the heart of the shopping-heavy neighborhood of Beverly Hills.  Parking was a huge headache.  And everything is white is Beverly Hills.  Everything.  A blinding white.  And walking into the gallery through frosted sliding doors, I wasn’t surprised to see “Supported by GUCCI” stenciled on the title wall.  Fashion companies have long supported the visual arts, but this seemed particularly appropriate.

The first room opened into a narrow hallway where a row of larger-than-life ink and watercolor portraits hung.  These were the work of director Van Sant.  The first few pieces I found myself dismissing.  They seemed especially amateur — like something out of high school Painting I class.  The fingers had no depth, the subject seemed trite.

Walking further down the small hallway though, the paintings began to take on more and more weight.  The two below struck me in particular:

The expression of the darkhaired boy is subtle and mesmerizing and familiar.  The composition resonates as Polaroid: brief, improvised, caught.

The boy in the hat stares so intently it’s as if he bleeds from the contours and shadows on his face.  Looking closely, you can see the pencil marks that first began to build his face: quick and graceful.  There is such an affection for the boys in these paintings.

Immediately behind you as you looked at these boys hung a torn and ragged curtain.  It completely caught me off-guard.  This kind of curtain is possibly the last thing I would expect to see in 90210.

The curtained opened back at the beginning of the hallway and the context change went with it.  A cardboard box was hastily duct taped down and a rickety yellow folding chair delineated where to walk.  It reminded me of the Off-Center, a dingy theater in Austin I used to think I was cool enough to hang out at.  Being inside the room only solidified my memory: mismatched couches and chairs were strewn about, all facing a large projection on on end.  A table was in the corner that I think had coffee and donuts on it, though I didn’t venture near enough to see for sure.  An old 18″ television with a VCR connected in a mess of tangled grey and black (see: the Walkmen) cables played what I later realized was My Own Private Idaho, the outtakes of which Franco had cut together to create My Own Private River, playing on the large screen.

I sat and watched almost 50 minutes of the 100 minute film.

I’ve never seen My Own Private Idaho, which I think I’m really glad about in terms of watching Franco’s film.  I was able to commit myself to the film without constantly comparing it to the original or trying to remember the original.  I’m sure I would have understood River differently had I seen Idaho, but I was happy to take what was in front of me on its own.

I was taken with two scenes in particular. There’s an extended scene of Phoenix and Keanue Reeves riding around on a motorcycle.  Stipe’s music played not so much underneath, but rather right next to.  The scene had sort of the feel of a music video, but the rhythmic looping of the motorcycle’s figure 8s as the silent characters drifted between enjoying the ride and getting lost in their own thoughts of  their lives’ struggles lifted the scene into something beyond MTV.  Maybe it felt like a real “art film.”  I’m not sure I know what that means.

The other scene was a conversation between Phoenix’s character and his girlfriend.  They’re sitting beneath this enormous bridge, having had sex just beyond the earshot of a maintenance worker, raking fall leaves.  Their conversation, shot I think from only two angles — directly in front of them and from way above — was one of those shockingly familiar and “real” exchanges I’m always (pleasantly) surprised to hear in movies.  The shot from above made them seem like the only two people in the world, yet they talked about one of the most banal and strangely self-absorbed thing: lucky numbers.  They charted their own lucky numbers through time — used to be 5 now it’s 8… The edgy girlfriend claims her number has always 13 because it’s seen as unlucky…  They seem so young and so lost and yet these numbers were so strong a part of their identities.

I’ve had these conversations!  I’ve said these things out loud and been embarrassed by them and proud at the same time.  You can’t help but have lucky numbers and hold on to them because they are a part of you, they are a part of how you define yourself, at one time, at least.  I so cherish these moments in movies; I call them FUBU moments — completely and inappropriately stealing the name from the clothing line.  But it works: these are “my people” and they’re talking like I talk about things I talk about.

I think the credit for this moment having such resonance is also due to the way the room was setup.  For whatever reason — the subject matter of the film, the layout of the mismatched couches, the dirty coffee cups, the shabby curtain — I was able to suspend my disbelief and forget that I was in the middle of Beverly Hills, let alone in an art gallery.  That afternoon was one of those striking moments, one of those perfect storms of art object and presentation and me.  This particular exhibit was so successful for me — the exhibit was the platform on which I experienced the art.

Even when I did step back and take in the Hollywood location, even that seem to add to the experience.  I was watching a film, an artifice of life, in one of the more artificial neighborhoods in the world.  At the same time, the care with which the film was constructed, the attention Franco pays to Phoenix transcends the film and what emerges is a sense of true respect and admiration.  At the same time still, it is one actor looking to another actor.  Even the character Phoenix plays, a john working in Portland, confronts real love and bought love.  Layers and layers concerning artifice and “real life,” art and life, real and pretend and friendship and acting and love.

What I brought to the table in this case was as important as what the film was showing.  It’s a tough case for museums and galleries: they have to trust that I’m going to show up and bring what I can.  I think the expectation can go both ways: we as museum and gallery-goers can expect that sometimes (obviously not all the time) the exhibit will be just for us and at the same time the galleries can expect that not only will we be there, but we’ll be there ready to think and learn and be open to the experience at hand.

All of This and Nothing, Hammer Museum

The current exhibit at the Hammer has a lofty and somewhat general intention: to encompass all of life, and nothing of it.  That is, the artwork is to touch on daily and personal ideas while also focusing on form and process.

It was the focus on process that caught my attention.  Process could be a very good focus for an exhibit when the artwork itself might be more elusive, harder to understand at first.  Unfortunately, the process of these artists was presented either vaguely or in a way that was so separated from the artwork itself, it was hard to follow.

For the first time, it was very clear to me how disconnected the wall text in an exhibit can be.  Looking at artwork and looking at words to describe the artwork, especially in terms of the artistic process, was very hard for me to follow.  Dianna Molzan’s canvas sculptures stood out.  The work itself was interesting and clearly process-heavy.  She had cut intricately thin strips out of a typical artist’s canvas to create three-dimensional, deconstructed sculptures.  The text that accompanied her work, however, was just too hard to follow.  Maybe my brain just isn’t quick enough, but if i’m looking at sculpture and then being asked to read in great detail how it was made, I can’t make the leap.  At the very least, I need a diagram.  ”We are visual creatures,” my high school math teacher used to say and when else are we more attuned to looking, not necessarily reading, than in a museum.  I don’t think that a step-by-step explanation with each stage of the canvas laid out would be always necessary, but for a show to focus on process and then make it so hard to follow doesn’t make sense.  I’m curious now how we can make a successful visual description, as opposed to a textual one.

I found myself drawn to the more narrative pieces in the show: they were easier to get a hold onto before pulling yourself in.  I was particularly taken with Fernando Ortega’s N. Clavipes Meets S. Erard, Movement 3. His three photographs depicted a harp whose strings had been replaced by a spider’s spun web.  And the little spider was there, sitting on top, posing for his picture.  Here, the work’s process is very clear in the work itself.  All I needed to be told was that he actually put a real spider in a room with a real, empty harp.

Mateo Tannatt’s movie set sculpture was similarly pleasing.  The found objects told a clear story — what that story was, I’m not sure, but the recognizable objects were familiar and reminded me of creating hours and hours of stories with dolls and pillows and a deck of cards and my brother’s Matchbox cars.

Kerry Tribe’s The Last Soviet was outstanding.  The ruleset around her film was so clear and her storytelling so compelling that the two — form and narrative — worked seamlessly together.  Part of it was a great story and part of it was fascinating visuals and juxtapositions.  The descriptive text for her work was similar to that of Molzan’s and I wonder why it was easier for me to read about a film than about a sculpture.  Perhaps it was the words of the voice-over?  I think actually it was because the film takes up time in a way different from sculpture.  I was able to read the description and almost follow along with the film as an example of itself.  With the sculpture, I had to stop and switch and look at/for something I wasn’t sure about.

Karla Black’s white sand and plaster sculptures were really interesting.  Like Molzan’s, Black’s work is very process- and form-driven.  I missed the same kind of visual description and understanding I looked for with Molzan’s work.  At the same time, Black’s serene desert of white sand brought such an emotional reaction on a gut-level for me personally, that the description, visual or textual, didn’t seem as necessary.  Part of it, admittedly, was smelling something so sweet and peering over and being convinced that she had used Lush bath bombs and then being so giddily surprised when I read the materials used.  The aroma and the brightness of the sand created a truly environmental experience.

It was only as I was leaving that I caught Charles Long’s interactive piece: a plexiglass box of real leaves with instructions printed on each one.  Maybe I would have felt differently had I picked up a leaf on my way in instead of out, but I couldn’t get into it.  The printing was dark and smudged and besides being hard to read, the disconnect between the leaf and the words made me feel icky.  It was this very permanent text on a very ephemeral, natural object.  And you weren’t even supposed to take the leaves with you… The instructions themselves felt forced and condescending: think about your body in the space of the exhibit, think about your day from morning until now.  It’s cute, I guess, but nothing I actually want to do.  I wonder what would’ve happened had the leaves directed you to interact with other people in the gallery.  Or given you space to draw.  Anything but read.