The Artist's Zoo [TAZ]
[concept]art by Paul McLean
For the Society for the Prevention of Creative Obsolescence
“I am not an elephant! I am not an animal! I am a human being! I am a man!” - The Elephant Man
By Paul McLean
Zoos, or menageries, are a feature of many important civilizations, appearing in various forms across the globe, often attached to palaces, existing as signs of power [See Wikipedia’s entertaining entry on the subject, from which much of this first paragraph arises. - PJM]. The Romans notoriously pitted exotic captive animals against one another and against humans for entertainment purposes, as spectacle. Obviously, the Roman arena and what we think of the zoo today are not convergent in many respects. However, even a superficial examination of the diverse manifestations of artificially contrived, performative human-nature encounters reveals that each age, place and culture produced and produces their version with particularity. In fact, the most valuable product of the zoo may its mimetic capacity. To put it another way, the zoo reveals much about the perceptual framework of the society and the individual, especially in terms of object and subject, which are dimensional.
I am thinking of nakedness, of Derrida’s cat, and The Animal that Therefore I Am … Seen one way, the zoo is just another penal system, an expression of power-over. The phenomenon, however should not be reduced to just that. Today, most zoos are urban destinations. One must acknowledge that for many who are born, live and die in the city, nature is met at the zoo, in a controlled environment, staged as a kind of animated Natural History Museum (which is where the dead things live). Artificiality is pervasive in all of this. Meeting a large carnivore in the wild, or a tiny but highly poisonous reptile, or a magnificent raptor, is beyond the ken of the city dweller. The e-/affect of media on the phenomenon cannot be overestimated. Nature has its own television channel. National Geographic and a host of other naturalist-adventure outfits trek to all parts of the earth with camera gear and other sophisticated technological tools, usually somewhat war-derived and de-militarized, to create stories and images for the consumption of the curious public. The net is rich in virtual encounters with all manner of nature, which in itself seems a strange contradiction, with all due respect to the actual. Considered through this lens, the ubiquitous web “kitteh” attaches a very different, expansive meaning. A pixel-kitty does not a lion or lioness make. The ether of the network is not a savannah. The bugs are not the same.
How much of the zoo impulse is rooted in compulsion of Nature to human will? How much is rooted in fear, or love, or desire, or mindless revulsion or hate of the monster? How much in the zoo as concept is now rooted in mankind’s loss of the natural as mundane immediacy, how much is indicative of a collective guilt for his waging a relentless war on nature, either as mindless destruction? Or as addiction to consumption, a linked sign-cum-amelioration of humanity’s general, maniacal pursuit extraction/exploitation campaigns for natural resources of all types?
Does the zoo exist as a salve for a common anxiety that Nature may rebel against the decimation inherent in the human ownership regime? Is the zoo a control mechanism, which clearly is insufficient, when weighted against the big picture? Will Nature reject its chains, its bondage, and punish us for uncounted episodes of torture, violation and disregard? What will it look like, when Nature manages or somehow “decides” to shrug off her subjugation? Will man face a vengeful Nature? Will natural revenge play out in a flip-flop of position, as in the Planet of the Apes, or will the endgame manifest as plague, catastrophes such as earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, an Ice Age, or some other horrific event?
It is telling that humanism has affected the zoo culture. Over time, especially in the modern era, the function and mission of the zoo evolved. Scientific study, species conservation, and other analytic enterprises conjoined with the sensational aspects of staged interspecies encounters sited in the zoo. America, and its storied wilderness, made accessible by an extensive highway system in the 20th century, generated another form of zoo: the roadside attraction. Can the animal-centric iteration of the zoo be construed as a well-intentioned effort to right systemic wrongs perpetrated by man against beast? What of the Biblical notions of man in relation to animal, from the Garden, through the Ark? What do we make of our derivation perceptions of beasts like lions, whales, serpents, asses, etc., and has science successfully altered these perceptions (with the help of media, and mediated ecologies, such as those exhibited in or as “the zoo.”)
Is the near-fully mediated, man-dominated world itself a zoo, and we, as humans, distinctive from all the planet’s inhabitants, in that we not only are part of the exhibition, but occupied with its management? Now that our cameras can reach most anywhere, and almost every beast has been captured, documented and/or caged and staged, and this set includes ourselves, whom should we assign the task of zookeeper? Does this state of the world not strike you as unnatural? Are you comfortable with the notion that the zoo model is now fungible, thanks to media? After all, what is Reality TV?
It seems worth noting that exotic people were at times displayed alongside the beasts, that caged animals often suffer horribly, even though cultural perception of such instances of morally problematic scenarios changes over time and from place to place. Awareness of animal welfare among the parties invested in the zoo as complex social-commercial-scientific enterprise is in its current version a very recent development. The aesthetics of zoos and menageries are also worth a look. Thinking about the hyperreal but artificial enclosures at major destination zoos, and also those staged environments that afford the zoo visitor with great proximity to the beasts on display, how willing is man in the 21st century to touch nature? How close are we willing to get, and what happens when we get too close?
Finally, the function of language + image in capturing nature ought to be introduced. We should bring up the bestiary, in its implications. This literary mode is probably a bridge connecting the mythic and the modern, with faith as the span. In any event, the power of the book, as catalog, and as container, even prison, is prodigious. Da Vinci created a bestiary.
I would suggest that the real, the authentic human-beast interactive model is suggested in the caves, like Lascaux and Chauvet, but also in countless other ritual sites across the planet. Modern man is only beginning to come to terms with the scenarios that existed, where man and beast functioned in natural communion. It seems odd that we arrive at understanding of such high-functionality only by study of sites that must be addressed at least to an extent in the domain of conjecture. The habitat of Lascaux, for instance, of early man and cave bear living together amidst dedicated expressive production and representation, has been transformed now and is functional only as a lab with an exclusive visitation regime.
America does not consistently or systematically support the formation and maintenance of programs for organizing grassroots artist communities. Case in point: As far as I can tell, there’s no nationwide listing for open studio tours in the US, much less a framework or infrastructure for fostering these immensely popular, (usually) artist-organized local art platforms.*
Given the frequency, utility and popularity of open studio tours across the country why would a) artist studio tours in America not be funded through federal programs; b) no open studio tour catalog exist; c) no service network exist for rating studio tours, for compiling useful data on participating artists, attendance, etc.; for generating studies examining preferences of populations across regional, urban-rural spectrums; for producing and disseminating guidelines for developing best practices; and d) no joint marketing campaigns exist to support the growth, collaboration potential and commercial success of artist studio tours.
* The logical location for a map of open studio tours is the National Endowment for the Arts website. Another logical location would be Americans for the Arts’ site. I looked at big artist collective sites like wetcanvas.com – nada. A nice lady named Serena Kovalosky, a “sculptor, curator and cultural project developer” who refers to herself as the “artful vagabond” has put together a fine, but very partial listing for the US. The Google produces lots of results for “art studio tours” and “open studio tours.” The Collector’s Guide for New Mexico has a good list of that state’s tours. The domain name openstudios.org belongs to a Boulder-based artist community.
The Artist's Zoo [TAZ]
[concept]art by Paul McLean
For the Society for the Prevention of Creative Obsolescence
“Fact is better left to fiction.” – Jerry (The Zoo Story, by Edward Albee)
[I need to record the phases of emergence in the narrative. – PJM]
In 2005, I was a participant in the East Austin (TX) Studio Tour [EAST], at Pump Project/Shady Tree Studios. At some point during the tour weekend I came to the realization that my bad attitude towards studio tours, as a general proposition, derived from a weird, intellectual linkage my brain had forged between two phenomena that most people wouldn't naturally or readily compare in any apples-to-apples way.
My mind had asymmetrically contrived a structural connection between artist studio tours and zoos. I was equating the artist and the zoo animal. I think I still do.
[User #46 comments at Bushwick Manifesto, a Tumblr project]
What is it about the artist that the non-artist finds so alluring, scary and exotic? Is it our proclivities for transgression? Our bohemian lifestyles? Our wild fashion instincts?
I suppose the culturista could compose a list of reasons artists and art studio pique the public, but it would just be anecdotal, because artists are resistant to definition, especially the high kind.
Abject? Check. Precarious? Check. Dark Matter? Check.
Hell, the NEA of recent years has a tough time even defining “art” and “artist.” They can’t even figure out what categorical cage we belong in!
Talk about a crazy artsy nature! In Bushwick, the freewheelin’ artoidz can stiffen the twisted upper lip of the snark dispensing NY Times culture critic, Guy Trebay, which is an impressive feat. Just read his idiotic piece on BOS2013 [“At Every Turn, Another Strange World” (June 6, 2013)]. Trebay sounds like a guy shopping in SOHO who ends up at the Monkey House in the Bronx! Definitely out of his element! ObvEOsLY out his comfort zone!
Go back to PACE! Stop ur haten & drift back to Rohatyn!
But b4 you jet on the L, Ante UP M-Fer!
BTW Whatever happened to the Gorilla Girlz?
[Excerpt from interview for podcast (with Milo Santini)]
PJM: Don't get me wrong. EAST was and is a terrific studio tour, one of the best in the country, thanks to the hardworking artist-organizers, the good people at Big Medium, and many others. This year’s EAST will be the 13th, and the event enjoys sustained community and commercial support. Presenter Big Medium gets funding from the City of Austin, Texas Commission on the Arts and private donors.
MILO: In truth, most of the studio tours I've encountered are fun and worth the effort. Over the years I have covered, participated in, and attended a fair number of them. I have a few favorites. Studio tours (and visits) are preponderantly pleasant affairs, because most artists are as a class pretty pleasant and social.
PJM: Let's face it. It's such a generous act for the artist to invite the general public to inspect the artist's studio. Doctors don't have anything similar. Neither do attorneys, plumbers, mechanics... Most professions don't put together tours of offices and warehouses and the like, except as highly managed PR affairs, which is hardly what most artist studio tours turn out to be. It's doubtful many people would come to those other types of tours, if the other (less-cool-than-artist) professionals did produce tours.
MILO: On top of that, Artist studios are by and large unique. No two are the same, except in the interstices between artist-occupants, in industrial studio buildings, like the ones sprouting up all over the place in Bushwick, during which periods you have an empty, bare room with white walls. Over time, artist studios develop a patina. Think of Francis Bacon's, which is now enshrined in Ireland. I helped move stuff out of Sam Francis' in LA, after he passed away. Sam's couldn't have been more different than Bacon's.
[Extracts from surveillance recording of phone contacts between artist X and artist Y (>12:48-13:12. 05/02/2013. X: 40.6942° N, 73.9186° W; Y: 35.6672° N, 105.9644° W. X =BB FDL0126518, VER XXXXXXXXXXxXX; Y =IP imei:010113005310121 ATT x2558; X+Y =+17/x2,55,98,48,x49,00,2y …)]
There's a macro-narrative, too, here, having to do with imaginary and real economics. Very few art districts in the US contain sufficient numbers of artists capable of sustaining yearly leases, especially expensive ones. In New York City, Los Angeles and other major metro centers with substantial creative class populations, a lot of artist studios aren't artist studios at all. They are studios for filmmakers, ad agencies, pre- and post-production media shops, digital workspaces, small manufacturers and craftspeople of many kinds, and so on. After all, the creatives are the ones who can fork out the rents for the mixed use commercial spaces in desirable or destination points in a city's cultural topography. As for painters and sculptors, in the fungible art world, they occupy a very tenuous ranking in the creativity complex. For those of us who came up in places like 1980s Santa Fe, like I did, hardly anyone BUT painters and sculptors were considered *real* artists. It helped that every other arts discipline's *practitioners* (relatively new terminology) didn't feel the need to identify as an artist to get the respect from anyone. Being a musician or dancer or actor was cool enough in its own right. The middle decades of the 20th Century were tough ones for academic artists, in terms of street cred. Artists didn't usually have to have five professional jobs to survive. Then, unlike now, temporary work between sales or shows - in galleries, foundries, frame shops, art supply stores, museums and schools - could support an artist, even those with families. Some had day jobs. That was before the exploitation racket for unpaid interns caught on. Cheap immigrant labor has also consumed a lot of jobs that used to keep artists from starving in America.
Anyway, I was talking about studios. During my Arts Management Masters study at the Drucker School, I met the lady – I forget her name - who at the time was in charge of cultural development in Santa Monica. They had generated a really powerful branding campaign for the city, and some stellar programs like the GLOW show. Santa Monica was touting itself as the most creative city per capita in the USA. During one of our classes with her, after listening to her present the data on how vibrantly creative Santa Monica was, I asked her how many artist studios were there. I think the first time I asked there two hundred and change. Over a couple years, that number would shrink substantially. There seemed to a big disconnect between the burgeoning creative population and the existence of the dedicated, actual architecture needed for art production. Santa Monica was really into creating a creative atmosphere, though. I guess I'm thinking about this a lot, after attending a panel discussion at CUNY's Graduate Center called the Politics of the Creative Economy and reading an article in the NY Times titled "Rising Rents Leave New York Artists Out in the Cold. Maybe I've been thinking about this for awhile. People are always talking about studios in Berlin. I think it's fairly easy to secure cheap studio space in Detroit. I built my own studio in Pecos, NM in 1989 or -90. It was 10' x 20' and cost about $800 to construct. Some friends came over to help me with the drywall and roof. I bought the beer. Maybe I should make a list of every studio I've ever occupied.
[MTS #2004790451, 3/14/08, Claremont, CA 9:14AM]
A zoo is a place with a bunch of wild animals put on display in safely secured spectacles of artificial nature. Zoos fabricate non-threatening encounters with beasts as a form of entertainment. At a zoo, you can get pretty close to the non-human mammal, or reptile, or bird, or amphibian, or fish, or insect, minus the worry that the exotic creature will devour you or your children, sting you, maul you, spit on you, throw poop at you, whatever. A zoo is a wunderkammer populated with bodies of fur, fang, scales, wings and claw, not stuffed, but breathing, moving. Like a prison for animals who have committed no crime, except piquing human curiosity, zoos afford the person unused or afraid of nature on its own terms, to existentially grapple with a version of it on civilization's terms (which are not good for captive animals).
[Resolve divergent characteristics, Paul! – MILO]
As you may have noticed, I not only consider artist tours bizarre. I think zoos are clearly oddities of civilization, particularly European and euro-affected civilization, which is responsible for the modern zoo concept. Morally, I think zoos are flat bad, and we should be rid of them. Do we know whether imprisoning animals for whatever purposes habituates us toward imprisonment, say, for people? Is it a slippery slope to butchery, cannibalism or torture? Consider also the hospitality factor. Does incarceration for zoo animals negate hospitality arrangements? Is this why, when a dopey kid falls into the lion’s den, they don’t eat him right away? Or does that happen just because the big cats are very well fed? Also, how do you configure the art school open studio phenom into this? In NYC, as the recent NYT article indicates, when bubble conditions are in effect, academic [BFA, MFA] hosted open studio weekends are feeding frenzy opportunity for speculative art investors and gallerists/brokers/agents, etc., on the prowl for the next big art star [nbas]. Is this scenario at all comparable to what happens at the South Orange Maplewood AST? …Just brainstorming here, on points of convergence, Milo!
[Extract from digital recording (10-23-2012); recorded at Wyckoff-Starr; informal roundtable on TAZ, with Jez, Shane, Konstant, Atchu + Milo]
Yes, I do acknowledge that studio tours are an important tool in local art economies for building community, connecting artists with collectors, making artist life more transparent to non-artists, de-mystifying and democratizing the artist, and de-centralizing art markets that generally exist in urban environments, and so on. Many artists feel much empowered by the studio tour format. Hey, they must work! They're EVERYWHERE! Just ask the Google. Type in "artist studio tours USA" and check the results.
JEZ: Or they’ll check YOU, Lulz!
KONSTANT: I suppose what I find objectionable about studio tours is the dynamic that seems common amongst them, which I would characterize as dimensional. I came up at a time and in a scene (Santa Fe, mid-80s), when the studio visit was a serious matter. In some places, like New York City, it often still is. Whether the invitee were another artist, a gallerist, a collector, an art writer, or whatever, the elder artists I knew treated this particular sort of exchange ritualistically, with gravitas. It was a very different scenario than, say, bringing the crew back to the studio after the bar closed, so the party could continue, which was also cool, but, like I say, different. The studio tour mostly obliterates that tradition. Tours only last a few days, so it shouldn't be a big deal, right? Another thing: I am an artist who didn't invite ANYONE to come to studio to visit for the first twelve or thirteen years I was painting. I think I imagined the studio as something like the Bat Cave, or Ali Baba's cave, or some other kind of magical, quasi-dangerous cave, but not like Plato's. A hideout, a lab, an asylum - my studio was this and more. It was the generator, the percolator, the mad den where the alchemy was done. It was a special place, for letting everything hang out, where great dead artists appeared in dope-soaked visions to encourage you, in the middle of the night, as you sobbed over that grand new painting, which by morning would be only another failed, flawed attempt. Finally, I got this vision, after visiting a studio tour, maybe in Dixon, New Mexico, or maybe it was Galisteo's or Pojoaque's or Eldorado's or Madrid's. I saw this kid with her mom and dad, framed like a children's book, pointing at this disheveled, grizzly old vato painter, slouched, miserable, suffering through the indignity of it all, a cigarette in one hand, a paper cup with Tequila in the other, paint all over his clothes, soft hat brim hiding his red eyes. The kid says, "LOOK, MOMMY, THE ARTIST IS SMOKING!!!" The dude just groans.
ATCHU: I realize it's not like that.
SHANE: ~ For most artists… Can we look at the pictures you shot of the last few, Bushwick Open Studios again, Paul? I really want to see the one with the naked girl in the mask and wheelchair, with that nutty mirror-covered dude pushing her down the street. Didn’t he about run you down?
MILO: You won’t see that shit anywhere else.
PJM: (Back to Austin) At that time, my involvement in EAST took the form of an intervention, calling attention to the lack of press coverage for artists and art projects outside the nodes of UT-Austin, The Blanton (which is attached to UT-A), ArtHouse at the Jones Center and the Austin Art Museum (which merged in 2011 as AMOA-Arthouse, and in 2013 re-branded as The Contemporary Austin) and a few other art spaces and organizations. During the tour, I shut my studio door, posted photos and protest statements, etc., on the exterior, and refused attendees access. When a local arts reporter (Rachel Korper) drifted in with a crowd, we staged a photo-op that gave the impression I was berating the writer, while an angry mob cheered me on. The reality was a less rambunctious, coming across as not much more than artsy shenanigans. But our crew acted with discipline. It all happened pretty quick, impressively. Mulvany, the Irishman was perfect. Actually a “friendly;” Rachel kind of went with it in the moment, although she probably wasn’t pleased the next day, when the press blast appeared in her inbox (and the inboxes of Austin daily, weekly and monthly print editors), along with the candid photoset.
Anyway, the concept of "The Artist Zoo" was one of the derivatives of the intervention. The success of the direct action gave the alt.Austin movement some momentum. The subsequent collaborations were thereby invested with some agency and urgency. A stream of successful collective projects followed, like the successful art/exhibition + text collective Cantanker, which published until recently. The whole thing fed a number of other very positive developments in the blossoming Austin art scene, such as Co-Lab, which resonate through the present. Sometimes it just takes a dust mote shifting to start an avalanche.
For the 2014 Bushwick Open Studios Tour, I'm envisioning a new iteration of "The Artist's Zoo" [TAZ]. On my website [artforhumans dot com], in the AFH Projects section, I will be periodically posting progress reports on the production, concept ideas and art, models and other goodies. Really, I’m not entirely sure what it will look like, yet. My initial vision entailed staging a hyper- or parallel- or 4D alt.reality scenario and shooting it, then rear-projecting it on a screen at the Jefferson Street location, which would require removing or modifying the door. I also thought about constructing a 1/10 scale model, which would dovetail nicely with the Prop-Art production in the works for later this year. I have a vast database of studio documentation, dating to the early 90s, with a few shots of studios predating Santa Fe. The Statue of Liberty piece in process in the garage at my Beckley, West Virginia home, is a gem. I wish I had more images from Notre Dame. A lot of that has been lost over the years, trashed in transition, disappearing with dead digital drives and so on. Did it really even happen, if there’s not a photograph or video of it? The AFH Anarchives have been relatively assiduously maintained, with great attention paid to establishing a progressive history, a record, over time, from location to location, studio to studio, across the continent, around the globe, to Scotland and Switzerland, to Kauai… Turning fifty this month, I am reflective, searching the past for bits of information to assimilate into a big picture. There are questions. What if I had only had one studio all this time? I know a few artists with that kind of durational relationship with their studios. Only a few though. The laws and rules, the bad game of Property versus People, destroy that potential for almost everyone, including artists. It’s wasteful and stupid, and one big reason why artists in this regime tend to produce mediocre art. The problem is logistical, and the studio problem is a big part of it. In New York City, the worst solution is to rent from another artist. The landlord artist is a special breed of prisoner-guard/regime manager. I’m thinking of Django and Samuel Jackson’s character. Hey! Whatever you gotta do to get by!
Let me just say, in my opinion, BOS2014 is the best I know of, all factors considered. The best in the world, right now. Can you believe it?! Arts in Bushwick is a terrific organization, and the attendees over the past few years I've participated in BOS have been remarkable, to say nothing (but good things) of the diverse and massive group of high-performing artists of every description who will be opening their doors to the world May 30th through June 1.
 Nothing can ever rob me of the certainty that what we have here is an existence that refuses to be conceptualized.
And a mortal existence, for from the moment that it has a name, its name survives it. It signs its potential disappearance. Mine also, and that disappearance, from this moment to that, fort/da [here/there, present/absent], is announced each time that, with or without nakedness, one of us leaves the room.”
(Jaques Derrida. The Animal That Therefore I Am. Edited by Marie-Louise Mallet. Translated by David Wills. New York: Fordham UP, 2008.)