Despite living in New Jersey I maintain a membership with the San José Museum of Art both because it’s a good deal and because I really value my yearly visit. More than any other museum in the Bay Area I find myself appreciating what San José is doing and how it so frequently manages to display artwork that feels both relevant to the area and which appeals to my specific sensibilities.
The big exhibit this time is a large exhibition of Rina Banerjee’s artwork. Her work investigating is especially relevant to the Bay Area in how it investigates globalism and the way it intersects with identity, assimilation, gender, and colonialism. There’s very much a “the world is at your fingertips” sense in this artwork and she’s asking us—and especially the Silicon Valley culture—to think about the power dynamics at play when we combine things from all over.
Her work straddles that line where it’s simultaneously beautiful and grotesque—very often just the viewing angle is enough flip it from one to another.* Ornamentation becomes something monstrous. Small details show up and totally change the context. Superficial beauty falls apart the more you look.
*It reminded me of Kara Walker’s work and how it often does similar things where you can look lazily or you can really look and see all the layers of colonialism and gender and how things can be simultaneously exotic/alluring and vulgar/threatening.
There was a large tour group from Apple at the museum when I went and I just hoped that they were sensitive to the way that these large, apparently-beautiful objects completely turn the longer you look at them and see all the embedded issues in what they’re made of. While Banerjee is doing this on purpose, she’s also doing it to ask us to look closely at everything.
There was a smaller gallery of Catherine Wagner’s photographs. I was unaware of her work but I love it. Her science photos are great and deftly illustrates the artisty in how science is as involved in the process of looking (and seeing) in the same way that photography is.
Her Pomegranate Wall takes this a step further and essentially uses an MRI machine as a camera. The way it’s presented in a back-lit wall of multiple small images abstracts the subject matter and makes my brain think of all kinds of other connections from MRIs of brains to microscopic views of single-celled organisms.
San Jose has had a tendency to put up large pieces that feature small multiples of information (eg Listening Post and Epilogue). Wagner’s work fits right in with this and feels especially appropriate for an area that specializes in managing an overwhelming amount of little pieces of data.
The last exhibition in San José is an installation of Pae White’s foreverago along with a couple other pieces of hers. Foreverago is a lot of fun. It’s huge and a ton of stuff to explore (the back view is as nice as the front) and I appreciate the circular relevance of digital design and jaquard looms. Recasting tapestry as “modern” is the perfect way of reminding people that it was also the original punch-card programming.
I also love the canvases of paper. They’re fabulously tactile and the colors are wonderfully subtle. I just wish there was a video or photos of how they were made since I couldn’t quite picture it based on the wall text.There are also a couple other neat installations in this gallery. The chess pieces in particular are a lot of fun and look like the kind of thing that will show up in museum gift shops eventually.
I’m glad I did so. I don’t like most of these but I love what they made me think of.
First off, San José is making the argument that Federal support of the arts is not just a good thing but it’s an inherently American thing. These are important colors to nail to the mast. The importance of art, sustaining that art, and for the rest of the public to access that art is something that we’ve abandoned today. At the same time I recognize the nature of this public art and how it functions as propaganda.
The specific images in the exhibition focus on American life and locations. I found them especially interesting to compare with the Mexican Modernism prints which are roughly contemporary and frequently depict similar subject matter yet feel completely different. Where the Mexican prints are explicitly anti-capitalist in their celebration of manual labor and the common worker, the American ones don’t have that edge.
Yes, they celebrate manual labor and the common worker as much as, if not more than, the Communist prints did. But the framing is one of nostalgia. Pastoral scenes have that rosy Grant Wood* idyllic pre-industrial feel. Rather than critique the way that way of life is changing the goal seems to be comfort and reassurance.
*Many of his prints are on display here.
The industrial and urban prints do better. They’re frequently grittier and show a wider spectrum of life in ways that remind me of 1930s photography. The artists are clearly inspired by many of the same industrialscapes that attract photographers and the social justice cause of humanizing the laborers is also something that occurs frequently in photography of this time. Showing people living and working in the hustle and bustle of the city is a new avenue of investigation.
I’m still intrigued by the subtle differences in how some labor images read “Communist” while others read as “Capitalist.” I’m certainly aware that a lot of the federally-funded artists had communist sympathies but while I can certainly view many of these as being pro-labor, pro-communist images, they’re subtle enough that I don’t have to and, without the museum framing things this way, it’s very easy to see them as pro-development instead.
Anyway I wasn’t expecting to have these thoughts about this show and I’m pleasantly surprised that I did.
The last section of the room involved landscapes and nature studies. I really liked these in part because how much they reminded me of photography and paralleled the emergence of group ƒ/64. There’s that same sense of deep crisp focus and the seduction of contrasty light. There’s the awareness of how natural views can function as abstract imagery.
I’m curious whether one medium influenced the other or if there was just something in the air at the time which resulted in everyone seeing things in similar ways.
The works on display demonstrate interesting combination of “house” and “neighborhood.” While the two concepts are obviously linked, I can’t think of any of the pieces which actually bridge both and investigate that link. If anything, California Dreamin’ comes closer than anything actually in the show with the way it evokes both the architecture of apartment housing and the feeling of being in those neighborhoods.
The works which investigate the concept of “house” frequently touch on how home is what you make of it. There’s photography like Bill Owens’s images of 1970s Bay Area suburbia or Larry Sultan’s images of his parents’ retirement community. There are wonderfully personal images like Claire Rojas’s small, wonderfully-detailed paintings, Carmen Garza’s comfortable family scenes, and Gertrude Bleiberg’s sketches.
As much as the theme of the exhibition is housing, these works are specifically about the concept of home. The nature of the housing is ancillary to the fact that it exists. It’s what we do with, and inside, that housing where the real meaning gets created.
My favorite piece in the show was Zarina’s collection of floorplans of all the houses she’s lived in. These aren’t architectural blueprints; they’re sketches of the floorplans based on her memories. I love the concept since it ends up being about the house itself, it’s use, and the way the artist is remembering her life there.
Looking at all the floorplans together is fantastic. I can imagine how the rooms were used and think about how life must’ve been in each home. I can compare the floorplans from different parts of the world and get a sense of how differently (or similarly) buildings are built in each place. Do I want to know about the neighborhoods these homes are in? Absolutely. But more than any other piece in the exhibition this one gets at how many different levels housing leaves its mark on us.
The neighborhood side of the show is also not just any neighborhood; it’s almost always about planned communities—usually suburbs but there is some work about company towns in here. Lots of photography again from Todd Hido’s wonderful night photos of suburban light to Robert Isaacs’s photos of Daly City to David Maisel‘s aerial photos of suburban sprawl.
My favorite piece from this section of the show is An Te Liu’s selection of Levittown-inspired fabric prints which take delight in the patterns of development and the effect that row-upon-row of like-looking houses creates when abstracted just slightly. It’s both a lot of fun and wonderfully clever.
Looking at all these images of surburbia though made me realize that none of the artworks on hand were actually prepared to deal with the situation of how to fit a massive amount of housing into an area where there’s no open land to build on.
All the new housing development I’m seeing in the Bay Area hasn’t quite figured this out either. There’s not enough room to build single family homes but everything still has to have vestigial trappings of a yard or a porch. Every home is accessed via a two-lane street lined with endless two-car garages on each side. The supposed front doors can only be accessed by a alley which is so narrow that sunlight only reaches the ground at noon. The streets and sidewalks in these developments are not public land so you can’t actually walk along them unless you live there.
We‘re trying to build forms of housing on land that can no longer accommodate that form. And we‘re selling a myth of home use that doesn’t appear to exist anymore.
This was a tricky show to do. I liked it but it also made me sad because so much of it is looking into the past at our memories of what home was. I appreciate that San José is trying to address a topical issue but looking into our emotional memories of what home was is merely the beginning. Too much of this exhibition treats that concept as the end of the discussion.
California Dreamin’ is a gallery-sized piece where images of sunsets with silhouetted palm trees are projected through a structure of foamcore and acrylic. It’s extremely Los Angeles. This isn’t a knock on it since it’s supposed to be Los Angeles but it risks feeling out of place in San José. As a native Bay Arean, I always kept LA a bit at arms length—in large part because of how often LA’s identity seemed to subsume the rest of California’s.
It was only after moving to New Jersey that LA began to feel like home. Now, with the way the Bay Area has changed so all the strip malls that used to house mom and pop shops and restaurants have been replaced with up-market food chains and luxury condos, LA often feels more like the Bay Area I remember. Yes the geography and vegetation are different. But the sense of the place and even the sense of the neighborhoods feels like what I want home to feel like.
I stayed in this gallery a long time. Took a nice slow walk around the entire structure. Let my eyes get accustomed to the light levels so I could really take it in. There’s something about that late-sunset time when the sky is still light but everything else is dark that I love. It’s time to finish up work and go home in winter. It’s time to finish dinner and get ready for the night in summer. There’s something calming about it not being night yet but definitely not being day.
The structure in the center of the installation suggested housing styles which are uniquely suited for this time of day. On the east coast, you’re not going to be hanging out on a balcony or walking around the street at this time. The weather is rarely amenable to it and homes aren’t built to accommodate this kind of thing.
On the west coast, this is peak go out and take a moment for yourself time. I haven’t done enough of that this summer but this installation reminded me of that joy.
The Terrace installations have a similar feeling except that rather than being in a room which reminds you of being outside, these suggest the feeling of looking out your window and seeing the neighborhood wake up as the sun goes down. I love these pieces a lot too. They‘re still very LA but the foliage is different enough that they also remind me of the Bay Area and being out at night in the Peninsula or the East Bay where there’s just enough elevation to make things layered.
That cloudiness of the layers of acrylic also suggests a bit of fog is an added bonus. There’s nothing like a bit of marine layer to remind me of home.
I finally took my annual trip to the San José Museum of Art late last month. I’d like to go more often but I’m only in town in the summer. I’ve been very pleased though that amidst all the changes in the Bay Area over the five years since I’ve left that San José has kept the quality up and is still presenting art that is relevant to the Bay Area rather than falling into the trap of chasing those blockbuster traveling shows.
The main show this time is Rise Up. It’s a collector-based show but rather than featuring the same name-brand artists, it features a collector who actually has his own taste and vision. He started collecting by acquiring Robert Arneson’s Five Times for Harvey and then just took off in acquiring art from all kinds of under-represented artists.
The Arneson origin story of the collection is why things are framed as “social justice.” Most of the rest of the works on display though are not about outright protest or responding to a current event. Instead the central theme is one of representation. That they’re so relevant to today’s issues is a demonstration of how rarely we see these voices in mass media.
In some ways I’m annoyed by this mischaracterization. In other ways I really like it. Arneson may be the only white male artist in the show but by using the protest art framing, San José avoids making this a Race™ exhibition. We should be used to galleries full of art by people who aren’t white men. These artworks should also be presented as universal. And that’s exactly what San José quietly does here.
This show also blows up the idea that the silver lining to Trump would be that “at least we’ll get some good art.” The pieces on display go back more than three decades and speak about the pride and perseverance it takes to survive in this country as an underrepresented group. It’s art that typically doesn’t make it into mainstream collections but the sentiments of life and survival are as appropriate now as they were then.
Of special note in this exhibition is the wonderful selection of artwork by Black women. Kara Walker, Mickalene Thomas, Sadie Barnette, Alison Saar, and Wangechi Mutu are all on display and their work in particular shows how limited the mainstream representations of black womanhood is.
The expressions of who they are, how society has treated them, how they feel about themselves. and what gives them strength confirm that the best way to break stereotypes and see people as human is to have a multitude of representations available. Not one artist on display or one character in a movie. Many of them, each with their own character and point of view.
The art is also frequently moving without the othering gaze that so-often occurs when I see these subjects in a museum. I just wish this were the standard for what art is without having to come up with some kind of hook for why it’s appropriate today.
In addition to Fragile Waters there’s a lot of other good stuff going on in San José. A few highlights which caught my interest.
This was good. I love that it’s in collaboration with the farmworkers and really gets at the human costs of our food industry. The way that workers are sprayed with chemicals—fertilizers and pesticides—so that even when they weren’t working they couldn’t escape the job. The way laborers have to consume some of the product they’re picking in order to survive the day. The way the government treats them as disposable, unwanted cogs in the machine when they’re actually a lynchpin of the economy.
Yet even if we know of the human costs we don’t really know the humans involved. Cartagena shows us people—even names them—but proceeds to obscure them so that we have to look through the evidence of their labor in order to discern their features.
I did find it interesting that there was no mention of Kara Walker even though her Subtlety covered similar territory with regard to sugar three years ago. Cartagena’s work is different in that he’s used the actual likeness of one of the laborers, the resulting sugar masks also evoke the sugar skulls of Día de los Muertos, and they’re an explicit reference to Catholicism. 12 masks for 12 apostles. A table set for the last supper. The idea that this faith and culture is based on the miracle of transubstantiation and how life literally comes from the consumption of someone else’s body.
It just felt too similar not to mention that other artists are also working with the legacies of American sugar production. There’s probably an artist I don’t know of doing something very similar in Hawai‘i as well.
This was a nice supplement to the more-traditional old topographics of Fragile Waters. Where Fragile Waters is reminding us to get out and enjoy nature, Darkened Mirror is about pointing out how water usage alters the landscape and displaces people.
Your Mind, This Moment
A gallery of slow art. Most of these didn’t hold my attention. Mineko Grimmer however did. Her Mahagony Music Box taps into the kid of fascination I remember feeling about watching the Foucault pendulum at the Academy of Sciences when I was a kid. Something about watching the water drip and being surprised every time a stone falls. Plus it just sounds great. The sticks make a wonderful natural clack and the occasional string sounds at what feels like the perfect time.
There is but one Ocean though its coves have many names; a single sea of Atmosphere with no coves at all; the miracle of soil, alive and giving life, lying thin on the only Earth, for which there is no spare.
Ansel Adams is obviously the big name but it’s the combination of Ernest H. Brooks and Dorothy Kerper Monnelly and the way they expand on the Adams’s body of work which is most interesting here. There are many similar views—not the same, just similar enough to notice the familiarity in perspective—which work together to show how all water is indeed connected.
Their work hops from coast to coast and ocean to ocean yet in each location, while the photos are different, the perspectives are the same. This is a good thing. The way we value water is the same everywhere. The way we need water is the same everywhere. The way we commune with nature is the same. Everywhere. Water is so dynamic yet in all these photos it’s still and frozen in time. The photographers spent hours waiting for the right light or composition but that they also were just out in nature matters.
Where Adams is clearly focused on working the scene and creating an image and making his point, Brooks and Monnelly are much more zen about things. Specifically, there’s an underlying theme in their nature and environmental photography as being a means rather than an end. That a successful photography session is one which results in you feeling refreshed from being in the presence of nature. That the actual image itself makes no difference to whether you’ve succeeded.
It’s this change in perspective which makes their environmental photography so much more effective for me. Whereas the “see this pristine wilderness before it’s ruined” type of photography doesn’t do it for me, “this is the evidence of my time in nature” does. I can feel the mindfulness of it and the way that it emerges from the experience of just being.
That the perspectives are similar and the experiences are similar suggests our shared humanity and relieves a lot of the selfish concerns I have about my own photography. A lot of the photos on display remind me of my own work. This could easily be cause for despair but it’s okay here. I’m not consciously mimicking anyone’s images, I’m just following the same process. My photos are different in that their part of my own experience just being in nature—whether it’s an isolated lake in the High Sierra or a artificial pond in an industrial park. They’re what I saw and the more important thing was that I got outside and away from everything else.
They speak to why it’s so important to preserve nature and natural spaces. Yes, conserving them for the survival of other life is important, but we need them for ourselves and our sanity too.
It’s easy to forget how important it is to get away and just take a walk. Get out in trees or along the water. Watch the wildlife. Play chicken with the waves. Touch the earth. Go for a swim. “Old topographics” nature photography like this serves as a reminder to get off the computer and get outside. Their environmental message is that reminder that we need to do this..
The epitaph and elegy reading is still strong though. Monnelly has a number of beautiful photographs of winter ice captioned with the sentiment about how melting ice represents the return of life. This is indeed the traditional reading. However since Brooks’s photographs of Antarctica are in the same gallery, I was struck by the irony that melting ice also represents the beginning of the end.
It’s one thing to see and be reminded of how we all see and react to water in similar ways. Ice though is much more divisive. Many of us dislike it and celebrate its annual disappearance. At the same time, we need it. It’s what California depends on for its water and it’s a ticking time bomb as it melts in the North and South poles.
On Ernest H. Brooks
As an underwater photographer Brooks is very interesting to look at from a technical point of view. His equipment is incredibly important to his work and it’s very obvious in looking at how his prints go from traditional to digital that we’re watching him make the transition from film to digital too. I love that he’s committed to shooting in black and white even with a digital camera.
I also like how mixed his subject matter is. Animal portraits. Abstracts. People and their presence in the water. Underwater requires both more awareness as to what can make a good photo and the ability to react when it occurs. His switch to digital also appears to have opened up some above-water subject matter to him. His ultra wide clouds and Infrared Antarctica images are also good and with their emphasis on the sky, are very much in keeping with the way that many of his underwater photos treat the surface of the water.
I also especially enjoy the way the infrared shots interact with Ansel Adams’s red-fltered skies.
On Dorothy Kerper Monnelly
Unlike Brooks she very clearly has her equipment settled. Like Brooks she spends her time just in nature, revisits similar subjects and lets the photos come to her. I like her work a lot. Despite much of it being East Coast instead of West Coast her approach just speaks to me.
Her photos of marshes and shores feel like she’s making the same walks every day and really knows the lay of the land now. What to expect. Where the best location are. And as mentioned before, her photos of ice and snow are beautiful in how they capture how dynamic and sculptural their formations are.
I also love how frequently her work is gloriously low contrast. Brooks and Adams tend toward using the full range of tones—often with extreme black skies or backgrounds due to filtering in camera of because of fall-off due to the water. Monnelly though thrives on the fog and mist of early mornings and is smart enough to embrace all the wonderful midtones that result.
There’s not much to say about Adams. I know his work. We all know his work. I did find it odd though that there were two different prints of his Point Sur Storm photos yet the museum didn’t flag that they were from the same negative or comment on why both were on display. One was labeled 1946 and the other 1948 but nothing indicated that this was a printing date.
The 1948 print is larger and has had its contrasts reworked a bit. Slightly higher contrast overall and some of the shadow details are gone due to no longer being held back. The digital image here of the 1946 print is also higher contrast than what’s actually on display but you can see details in the lower lefthand corner which aren’t there at all in the 1948 print.
I’m used to Adams revisiting negatives decades later but in this case it feels more like he’s working through how he sees this negative. Given the way that this show leans in to the Adams name—there’s also a display of his camera—I found myself wanting to know more about his process. At least we got to read a wonderful letter about juvenilia photo (also on display) which gets into how much work Adams put into his photography. It’s very different from the mindful experiential process that Brooks and Donnelly practiced but it’s great to see how considered everything is.
After seeing Border Cantos, I wandered through San José’s Tabaimo show. Seeing videos in an art museum is always a weird thing where I have to remind myself to give the loop some time to grow on me. It’s a good thing that there’s a space for short films that can play with not conforming to the expectations of plotting, etc. that we have about films shown in a theater. I just have to remember myself that I can’t judge these like I would judge a movie. Yes there’s often a start but I don’t always begin there. Nor can I expect it to hook me immediately when I start watching.
As an animation junkie, I liked a lot of this show. Tabaimo’s pieces are more like video sculptures than films. They’re projected onto three-dimensional surfaces and often involve additional depth and dimension in addition to those surfaces. I especially liked DanDAN and the way it slipped through the different units and floors of an apartment building. I also found myself appreciating just the craft of putting together and staging everything. Juggling the animation, how the projection will hit the surface, and how the different projections will interact is an impressive amount of stagecraft.
I also always like looking at hand-drawn animation which mimics other media in its brush and line styles. This is especially true now when so much of the goal of computer animation is achieving a realistic look. Instead, I love when the animation still looks like drawings or paintings that have come alive. All of Tabaimo’s work has that sketchy/brushy quality and it’s just fun to look at.
At the same time, all of the work on display draws on cultural references which I don’t understand. This isn’t a critique of the art as much as it’s a critique of how it’s displayed. I don’t think really any of the museum goers will understand the textual or cultural references and while the works are named on the wall text, there’s not much about what those works are about. Which is a shame since I think I’d enjoy these all a lot more if they were presented in a way which took them beyond the “don’t these look cool” appeal.
In the American West, the open road is one of those enduring, unavoidable photographic tropes. While Dorothea Lange and Robert Frank are the iconic images, I’ve always seen the photos as part of the larger theme of photographing technological expansion into the West. So photos of train construction like those by Russell* are also part of the same narrative. It’s a seductive image which captures much of the myth of The West. A technology’s-eye view full of possibilities. Places to go. Things to build. Landscape to tame. The freedom to become whatever you want to be.
I suspect that everyone in The West takes at least one photo of the big sky, unending road, and undeveloped landscapes stretching as far as the eye can see. I know I have.
That Richard Misrach’s Border Cantos is able to reference and draw on this trope while conveying the exact opposite idea is my favorite part of his show in San José. In his images we have all the myths of The West except that everything is literally turned on its side. Instead of traveling along the road and into the frame, we know that the migration direction is side to side across the frame. On foot. The road is no longer an invitation, it’s a barrier. The landscape is no longer wide-open, it’s partitioned.
This west is now explicitly about preventing travel. And it’s about traveling despite the barriers.
The wall and border cuts through without regard for the terrain or landscape—whether natural or manmade. It’s a straight line on the map which creates an artificial imposition on real life.* It slices through mountains and deserts with gaps which are large enough to allow animals but not humans or automobiles to cross.** It divides cities—we see photos of the wall crossing streets, parks, backyards, and farmland—into two with the singular purpose of keeping people, and only people, stuck on one side. It’s a visual demonstration of the absurdity of borders and what it means to say that “the border crossed us.” The land predates the border. Cities and settlements predate the border. Mexican people and their migrations predate the border.
*I prefer the concept of geography-based borders but those, as the case of Chamizal shows, can be at least as absurd due to the fact that natural features change over time.
The wall is indeed absurd. Just looking at it reveals how futile the idea of making it impenetrable is. There are gaps. There have to be gaps. Sometimes the gaps are wider than the segments of wall. The frontage road gets dragged daily so that footprints show up. Migrants wear carpet over their shoes to hide their footprints. The territory it covers is so immense that the task of securing it is sisyphean. There’s no way to do it. To claim otherwise is irresponsible.
It’s a bit of a shame that there’s no equivalent photographic trope regarding fences in The West. While the myth and appeal of The West is the promise of possibility, one enduring aspect has been the struggle over land usage.* Fences have been at the heart of that for over a century. Where the fence-cutting wars signified the beginning of the end of the open range and the increased conflict between Anglo and Mexican-American conceptions of land-use, the border fence is the newest incarnation of that conflict.
*Granted, much of the history of photography in The West is the tradition of unspoiled landscapes and we have people like Robert Adams to thank for yanking us into The New West and reminding us that unspoiled landscapes are only a small part of the land usage equation.
What a lot of the land-use discussion misses though is that it’s not just about how we’re using the land, it’s about who gets to use it. Which brings us to the other part of the exhibition. It’s not just about photos of the border. It’s about the migrants, the things they drop, and the small marks which they leave on the land.
This part reminds me of Marc Ruwedel but there’s room here for multiple artists. The border may be the most-visible voice in this series, but the traces that the migrants leave are just as important. The border acts upon the landscape and the migrants. What the migrants leave behind is more passive, but still speaks to their will about making the crossing and how while they want to use the land for the same mythical hopes and dreams that The West has always promised, their very presence is in conflict with the way Anglos want to use the land now.
The artifacts—clothing, books, trash, etc.—are all things that simultaneously speak to where the migrants come from and where they’re going. After he photographed them, Misrach sent them to Guillermo Galindo as part of a companion project to the photographs. Galindo’s project transforms the artifacts into musical instruments which, in-concert with the photographs, gives them life by providing them a voice.
There are short videos featuring many of the instruments on bordercantos.com but listening to the full composition in the gallery is a completely different experience. I was struck by how close converting the artifacts to instruments cam to merely being a gimmick. But it’s not. It’s wonderful.
The music is totally gente both in terms of its sense of sound/musical memory as well as how well it embraces the ethos that everything can be repurposed. It also works wonderfully as an aural context for all of the photographs. The border and The West has a long history of humans leaving their mark as they pass through. Photography is a way to capture these traces visually. Music and sound engages another sense and takes the entire exhibition to another level.
While I was in California this summer, I visited the San José Museum of Art to see the Covert Operations exhibition. Only part of the show was on display when I went* so this post covers both what I saw in the museum and what I’ve gotten from the catalog.** I’m used to treating catalogs as reminders of an exhibition so it’s a bit weird for me to be using one as a stand-in for portions of one. Thankfully, I saw most of the videos and video games in the show and have been using the book for the photography and painting—both of which translate much better to book form.
*It’s all up now.
**Which I flipped through in the museum to determine that it was worth getting. I have since spent a lot more time looking and reading through it.
On National Security
While the theme of this exhibition is covert operations, most of the work is actually about National Security and the things that government does under that aegis. A lot of work, such as Jenny Holzer’s redacted Freedom of Information Act request prints and Trevor Paglen’s Defense Department investigations offer glimpses of what’s going on when National Defense world intersects with the civilian world.
Holzer’s work takes advantage of the Freedom of Information Act and the theoretical ability of any citizen to request government records. The resulting documents are anything but transparent as they arrive covered with redactions. Holzer enlarges the documents to the point where they feel like Abstract Expressionist paintings—where text, redactions, handwritten notes, etc. all feel like they’re working together in a cohesive piece. Only instead of being abstract, these very clearly show, despite the redactions, many of the ugly details that go into providing what we think of as security.
Paglen’s photography looks almost conventionally pretty—star trails and sunsets—except that there’s one small detail which is off. Maybe it’s a Reaper Drone way off to the side. Maybe that non-star streak is actually a CIA satellite. His other work—in particular Code Names—similarly explores the small ways that the Security Apparatus intrudes into our world.
Meanwhile, other things aren’t really covert at all and just exist outside of the awareness of regular Americans. In particular, David Taylor’s Working the Line documents the security—and the security theater—on the US-Mexico border. There’s nothing especially confidential here, nor is there the sense that there’s a whole bunch of other infrastructure at the border that we’re not seeing. Still, the extent of physical security at the border and the way it’s actually implemented is quite different than the way that we think of it.
Taryn Simon’s photograph of the Alhurra studio is also something non-covert that we just aren’t aware of in the US. The entire point of this network is to be seen by Arab communities so it’s anything but a secret. Yet it’s not allowed to be broadcast in the US despite being based and funded here.
Taken together, all these pieces describe a massive amount of infrastructure and bureaucracy that we’re not aware of. Revealing only the tip of the iceberg allows us to think about how much is going on that we aren’t seeing at all. The way that much of what we do see is already horrifying should also make us really think about how much worse—whether in scale or in degree—the truly hidden stuff is.
But even the non-awful images reveal an apparatus that treats our safety as something where we don’t really want to know the details and assumes that we’ll sign off on anything in the name of security. It’s this assumption that disturbs me more since it’s carte blanche for security agencies to do whatever they want in the name of security while not informing us what it is that they’re doing. It also makes it very easy for those agencies to dismiss critiques and questions by referencing our ignorance of what’s “really” going on.
We’re assumed to not want to know, kept from knowing, and then criticized for not knowing. All in the name of our own safety and security. So I’m glad that people are calling out and highlighting what we can know. I love that many of these people are artists since it makes the glimpses much more accessible and the more of us who know, even a little bit, the better.
On Weaponizing Art and Games
Another extremely interesting concept in this exhibition is how it demonstrates the way art, photography, and video games—things which often get criticized as being inherently non-useful—can actually be effectively weaponized or used as diplomacy.
Photography is the most obvious example due to its interaction with surveillance, intrusiveness, and privacy issues being one of its defining characteristics since day one. That much of photography’s acceptance by the public has been a steady erosion of sensibilities regarding these issues is already scary. But even today, much of the concern is about photographs by other individuals rather than the government—we accept security cameras everywhere but freak out about a stranger with a cell phone. Yet it’s the security cameras which are more intrusive since they feed directly in to monitoring by the state. Which is why it’s important to keep in mind where security cameras get installed, who they’re actually monitoring, and whose interests they’re protecting.
The use of modern art as cultural diplomacy is less obvious but is explicitly mentioned by Taryn Simon’s photograph of the CIA art gallery. The connection between art and culture and the idea that “good” art demonstrates a superior culture is shocking to see laid out—even though it’s used by many people now to malign* art which has not been accepted as “good” in the West. It also forces us to really question our understandings of our own taste and how we learned what we like. I certainly didn’t even consider that it could reflect Cold War indoctrination about what is “American” (or at least non-communist) even though thinking about it now makes complete sense.
Video games get a lot of play here as well. Harun Farocki shows how, instead of being entertainment, they’re now used for military training—which is pretty cool in that it allows for a safer and more varied training experience. At the same time, it’s disturbing how easy it is to go from a medium of pure entertainment to something that’s life and death and literally training people how to kill other people. There’s no noticeable difference in the form, just the use case. That many of these training videos look less realistic than what’s currently on the market is the kind of thing that makes it very easy to see the defenses of video games as being “just a game” as being somewhat hollow.*
*I’m not anti video games, but I’m increasingly critical of everything about them as mass entertainment.
On the positive side, the way video games are also used as therapy for soldiers recovering from the stress of battle is both interesting and promising. They’re not fun here either, but seeing them used in a much more life-giving situation is nice to see. Still, it’s interesting to note the differences in quality and how there is more effort spent on training than on rehabilitation—but that’s a comment on the military’s priorities and not the medium itself.
I’ve long been used to technology’s give-and-take with the military. One of the best ways to really refine a technology is to push it to its extremes and the military is great at this. Much of what we take for granted today either started as a military project or got refined there. Art and culture are no different except that many people don’t understand how they’re useful.
Amazingly, the military does. And the way that the military uses art and culture should show us how dismissing them as a waste of time is lazy and incorrect. Art matters. It’s how we know and demonstrate who we are. It’s how we convert other people to our way of seeing the world. Entertainment matters. It’s how we interact with the world and the easiest way to introduce ourselves to new worlds. It’s a shame that for the military, new worlds have to be approached with a gun in hand, but that, again, is more about the military’s priorities rather than the medium.
One last thing about this exhibition is that it has me rethinking Mike Mandel and Larry Sultan’s Evidence. Many of the photos in Covert Operations are similarly bizarre in the way they show objects and places that exist outside of our understanding—except where in Evidence I found myself making up my own narratives and finding the humor in things, the Covert Operations photos biased me toward looking at the dark side. I have an inkling what they’re about but I’m still scratching the surface and know that there’s a lot more sinister stuff lurking underneath.
The result is that I can’t help but see Evidence now as a more innocent project* and which has made certain tradeoffs in opting for a fictional sequence rather than revealing or critiquing something real.
This isn’t to say that I don’t like humorous work. It’s just that while I understand and enjoy the impulse to poke fun at banal government photographs, I’ve also come to realize that opting for humor—especially the “WTF this is so bizarre” humor of Evidence—is a choice that tends to rule out critiquing what government is actually doing. And so the next time I view Evidence, I’ll keep in mind how the recontextualization gives a free pass to the ways that the baby boomers were pulling up the ladder on the next generation.