Sunday, March 25, 2012

A Little Green Heron in Drop-Time

Several decades ago, I watched a Green Heron hunting in a half-strangled stream --dwindled to a thread at the bottom of a drainage ditch-- mere yards from a major intersection in a large city.

Wherever I had been going forgotten, I tracked that heron as it tracked fish. It knew I was there, but did not fly, so intent was it on its own errand. I crouched down among the reeds and the minor willows, and watched the heron for many minutes...five, ten, more, I did not know. So close I could see the blazing yoke of its eye, the striations of its throat plumage (it must have been an immature), the delicate fronding of the feathers on its back as it leaned forward, coppery green plumes overlapping with the rusty brown.

I have not lived in that city for many years but I visit often and have, on occasion, passed that spot. I always pause and look, hoping to catch another glimpse of a Green Heron there, furtively, professionally about its business. I never have (not there, though elsewhere), but I see always the palest tint of a shadow stalking down the little stream, and I smile and am for one long moment in the past, while simultaneously also in the past-as-I-recreate-it, the present, the present-as-I-imagine-it-for-the-future, the future, and the future-in-which-I-am-remembering-my-recollection-of-the-original-event.

That "then" is Drop-Time.

When that Green Heron walks with studious ferocity through my mind, I am in Drop-Time; that Green Heron leads me to and accompanies me in Drop-Time. A psychopomp perhaps, at the very end...but for now a guide who also escorts me back to the lands of Clock-Time.

What T.S. Eliot describes in "Burnt Norton":

"Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable."

Drop-Time: private time without intermediation, a surprise and an awakening, time hollowed out from the regular river, elongated and linked across the long stretches of the current, directly tied like a bundle of leaves (or feathers) floating and bobbing and dipping in the stream. Time that has a smell and a texture, anchors itself in a place, and is--above all--intimate, that is, not to be confused with the grand public memories constructed and commemorated in monuments, museums, what Pierre Nora dubbed "les lieux de memoire."

Drop-Time is where we go on our search for paradise, and revival, for our lost youth and our hopes for the future, the retrieval of once-dashed aspirations and the restoration of the world's first green.

Drop-Time is what Stefan Zweig seeks to inhabit-- and where he takes us-- as he calls forth life-as-it-was in the cafes of his vanished Vienna. Likewise Gregory von Rezzori looking for the Czernowitz of his birth in The Snows of Yesteryear, Kamau Brathwaite evoking Barbados and Jamaica, Rita Dove on the enchantment of the everyday ("You start out with one thing, end/ up with another, and nothing's/ like it used to be, not even the future"), Seamus Heaney disinterring memories and roped bog-men from Irish earth, Alice Oswald giving voice to the god of the river Dart. Drop-Time is the Breton childhood chiseled by Pierre-Jakez Helias in The Horse of Pride, is integral to the jazz-mystical odyssey poured forth by Nathaniel Mackey in his From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate, is at the core of meaning surrounding the Ephrussi netsuke collection traced by Edmund de Waal in The Hare with Amber Eyes.

There goes my little Green Heron, forever hunting minnows along a tiny brook.

Eliot again, more "Burnt Norton":

"Other echoes
Inhabit the garden. Shall we follow?
Quick, said the bird, find them, find them,
Round the corner. Through the first gate,
Into our first world, shall we follow
The deception of the thrush? Into our first world.
There they were, dignified, invisible,
Moving without pressure, over the dead leaves,
In the autumn heat, through the vibrant air,
And the bird called, in response to
The unheard music hidden in the shrubbery,
And the unseen eyebeam crossed, for the roses
Had the look of flowers that are looked at."

Succumb, succumb to the deception! It yields heaven.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Peering in the Mere of Mimesis

Two quotes struck the lobster and canary this week:

"As museums continue building mobile devices into more exhibits--the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston now offers multmedia tours on 750 rentable iPod Touches--staffers are debating how to incorporate the technology without turning their visitors into what some in the business call 'gallery zombies,' guests who stand inches from a masterpiece while glued to their screens. [//] London-based art collector and art adviser Lauren Prakke says digital gadgets already fill art events. 'Sometimes you think, wow, you've got some of the most incredible art in the world in the room and someone's staring at the telephone,' she says. 'I'm like, "Am I the only one looking at the art?" ' "

---Ellen Gamerman," The Art of the Tablet," The Wall Street Journal, March 9, 2012, pg. D2.

"...curators in this city...need to pay a lot more attention to exhibition design, on- and offline. [//] The performance section of the show [the Whitney Biennial] ... is a sad example. It's left without any sort of livestreaming or video documentation...Surely, if we've learned anything from Marina Abramovic's blockbuster 2010 performance The Artist is Present, it's that more online documentation, not less, draws visitors."

---Paddy Johnson, "Witless Biennial," The L Magazine, March 14-27, 2012, pg. 46.

Puts us in mind of Goethe engaging with Aristotelian aesthetics in "On Truth and Verisimilitude in Works of Art" (published in the first issue of his Propylaen in 1798). Conducting a dialogue within a fictional theater about illusion and the imitation of nature, Goethe pronounces on the value of artful deception and the de-layering of reality. Which matters more: the appearance (Schein) of truth, or truth itself? What is the "thing itself" (die Sache selbst), and how would we know it if we came upon it, as it sleeps, dines, walks and soars within a carved frame or the flicker of pixels? Art imitating nature...

...and imitating itself in auto-mimetic gazings...

...representing a representation...

...imaging images of a truth whose origin may or may not surge from the thing itself?

As Wallace Stevens has it:

"When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles."

Further readings:

Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" (1936).

William Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930).

Stephen Halliwell, The Aesthetics of Mimesis: Ancient Texts and Modern Problems (2002).

Robert Motherwell, "The Modern Painter's World" (1944).

Erwin Panofsky, "The Problem of Style in the Visual Arts" (1915).

Barbara Maria Stafford, Good Looking: Essays on the Virtue of Images (1998).

Wallace Stevens, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" (1917).

Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Founder's Tale: How Arts Entrepreneurs Will Save The Economy

"When I look back at the history of Hauser & Wirth over the past 17 years, I notice a pattern—we have almost always opened our galleries in difficult economic moments...”

-- NYC gallerist Iwan Wirth, quoted in Miriam Kreinin Souccar, "Chelsea Galleries Hold Up During Downturn; Though 25 Galleries Have Shuttered In The Past Year, At Least 10 Have Opened" (Crain's New York Business, May 22, 2009).

Unsung heroes? By nature entrepreneurial, artists-- and the curators, gallery owners, small-press publishers and editors who travel in their van-- have (disproportionately?) propelled the American economy through the Great Recession and its grouchy, spasmodic recovery. As banking, manufacturing and other traditional mainstays have blown up, the arts have adapted quickly and become a hotbed of start-ups and innovative change. In the accelerating shift within American business to individualized design and making, where work crosses disciplinary boundaries and creates wholly new product and service categories at the click of a mouse, the arts are (to paraphrase Marie Ponsot's description of Philip Lopate's poetry) the new economy's "ungovernable alchemic hope."

Here in New York City, the arts drive commerce as much they are driven by it, and they shape the very lay-out of our shared, urban space-- and they are doing so at a greater scale and speed, despite the recession that began in 2008. "Between 2003 and 2005, 94 cultural building projects were completed in the city, according to an Alliance for the Arts study on the economic impact of construction at New York's cultural nonprofits. Now there are more than 400 design, construction and equipment projects in the works at 197 nonprofit cultural organizations..." (Miriam Kreinin Souccar, "Arts Institutions In Midst Of Major Restoration Period," Crain's New York Business, February 13-19, 2012).

Examples abound: the re-openings of the Islamic (November, 2011) and American (January, 2012) arts wings at the Metropolitan, the coming move of the Whitney to the Meatpacking District (broke ground in 2011 for a new 200,000 square foot building), the Park Avenue Armory restoring its 19th-century facades (to be completed this fall) and expanding its programming, the ongoing renovations to El Museo del Barrio, the High Line promenade/outdoor artspace opened on Chelsea's far west side in 2009, the Museum for African Art opening its new 90,000 square-foot building this fall at 110th and Fifth, the Poets House moving in 2009 to its airy new 11,000 square-foot space in Battery Park City...Big Culture never sleeps in the Big Apple.

An even more impressive story is the continuing expansion of Little Culture, thousands of islets in an archipelago spreading throughout all five boroughs (and next door in Hoboken, Jersey City, Yonkers), creating a lushly fervent ecology that is the real secret to the arts' increasingly central position in a modern economy. Thousands of hard-nosed dreamers are starting new festivals, galleries and journals, competitively scrambling to create the new Bauhaus, to emulate and then transcend the workshop of Aldus Manutius or the kharkana of Ustad Mansur, to blend the atelier with the caravanserai.

A handful of examples chosen from among many:

*The Observatory: Founded by Pam Grossman and six colleagues in February 2009 (just a few months after the collapse of Lehman Brothers triggered the downturn!) in Gowanus, Brooklyn-- a deliciously eccentric hybrid exhibition and lecture space, a vision of what future work will look like, presenting (in its own words) "programming inspired by the 18th century notion of 'rational amusement' and is especially interested in topics residing at the interstices of art and science, history and curiosity, magic and nature."

*The Greenlight Bookstore: Rebecca Fittig and Jessica Stockton Bagnulo opened this impressively curated space in Fort Greene, Brooklyn in 2009, into the riptide of the recession--it has become one of the literary hotspots in an intensely literary city, with a readings calendar second to none (disclosure: I am a "community lender" to the Greenlight).

*The Festival of the New Black Imagination: In 2011 Rob Fields founded this groundbreaking event (reminiscent of TED, PopTech and SXSW--Fields has twice been a panelist at the latter)-- a celebration of cross-genre innovation, with a focus on alt music, digital performance and narrative. The 2012 edition is in downtown Brooklyn this September.

*571 Projects: Named after its square footage, 571 (founded in Chelsea in 2009 by Sophie Brechu-West) packs a great aesthetic punch in its small space-- a space where the art interacts with the glories of light coming over the Hudson.

*A Public Space: Brigid Hughes founded APS in Brooklyn in 2006, as "an independent magazine of art and argument, fact and fiction—was founded in 2006 to give voice to the twenty-first century." In just six years APS has become an indispensable part of the cultural landscape--it feels like APS has been with us for decades at least.

*BUREAU: A tiny storefront gallery on Henry Street in the Lower East Side, founded in 2010 by Gabrielle Giattino, BUREAU is a jewelbox of surprises: suitcase poetry, painted bones, sculptures of concrete atop medical walkers.

*Slice Magazine: Maria Gagliano and Celia Johnson founded this Brooklyn-based literary journal in 2007-- its warm-hearted, exuberant approach to the literary life is very welcome--it does "serious" without being pretentious or heavy-handed. The interviews are especially good, on par with those in the Paris Review.

*DODGE Gallery: Kristen Dodge opened on the Lower East Side in 2010, and has garnered strong reviews from the beginning. The space is gorgeous (long ago a sausage factory--such is the power of arts entrepreneurs to recycle the defunct, creating afresh). We are partial to last year's Sheila Gallagher and Lorna Williams shows.

*La Casa Azul: Aurora Anaya-Cerda started her bookstore online three years ago, and opens its physical presence in East Harlem this year.

*BronxArtSpace: In 2009 Linda Cunningham and Mitsuharu Hadeishi opened this in the South Bronx, providing a home for a thoughtful and eclectic mix of visual artists, performers, and educators.

*3rd Ward: The epicenter of the DIY arts & crafts movement, 3rd Ward was founded by Jason Goodman and Jeremy Lovitt on the border of Williamsburg and Bushwick in May, 2006-- and has grown rapidly since (it will soon open a satellite in Philadelphia). A 20,000 square-foot space, 3rd Ward is a teaching site for wood and metal arts, photography and jewelry making (disclosure: my wife teaches a class there).

*The Brooklyn Book Festival: Begun in 2006, the BBF has grown to a four-day extravaganza in downtown Brooklyn, featuring a record 260+ panelists in 2011-- it is already a fixture on the literary circuit.

*Brian Girley, Faith project, album recorded at Mercy Studio in the East Village, and released in summer 2011, with Linda Oh, Gilad Hekselman, Julian Shore, and Ross Pederson: Saxophonist Brian Girley epitomizes the courage of the entrepreneur-- as he notes in the video below, he and his wife left Florida in 2010 for NYC, with three bags and a pair of one-way tickets, no jobs, no apartment, just faith that they would make it. How Girley creates music (as he explains and demonstrates in the video here) is how much work outside of the arts will be conducted in the future--as fluid project-based collaborations, with a leader setting the frame and the goal, and self-directed teammates contributing and creating with and for.

Girley and the other founders/projectors/makers listed above are cousins of the digital technology entrepreneurs who have revived "Silicon Alley" in NYC, which has boomed in the past several years to become one of the country's leading centers for tech start-ups (think Tumblr and Foursquare, for instance):

"New York City had a break out year in 2011, riding a wave of tech enthusiasm to heights it's never seen before. Right now, New York home to one company with a billion dollar valuation — Gilt Groupe — and 28 others with valuations of $100 million or over. Despite a weakening stock market, and deep fundamental problems with the economy, this time next year we expect more billion dollar companies in New York." (Business Insider, October 13, 2011).

(New York Tech Meetup started in late 2004 and today boasts over 22,000 members; its monthly meetings are thronged. Google opened a large site in 2008 in lower Chelsea, just north of the Meatpacking District; Facebook will open a major engineering center in NYC this spring.)

Not two worlds but two (or three or some other number of) continents--flanked and extended by islands, shoals and atolls-- all interconnected by accessible seas. The commercial new media are all about creativity and the arts long since embraced and then took into new directions the possibilities of digital technologies. The arts entrepreneurs (soon we will have to drop the adjective and just acknowledge that "artist" and "entrepreneur" are identical, or at least symbiotic) lead the way into the new economy.

Further reading:

Karen Rosenberg, "Rising and Regrouping on the Lower East Side" (New York Times, April 21, 2011).

Alliance for the Arts

Americans for the Arts

CPANDA--Cultural Policy & The Arts (Princeton University in partnership with the NEA)