WILLIAMSTOWN, MA — After a while it felt like a barrage: a darkly rendered animation set in a psychiatrist’s office and a gigantic space station; a Chinese labor camp investigation enacted by singing puppets; a film featuring a Depression-era Kansan doctor, goat testicles and the world’s most powerful radio transmitter; Greek myths adapted for California cults and unmanned drones; and an awful lot of art involving land development and food.
A bit of context, I suppose, is in order: these projects — among many, many, many others — are examples of the productive use of seed money provided by Creative Capital, the funding organization that approaches the arts in venture capitalist mode.
The way it works is that an artist receives a one-time grant of up to $50,000 for a specific project, and it is up to her or him to develop the concept’s potential. Through the organization, the artist may tap the expertise of arts advisors, business consultants and an ever-growing community of artists and arts professionals.
One of Creative Capital’s methods of building a community is its annual retreat, where new grantees introduce their projects in seven-minute presentations, and prior awardees are given five minutes to offer progress reports. The general idea is to redefine artistic practice from an isolated and often solitary endeavor to a thriving, entrepreneurial engagement with real-world issues and the public at large.
The dozens upon dozens of projects funded by the organization are often, though not entirely, long on social action, research and interdisciplinary practice.
That is not to say they skimp on the emotions or imagination — the most intriguing often arise from an inspired, transformational leap — but many cross so far into activism that their status as art might legitimately be called into question. That is, if that kind of thing matters to you.
I don’t mean to dismiss the distinction between art and non-art. While the idea that the artist decides what is art has been with us for a century, I must cop to a feeling of unease about the broad use of relational aesthetics in the funded projects.
My problem was that it seemed harder to prove that a particular piece, such as a plan to plant fruit trees in an urban neighborhood (by a team calling itself Fallen Fruit), was not art than to convincingly argue that it was. But then I began to wonder if my misgivings had more to do with geography than aesthetics.
The projects are broadly based, coming as much from the West, Midwest and South as from the East Coast and the New York metro area in particular. And it is somewhat jarring to realize that much of what we recognize in New York as relational or social aesthetics is presented more often than not in a museum or gallery setting, and almost always indoors.
We are not acclimated to embarking a shrimp boat to reconnect with the coastline, as Eric Leshinsky and Zach Moser are doing on Galveston Bay, or in reclaiming an urban forest through the creation of a bee sanctuary, as Juan William Chávez is attempting on the site of the notorious Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis.
While some of these projects are more persuasive than others, what we should be questioning is not their presumed overreach but how reflexive we have become in our equation of art and commodity.
In this regard, the Creative Capital retreat, playing out on the campus of Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts, and at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, where the projects are presented, has showcased a number of concepts—some funded by the organization and others that were discussed by way of context — that are making a real difference in terms of civic engagement.
Among the most significant is the work of Laurie Jo Reynolds, who spearheaded the campaign to close Illinois’ inhumane Tamms ‘supermax’ prison, where prisoners were kept in continuous solitary confinement. Another project dealing with the prison system is Gregory Sale’s Sleepover, which addresses issues of convicts reentering society — a difficult proposition under any circumstances, let alone in Maricopa County, Arizona, the stomping ground of the controversial sheriff, Joe Arpaio.
The multidisciplinary artist, composer and cellist Paul Rucker draws parallels between American slavery and the contemporary prison system — a history that includes the evolution of plantations to prisons in places like the infamous Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola — in the installation Recapitulation, which encompasses animation, digital images, sculpture, music and interactive sound and video.
Daniel Eisenberg casts a fascinating light on the other side of labor in The Unstable Object, a series of films that look at the value added to labor when it is specialized, celebrated and visible, as in a Dresden auto factory where customers can watch their cars being built by hand, as opposed to invisible and anonymous.
A complex view of history, economics and racism is offered by LaToya Ruby Frazier’s A Monument for Braddock, a proposed three-story building to be built in Frazier’s hometown of Braddock, Pennsylvania, that will mark the lives of those who continue to persevere there despite the city’s fallen fortunes.
Race is given a curious but tender spin in Akosua Adoma Owusu’s planned feature film, Black Sunshine, about an albino girl caught in the contradictions of Ghanaian culture. Issues of race, gender, personal identity and desire are also explored by Connie Samaras, Kenny Fries, Cam Archer, Carlos Motta, John McManus, Roya Rastegar and Ken Gonzales-Day.
The personal is political in films as disparate as Ken Jacob’s kaleidoscopic Joys of Waiting for the Broadway Bus / A Primer In Sky Socialism; Patty Chang’s The Wandering Lake, which details her journey from Europe through Central Asia to China’s disappearing Aral Sea; Strong Island, a documentary on the violent death of director Yance Ford’s brother; and Synonym, Phillip Andrew Lewis’ account of the now-defunct religious drug treatment program, Synanon, were he was confined when he was 15 years old.
A similar cultural complexity is evident in the novel The Sell Out by Paul Beatty; Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts’ history of African-American literacy, It Is Written: Notes on Literacy, Liberation and Belief; and the choreography of Kyle Abraham. Explorations of a more interior sort are found in performances such as Faye Driscoll’s The Story, Janine Antoni’s Ally, DD Dorvillier’s Extra Shapes and Neal Medlyn’s King, a meditation on Michael Jackson.
Fantasy and science fiction make a strong showing in Christopher Sullivan’s The Orbit of Minor Satellites, the animation mentioned in the first paragraph; Michael Robinson’s pair of post-apocalyptic movies, Circle in the Sand / The Road Through the Wall; the hip-hop installation Beware of the Dandelions by the Detroit collective Complex Movements; Ad Inexplorata, a one-way trip to Mars from Mark Elijah Rosenberg; the multidimensional Make. Believe. by Queen GodIs; and Stacey Steers’ magical handmade collage animation, Random Forces.
I would also include the zany zoetropes of Eric Dyer, whose proposal for a spinning, walk-through image-laden tunnel looks more like a futuristic form of transportation than an updating of an antique method of making pictures move. And science fiction is hiding in our pockets and handbags in Matias Viegener’s project, Black Mirror, in which a working model of a drone aircraft is controlled by an iPhone app.
Given the sheer number of presentations, there is bound to be something for everyone, including those who prefer their art mythic, raw and visceral. Especially interesting is Jesse Bonnell’s Dionysia, which seeks to apply the ancient rituals of Greek tragedy to contemporary contexts, such as underground extremists and California cults, the goal being, in his words, an “unpredictable and dangerous” form of Artaud-inspired theater. Equally intense are The Predator’s Songstress by the Seattle-based Degenerate Art Ensemble and the expressionistic movements and visuals of Korean-born singer/dancer Dohee Lee.
Also concerned with myth, but in a more playful way, are the poet Bernadette Mayer’s Helen of Troy, The Faces That Launched A Thousand Ships and Michelle Ellsworth’s Clytigation: State of Exception, a mashup of Aeschylus, Barbie dolls, video surveillance and unmanned drones, which she presented in a hyperkinetic performance that veered between the hysterically entertaining and the genuinely alarming.
Jace Clayton, an interdisciplinary sound artist, also engages in myth in an offbeat way with a proposed site-specific vocal work (intended for New York’s Wall Street) incorporating Gbadu, a dual-gendered West African god, and the Moirai, the Greek Fates, along with an electronic score that rises and falls in response to direct feeds from the stock market.
Politics and economic hegemony meet head-on in the TEAM’s Primer for a Failed Superpower and the puppet musical Made in China by Wakka Wakka Productions, while Nuts!, a film by Penny Lane (who was quick to note that it’s her real name), offers the uniquely American story of the con man extraordinaire John Romulus Brinkley (1885-1942), whose accomplishments included developing a cure for impotence with transplanted goat testicles and building a million-watt radio transmitter.
The use and abuse of nature is examined in Mondo Bizarro’s Cry You One, a performance in the form of a second-line funeral procession about the rapid wetlands loss in Southeast Louisiana; in the radical ecology of Natalie Jeremijenko’s Urban Infrastructure for Non-Humans: Toward the BRONX OOZ; and in the low-impact bicycle concert tours by cornetist and composer Taylor Ho Bynum.
The ecology of trash is explored in Julia Christensen’s Project Project, in which she transforms e-waste into video projectors, and in Design 99’s Garbage Totem #2, a public assemblage of discarded mattresses in Detroit.
The works about or incorporating food include Norbert Shieh’s Preserves, a film about the production of a Taiwanese pickled mustard green; Miriam Simun’s explorations of “human cheese” made from breast milk; and Elaine Tin Nyo’s unflinching look at the making of the food we eat, from birth to slaughter to dinner plate, in the video, installation and cookbook collectively titled This Little Piggy.
Just around the corner from the auditorium of the Clark Institute, where the presentations are given, there is a special display of paintings from the museum’s collection, including such stunners as Piero della Francesca’s “Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Angels” (c. 1460-1470), recently seen at the Frick Collection in New York, and Ugolino di Nerio’s “Virgin and Child with Saints Francis, Andrew, Paul, Peter, Stephen, and Louis of Toulouse” (c. 1317-1321).
The juxtaposition of these ancient works with pieces such as luciana achugar’s OTRO TEATRO, a large-scale dance involving thirty-five performers, Emily Johnson’s Shore, which is described on the Creative Capital website as “a multi-day performance/installation of dance, volunteerism, feasting and storytelling,” or Mercy Killing Aktion, Quintan Ana Wikswo’s trenchant interdisciplinary investigation into the sites of massacres and other atrocities, is a vivid reminder that art no longer serves religion, but is progressively supplanting it in terms of ritual and sanctity. The strongest works here touch on those basic human needs, either positively or in their inversions, and ultimately draw their sense of community from them.
The Creative Capital retreat continues at Williams College and the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, through July 28.