Friday, May 25, 2007

Bread and Puppet protests

Bread and Puppet Theater, the landmark political protest theater based in Glover, Vermont, was at the head of a march through Boston’s Roxbury and South End neighborhoods on May 6, protesting a high-security biolab for studying extremely deadly germs that’s under construction at Boston University Medical Center on Albany Street in Roxbury. (It’s right behind Boston's South End arts district.)

Bread and Puppet’s street theater action, performed over and over during the march, consisted of businesspeople led by Santa Claus pulling paper masks over other performers’ faces. Then these folks walked about like stiff-jointed robots, while the businesspeople opened their briefcases to display charts of skyrocketing profits. But the robot people revolted, pulling off their masks, throwing them to the pavement and stomping on them.

Putting it into words it sounds pretty straightforward – people under the spell of big business and Santa (think capitalist greed) come to reject these forces – but on the street it felt strange and nonsensical and not specific to the day’s theme. Bread and Puppet founder Peter Schumann (here playing the straw-masked Santa) has struggled with his metaphors of late.

I don’t mean to overemphasize Bread and Puppet’s role in the event, they were just one part of the group involved (the Globe report put participants at about 150). But there were many Bread and Puppet-style costumes and giant puppets in the march – the “Property of Genzyme” mutant, the big blue person, the giant skeleton. For most part these weren’t directly affiliated Bread and Puppet, though many were operated by Bread and Puppet alums. It was more a sign of the influence Bread and Puppet has had on protest style, particularly in New England, since it formed in New York City in the 1960s.

Oh, this final photo shows local protest organizer Klare Allen of SafetyNet being interviewed before the march began by a television reporter. I just love the expression on the reporter’s face – it was the expression she wore the whole time.

Photos by Greg Cook.

Keiji Haino plays Cameron Jamie’s ‘JO’

Here’s my report on Japanese noise rocker Keiji Haino performing an improvised live score for Cameron Jamie’s film “JO” at MIT’s List Visual Arts Center in Cambridge on May 17.

Here’s my report on and review of the Jamie exhibition, which continues through July 8.

Photos by Mark Linga, MIT List Visual Arts Center.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Update: Curatorial change at BCA?

Laura Donaldson, director of the Boston Center for the Arts’ Mills Gallery, is scheduled to leave the BCA at the start of August.

Here’s my previous post on this.

RISD MFA Thesis Exhibition

The standouts among the 120 masters students featured in the Rhode Island School of Design’s “Annual Graduate Thesis Exhibition” at the Rhode Island Convention Center are Rachelle Beaudoin and Millee Tibbs. As I write in my review:

Beaudoin presents funny-smart snapshots (at top, left and below) showing her wandering local streets and Providence Place mall wearing “Cheer!Shorts” with slogans printed on the butt. You’ve seen ladies wearing shorts with some saucy adjective (“juicy,” “luscious”) on their behinds. Beaudoin pushes this sexual signaling further with her ass poetry: “Pussylicious” and “Totally Waxed.” It’s righteous when she wears pink “Unusually Wet Pussy” shorts while checking out the Victoria’s Secret window.

It’s surreal when she wears them while browsing the refrigerator section of a convenience store. And it’s giggly and uncomfortable when she wears “Cock Sucking Queen” shorts white waiting for Ben & Jerry’s ice cream in front of a mother with two boys. “Cheer!Shorts” evolved from a classroom performance last fall (check out her blog), and it’s better and more charged by moving into public with her disconcerting questions about feminity, feminism, and the differences between our fashions and the way, say, female chimps’ butts turn pink when they’re in the mood for love.

Tibbs Photoshops portraits of herself into snapshots of herself when she was a little girl. In then-and-now pictures, she lays on the floor with other kids in what looks like a classroom, talks on the phone in a kitchen (above “Millee talking to Daddy, 2007”), and poses with a dog. Things get wicked weird and interesting when she reenacts nude pictures. A little kid naked and mugging in a sudsy tub is cute, but a grown woman in the same pose is something else altogether. (At left "Millee lying on her back 1979, 2006.”) Paired, these images speak about girlhood versus womanhood, about childhood sexuality, and about society’s infantilization of womanly sexuality.

“Rhode Island School of Design Annual Graduate Thesis Exhibition,” Rhode Island Convention Center, 1 Sabin St., Providence, May 17 to June 2, 2007.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Curatorial change at Boston Center for the Arts?

Change is coming for visual arts leadership at the Boston Center for the Arts. The nonprofit has begun advertising for a new “visual arts manager” to oversee programming at its Mills Gallery beginning Aug. 13. There have been rumors for a while that gallery director Laura Donaldson would be leaving, but my (admittedly limited) reporting has been unable to get a straight on-the-record answer.

For example, when I asked BCA communications manager Rob Watson yesterday via email when Donaldson’s last day was and what the staffing shift would mean for BCA programming, his response was:
The Visual Arts Manager position is actually a different job from Laura’s position of Mills Gallery Director and reflects a number of shifts that are happening across our programming department – affecting all performing and visual arts programs at the BCA. These shifts will go into effect in the fall, but we’ll be announcing the new structure on May 30. So stay tuned for an update then!
To me, the posting for the visual arts manager sounds a lot like Donaldson’s job but with more words in the official title – but even if it isn’t, a new visual arts manager means new leadership at the BCA.

Donaldson has declined to talk publicly about the matter over the past few months – and didn’t respond to a call and email yesterday. She has been BCA gallery director since 2003 and organized many of the gallery’s exhibits, including “Bruce Bemis: Reciprocal Illumination” in 2005, which was selected as the best show in an alternative space by the New England chapter of the International Association of Art Critics that year. Previously Donaldson spend four years as assistant director of the Montserrat College of Art gallery in Beverly and a year as acting director there.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

ICA windows

One more thing about Justin Davidson’s New Yorker profile of ICA architects Ricardo Scofidio, Elizabeth Diller and Charles Renfro of New York…

The architecture trio had planned to place view-constraining film over the panoramic window facing Boston harbor in the ICA’s Founders Gallery at the end of the fourth floor. This lenticular film would have acted as blinders, allowing you to look directly out, but not side to side. As you walked the length of the gallery, you could take in the panorama one slice at a time, but never all at once. It’s another example of the architects’ desire to control and alienate users of their building.

The idea was nixed when Boston Mayor Tom Menino (according to Davidson) or maybe it was “board members and staffers” (according to the Globe’s Robert Campbell last November) saw the unimpeded view and thought it a shame to chop it up.

But the window-film plan ain’t quite dead, according to The New Yorker. Davidson reports that Scofidio told him: "They'll do one show and then they'll put the film up."

So will the film be up on the ICA windows soon?

“Right now we have no specific plan to install the lenticular film,” ICA Communications Coordinator Brigham Fay tells me, “but we might revisit the issue in the future.”

Monday, May 21, 2007

S&M starchitecture and the ICA

When I panned the new Boston Institute of Contemporary Art building (above) in January, I seemed to be the lone dissenter in a sea of critical raves. But now Philip Nobel has an essay in the May issue of Metropolis magazine (thanks to Geoff Edgers for pointing it out) that makes many of the same criticisms of the ICA that I made, and goes on to argue that gushing critical response to new starchitecture has promoted a cycle of flashy but lousy buildings.

Nobel writes: “Bad buildings by big names get a regular pass. Favorable coverage ensues for the client. Though no connection between high-glamour architects and high-quality buildings is ever demonstrated, the client class learns anew that it pays to gamble on the stars. Other architects retool their practices to get in the game (first stop: drinks with the local critic). Students take note (fledgling critics too…). Mediocrity goes unchecked.”

Nobel runs though a list of possible reasons that critics praise poor architecture (he fails to cite specific examples beyond the ICA). One of his most fascinating suppositions is that journalists get suckered by how buildings look in photographs. He writes of the ICA’s cantilever: “the grand gesture to the sea looks great in pictures, and that serves architects and critics (and their photo editors) alike.” Or maybe it’s just that critics “imagine that promoting innovation—even just the look of innovation—is such a pure good that the defense of all other values must be suspended along with our disbelief?”

Perhaps. But Nobel seems to assume that critics are giving passes to buildings they don’t actually think are great. I think critics honestly like these buildings – they just have poor taste. And this poor taste tends in a certain direction.

What stands out in Justin Davidson’s May 14 New Yorker profile of ICA architects Ricardo Scofidio, Elizabeth Diller and Charles Renfro of New York is their fondness for purposely frustrating gestures that fight and blight their structures’ surroundings. Renfro says their style is like Rem Koolhaas and other “programmists,” meaning, in Davidson’s words, architects who arrive “at a form by assessing a client’s specific needs.”

“”Programmists have a social approach,” Renfro tells Davidson. “They’re saying that life is the interesting part, not the building.” This is a funny-strange bit of double-speak, because it’s the opposite of how they design.

Davidson describes their 1990 plan for the Slow House in the Hamptons, which never got built. The location had a lovely view of the ocean, but “The house’s piece de resistance was a monitor placed directly in front of the window, displaying a live video of the same view. The collector could stand in his living room just before dusk, and gaze at a reproduction of the sunset blocked by the screen. This was both more than a house and less – an irritatingly clever demonstration of the postmodern theory that all seeing is ‘mediated,’ and all views the product of someone exercising control.”

Or as Diller describes their 1987 installation “The withDrawing Room”: “It was about alienation and control of your space.” The problem with Diller Scofidio + Renfro-style architecture is their need to dominate the end user and that their primary tactic is alienation.

The art world – critics included – loves dominating, controlling, alienating stuff – it’s a key factor in much avant-garde art of the past century. Call it S&M style. But what can come across as “challenging” in art is another thing altogether as a permanent edifice. It’s partly a difference of the length and scale of the audience’s engagement with the thing. In a building that will likely stand for a century or more, alienating design becomes a long-term abusive relationship. It’s antisocial and mean – the opposite of what you’d want in a civic building. So why does the style persist? Could it be, as a friend of mine argues, that the popularity of S&M architecture is not just a fluke of taste, but is a display of capitalist force, an expression of project funders’ desire for social domination and control?

The glittering, jagged Rem Koolhaas-designed central public library in Seattle received raves like the ICA when it opened three years ago this Wednesday. In March, Seattle Post-Intelligencer critic Lawrence Cheek revisited the building for a “post-occupancy evaluation.” He continued to praise the “crystal palace”s “stunning skin,” but noted that the building has an “unwieldy and baffling vertical traffic flow” and restrooms are poorly placed.

And then he lowered the boom:
This library, incredibly, is an uncomfortable place to read. The third-level "Living Room," which has the feel of a vast indoor park, is not conducive to intimacy with a book. It harvests and energizes routine noise; conversations from hundreds of feet away coalesce as ambient babble. The vast overhead space, a thrill to library visitors, works against readers – most of us instinctively crave small, private spaces when curling up with a book. And "curling up" here is no fun. The foam seats are decidedly unpleasant and are looking shabby – cracked, torn, stained – after three years.
Critics, like everyone else, get dazzled by sensational design. And they face the problem of trying to divine how a building will function before people are actually using it. If more critics revisited architecture (and art) for Cheek’s sort of retrospective reviews perhaps it would help us all see with clearer eyes and better predict how designs will feel and function once they are built – and maybe even head off some poor designs before they get built.

What will we think of Boston’s ICA three years from now? I still feel strongly about my criticisms of the ICA building, but six months after the opening I find I misunderestimated the importance of the theater, which takes up about a quarter of the building, in the new ICA’s mission. I’m still not hot for how the theater design functions, but its programming – particularly dance shows – seems to be the sharpest, most daring stuff coming out of the ICA. And I’m curious to see how the public exterior spaces play now that it’s finally getting warm enough to use them.

Here’s my previous post on this topic.