radical storytelling – an introduction

My graduate thesis, “Radical Storytelling,” explores alternative forms of contemporary art criticism, specifically examining subjectivity, intimacy, and individual experience as tools for critical practice.

As with art history, close relationships with either the art or the artist are traditionally considered taboo for the critic. It’s a question of proximity: how can one objectively critique something so close to home?

Using an admixture of Gertrude Stein, Hunter S. Thompson, interviews, fiction, and personal narrative, “Radical Storytelling” offers, for the reader’s consideration, criticism that embraces the intimate, the messy, and the subjective. Reflecting upon the shifts in technology, cultural values, art consumption, and arts education, it examines the boundaries and possibilities of memory and identity-based relational criticism within a contemporary framework.

Continue reading


visions of a woman in motion

I hold this truth to be self-evident, that not all art is created equal.

To call something Art places specific value into an object, a space, an experience, and warps perhaps forever the purpose of its existence. It’s heavy, but hey, the institution is itself a burden—and Reader, you are gonna carry that weight.

Art is a loaded word, a very general word, one with no exact synonym and no fixed definition. Like other abstract concepts such as Love (“a profoundly tender, passionate affection for another person”), Truth (“the true or actual state of a matter,” emphasis theirs) or even Reality (“being real, resemblance to what is real”—this definition explains so much of contemporary American politics) (is Reality an abstract concept?), the definition aptly describes, but still falls short, of their collective history and cultural implications.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines “art” as “the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance.” The last bit—“of more than ordinary significance”—resonates most. Art, by definition, could be anything you like, anything you enjoy, anything that matters aesthetically to anyone.

This explanation becomes more true but less and less satisfactory as artists continue to push the boundaries of their craft. With much of modern and contemporary art devoted to exploring its multilayered and complex definitions, the question transforms from “What does matter?” to “What should matter?” Indeed, what should qualify as art? Whether those who argue are involved with its actual production or not, this is something on which everyone seems to have an opinion.

Real Life Example: Tate Liverpool, DLA Piper’s Constellation Series (and side note, one of the highlights of my UK art experiences). I’m face to face with Henri Matisse’s The Inattentive Reader (1919), the titular reader’s matte eyes staring out from the washed out lines of her pastel bedroom, into the living world, my world, and somehow, beyond it.

My boyfriend Sam and Day, his best friend, emerge from the hall, chatting quietly. Day stops behind me, considers the painting, and jokingly says, “Are you kidding? I could have done this.”

Another Real Life Example: Art Institute of Chicago, the Elliott Room (Charter Series). A father and son observe Robert Ryman’s series of white paintings. The boy asks if all the paintings are the same. No, his father explains, they’re all done a little bit differently. The son nods, contemplative. Then he says, “What? This is extremely boring.” He kicks the stanchion and walks out.

I’m including these examples as real life fodder to this paradox. Here we have two artists, their artistic achievements eulogized in two very respected “cathedrals of the institution,” so to speak, and two people who fail to recognize their significance—that is, Matisse and Ryman may be “Art” to some, and just “art” to others.

This is where art becomes problematic; its definition as anything “beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance,” is only half true. While perhaps not qualitatively identifiable, one must recognize that not all art is art that matters—or rather, some work matters more than others. While often difficult to articulate, the public is in tune with this distinction. There is a line between personal significance and significance across a broad cultural spectrum, an institutionalized importance that imbues a white canvas on a wall in the Art Institute of Chicago with more cultural value than a white canvas in a craft supply store. One can argue there is no difference, but to deny that distinction is to turn a blind eye to high art, Western culture, the cult of celebrity and other institutions by which our lives are partially run and within which we operate.

Art criticism then serves, in part, to elucidate these aesthetic standards, to give structure and narrative not to the artwork itself—art communicates in the language of experience—but to its cultural context and significance within the operative non-art world. Not to decide, but to clarify these distinctions, the way historians, journalists, and cultural critics reconstruct events to create, ideally, a series of interconnected events that give both past and present meaning.

But unlike historians, journalists, and cultural critics dealing with the long-range implications of global warming, the Arab Spring, or American Idol, the political and sociopolitical dynamics reflected in the pool of high art are typically less transparent, quantifiable, or predictable. They’re often subtle and indirect; their effects can lack foreseeable immediacy within the grand stream of historical output.

(The visions of a woman in motion are difficult to gauge.)

Woman Descending a Staircase (1965), Gerhard Richter

Yet in effort to order the art world’s tangled dialogue, there’s this desire, as with other forms of historical reporting and recording, to speak through what is quantifiable and objective, and consequently treat personal interpretation and experience (which, we’ve established, transforms an object into art in the first place) as a separate and historically unviable side effect.

In his pamphlet “What Happened to Art Criticism?,” James Elkins, a historian and art critic (in that order) articulates this in a summary of critic Clement Greenberg:

[Greenberg believed] you cannot legitimately want or hope for anything from art except quality. And you cannot lay down conditions for quality. However and wherever it turns up, you have to accept it. You have your prejudices, your leanings and inclinations, but you are under the obligation to recognize them as that and keep them from interfering.

Greenberg makes a strong case. Yet there’s this implied notion of criticism as a “higher calling,” of quality as a quantifiable criterion somehow accessible, somehow real, somehow True. Greenberg’s argument takes this pseudo-spiritualist tinge, as though the critical gaze necessarily exists outside of himself, like how Michelangelo was not bringing to fruition a personal aesthetic ideal in his sculpture but freeing the art from a block of stone.

I don’t think Greenberg would say he successfully removed himself from his criticism so much as he actively tried to keep these two engines—the personal and the critical—separate. And here is the crux of traditional criticism: a belief in ultimate objectivity, inarguable quality and cultural significance. And I get it. Simply put, it’s tidy. It can hold its own in the canon of art history and academia, which too, gravitates towards the sterility of fact.

But I would argue that the personal can be critical, too, messy though it is. I would argue that subjectivity not only informs critical practice but also augments it, that feelings and experiences are more than signal interference, the way we use feelings, experience, and personal narratives to communicate complex ideas everyday.

Tell me, Reader: Is that radical?

Continue reading » becoming gertrude stein
This is part of “Radical Storytelling,” originally submitted to the SAIC Collections on 14 Dec 2013.

becoming gertrude stein

Gertrude Stein was a lot of things. She was a storyteller and an arts writer, and often both at the same time. She was also a critic, at the very least, in her patronage and consumption of art—the way we’re all critics in the way we allow ourselves to be affected by some things in varying degrees and then begin the task of putting it in order, fitting it in somewhere, consciously or unconsciously, in terms of our own existence.

But she wasn’t a critic in the classical sense. She wasn’t preoccupied with translating art and saying in explicit terms “this is good, this works, this speaks to this here’s why.” Rather than word for word, she was more interested in meaning for meaning, sense for sense. She was consciously creating art in response to art, writing poems, fiction, proto-fanfiction (imagined fictions around real people and events). Her criticism doesn’t have that same translative agenda of her forerunners. She wasn’t John Ruskin or Roger Fry, peeling art layer for layer like an onion. Stein’s work was almost cathartic, almost too personal. Sometimes when I read Gertrude Stein, I forget that I’m here, that I exist. Swimming through her stream of consciousness, I unconsciously become the stream.

It’s like: there are butterfly exhibits and butterfly gardens. There are butterflies in both, I mean, but where the traditional notion of criticism offers a unique experience mostly by pinning the butterfly down and naming all its parts, which has definite merits, Stein’s stream-of-consciousness writing attempts to immerse the reader in the world of the butterfly. She’s saying okay, there’s a butterfly inside this garden somewhere but it’s doing its own thing. It’s a manufactured habitat but here you are nonetheless. Maybe you won’t see the butterfly up close, or maybe it’ll flit by and flit away, or maybe you won’t see it at all or you’ll find some other butterfly that’s not the one you were looking for.

But whether you do or you don’t, by which I mean, whether or not her writing is “successful,” if you want to put it in evaluative terms, if you want to say it’s successful because it touches you in a way that resonates with meaning, you’re going to get something out of being there, being among this livingness and aliveness, this “excitingness of pure being” she was trying to capture, and it’s going to be a totally different thing than seeing a butterfly tacked to a wall behind a piece of glass. And she’s there too, and she’s experiencing this thing with you in the writing and you are seeing the world through her eyes and her thoughts with your eyes and your own compounded thoughts, and that interaction is a new art, a “third body” art, the art of living and building a relationship through experience. It’s the imaginary butterflies and the imaginary garden and the real things too, the real you and the real her and the whole world in the past and present, and that’s part of what art is, too.


Continue reading » what are GONZOs, p1
This is part of “Radical Storytelling,” originally submitted to the SAIC Collections on 14 Dec 2013.

what are GONZOs, p1

“[GONZO] is a style of reporting,” Hunter S Thompson once said, “based on William Faulkner’s idea that the best fiction is far more true than journalism. […] My idea was to buy a fat notebook and record the whole thing, as it happened, then send in the notebook for publication – without editing. That way, I felt, the eye and mind of the journalist would be functioning as a camera. The writing would be selective and necessarily interpretive – but once the image was written, the words would be final.”

Thompson wrote this in 1979—eight years after his popularized gonzo manifesto, “Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas,” hit the pages of Rolling Stone Magazine in 1971. Eight years had changed a lot. Thompson was still both the drug-addled patron saint of Gonzo journalism and its one true follower, but Nixon had been impeached, Saigon had fallen, and the haze of the 1960s counterculture had come into sharp relief against the nihilism of the late 1970s.

“Gonzo” lived and died with Thompson—one could say it blew its brains out in 2005, when at 67, the ill-famed journalist put a pistol to his head and pulled the trigger. “As the chief and only true gonzo,” said Newsweek, “[Thompson] wasn’t just a passive observer but played his own freaked-out part as unofficial Tom O’Bedlam to the events he covered.” Without him, the ethos of the style as he conceived it has faded from contemporary journalism, appearing at best as tribute and at worst as mimicry.
“Most of them seem to think it’s easy,” said Thompson’s former editor Alan Rinzer, “that writing gonzo is a license to knock off any silly, intoxicated, first draft prose.”

The style falls in the gray void between journalism and novelization, pulling from each while simultaneously being at odds with both. Gonzo lays hyper-subjectivity over journalistic immediacy, applies fictive techniques to true events, and does it all without taking a step back, like trying to identify the big picture with only a close-up to examine. To do this, Thompson asserts, one needs “the talents of a master journalist, the eye of an artist/photographer, and the heavy balls of an actor.” He further demands physical participation on the part of the writer, likening the task to being a film director who must also write, shoot, and perform his own scripts.

A fervid admirer of novelists F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, Thompson falls into a different category of writer with Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, and other narrative-journalists of the mid 20th century. While the term “New Journalism” has had many incarnations throughout the course of history, this particular movement refers to a shift in certain forms of journalistic commentary, notably the use of literary devices in the reportage of factual events. The bulk of these writers were novelists, and their work was not beat coverage but prominent “features” that allowed for subjectivity and speculative characterization in a way traditional reporting did not. “They had literary ambitions,” said Ronald Weber in a 1976 review of Wolfe’s anthology, The New Journalism. “They wanted to lift the art of modest feature-story journalism to high art.”

In fact, Norman Mailer insisted, despite his prolific involvement with Esquire, Harper’s, and Vanity Fair, that he “has never worked as a journalist and dislikes the profession.”

Continue reading » promises, promises
This is part of “Radical Storytelling,” originally submitted to the SAIC Collections on 14 Dec 2013.

promises, promises

Philip Leider, the editor-in-chief of Artforum from 1962 to 1971, was reading Rolling Stone.  Artforum had by then relocated from California, saturated with high-gloss finish and Plexiglas, to a new position within the more established New York scene. But San Francisco was quaking with activity, the countercultural epicenter as it was, and Leider drew inspiration from the frenetic energy of the art in production there, the “movement,” the spirit of political activism, and the youthful, stylized coverage chronicling it. Taken in by this style of journalistic narrative, he sought—intentionally or not—to expand the horizon on visual art coverage the way Rolling Stone was pushing the boundaries of music journalism.

“I so badly wanted that element,” said Leider in an interview with art historian Thomas Crow, “That quality, that hip, lively quality.”

So in the summer of 1970, traveling with artist Richard Serra, Philip Leider undertook to write perhaps the first work of gonzo art criticism. Published in Artforum‘s September 1970 issue as “How I Spent My Summer Vacation….Or, Art and Politics in Nevada, Berkeley, San Francisco and Utah,” it recounts Leider’s journey to Michael Heizer’s Double Negative earthwork in Moapa Valley, Nevada, travels to Canyon in Berkeley, to San Francisco, and finally to Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty on the north shore of the Great Salt Lake. Emulating the long-form narrative of Rolling Stone journalist Michael Lydon, it flips between conversation, quotation, observation, and internal monologue.

The result is a scattered, diaristic account more concerned with the work’s visceral imprint than initiating a critical examination. Yet Leider nevertheless succeeds in recreating a brief flash of zeitgeist long expired, contextualizing the negative space in which these pieces existed. Doing so preserves not the sight, but the way of seeing, the way a person growing up among the devastation of World War II and the disillusionment of the Vietnam War might respond to the monumentality of a mesa with a man-made trench.

It was the first of its kind for Leider, and the last. Rather than becoming a new manifesto for art criticism, historian Glenn Adamson cites “How I Spent My Summer Vacation” as Leider’s goodbye letter to Artforum. He soon retired in 1971 and moved back west, leaving a question his piece inadvertently posed—is there room for Gonzo in art criticism?—to hang in the air.

As Thomas Crow wrote, in the 50th Anniversary issue of Artforum,  “Gonzo art criticism remains, to this day, an unfulfilled promise.”

Continue reading » what are GONZOs, p2
This is part of “Radical Storytelling,” originally submitted to the SAIC Collections on 14 Dec 2013.

what are GONZOs, p2

Certainly, the transitional state of contemporary art criticism is the subject of much concern but little discussion, one that does not stop at the borders of visual art. The Internet has dropped the proverbial velvet rope, opening the way for a proliferation of opinions presented as “equals” regardless of academic qualification, experience, or expertise. When a critique can be as reductive as a star-review, how does the role of ‘critic as expert’ shift? What happens to art criticism when criticism becomes as easily digestible as a Flintstone vitamin? These are pressing implications to consider, but the question at hand is not “Can Gonzo save art criticism?” so much as can Gonzo open the way for a new form of engaging and critically substantial critique.

Where immersion, participation, and immediacy are Gonzo’s primary components, it throws more traditional notions of criticism on its head: how can the critic see a larger picture from close-up? How can she step back from immediacy? How can he understand the conflux of perspective when he is physically participating on one side?

Utilizing Gonzo as a vehicle for art criticism, one of validity and critical substance, requires both a reevaluation of the critic’s role and, in many cases, compromise on the heavy stylization of Gonzo writing. The art world, though perhaps decadent and depraved, is not the Kentucky Derby. Thompson’s ideal Gonzo does not allow adequate time for the consideration deserved by serious art work, whose theoretical and social implications often do not reveal themselves unless the critic can take a step back—and the critic very often needs to take that step.

But there is, conversely, something powerful to be said about authorial transparency when dealing with subjective media. Where there is perspective, there is subjectivity, and where there is subjectivity, there is a gap, a space for new ideas, contradictions, and knowledge to fit—and the gap is infinite.

There is a component of expertise that masks this space with the pretense of unalterable fact, established theory, history, and other forms of objective truth. Gonzo does not propose to fill the gaps but expose them, to pull back the curtain of all-knowing authority because there is, ultimately, no one right way to look at a work of art, no one right way to feel about it. Expertise can only substantiate personal affectations, not confirm them as truth. This is not meant to negate the notion of the expert, but rather, to challenge its authoritarian concept, to present knowledge as expansive and subject to change.

(The truth changes all the time.)

Gonzo art criticism must walk a fine line, must own its subjectivity without compromising the validity of its opinions, must be both present and omnipresent, must use its expertise to teach, not dictate, to inform, not prove. And perhaps, when done as Thompson envisioned it, by someone masterfully skilled, ballsy, with the eye of an artist, it will allow a new generation of critics, artists, and readers alike, more engaged and better equipped to make their own decisions and discuss them openly, to reach a deeper understanding of art as both a mechanism created by society and history, and something that alters it.

Continue reading » hello again, dear reader (interlude)
This is part of “Radical Storytelling,” originally submitted to the SAIC Collections on 14 Dec 2013.

hello again, dear reader (interlude)

When I call it storytelling, I don’t mean in the fairytale sense. It’s a linguistic trope that brings art criticism into the realm of the familiar, presenting its complexities as a cultural expression that is immediate and intimate, unhitched from its institutional weight.

When I say radical, I mean both definitions of the word, as a drastic alternative from traditional art criticism, that is, the notion of “expert” and objective analysis, but also radical’s second meaning, ‘fundamental’, from the Latin radix, root, as in root of origin. Together, radical storytelling, used as critical practice, could be an alternative method of writing about and critiquing art through the lens of identity, experience and historical context.

If people shy away from or dismiss critical engagement with contemporary art, it might be because they don’t see themselves in relation to it. If there is a disconnect, then there’s real merit in rethinking the way we as practitioners talk about art. This is especially worth consideration given the curricular cutback arts education sees in schools. People need tools to suss out the mess of feelings and experience art evokes, and it’s part of our responsibility to identify and provide those tools.

Continue reading » viva lisa – an interview with sam anderson-ramos
This is part of “Radical Storytelling,” originally submitted to the SAIC Collections on 14 Dec 2013.

viva lisa – an interview with sam anderson-ramos

Sam Anderson-Ramos is a fiction writer with a background in art history, and also a real person. This piece is adapted from a 27 May 2013 interview at The Bourgeoisie Pig in Lakeview, where we both ordered paninis. I specifically told Sam not to let me eat my whole sandwich. He specifically forgot and I ate it all in one go. It was delicious.

“Why this painting?” I ask. “Why does it keep coming up?”

“I’m not sure.” Sam’s eyes are fixed into the flat contours of the Mona Lisa, not so much on it as through it, into something else.

I frown.

In this the fictive reality there are two avatars, not people so much as their thinly cast shadows; a third entity, Mona Lisa, as present here as ever she is within our collective imagination; and a fourth, a wall peeking through a wall.

“Do you feel anything when you see it?” He asks me.

“Not any emotion. Just this…weight.

Our Lady of the Arts, patron of parody and cultural transcendence Lisa de Gioconda watches us both with the same all-seeing gaze she casts on the walls when the room is empty.

“I once had this internship as an interpretive guide,” Sam says. “People would come into the museum and I had to talk to them about the work, get them to explain what they were reacting to, to deepen the experience. You know, get more out of it.”

“What a weird job to have.”

“It was weird, and really intimidating. But you know, most people were into it, depending I guess on the experience they were looking for. I’m drawn to Art History because it deepens my understanding, and that brings me closer to what I’m seeing. But I don’t necessarily want to talk to someone about it.

“At the same time, though,” he says after a pause, “I want to be understood. So do you, and so does everyone. We talk about art because we want to express how we feel; it’s how we build community. And that—that’s what Art History is. A conversation, albeit one that’s lasted for centuries.”

“A conversation that gives the present meaning.”

He nods.

“What do you think about it?” I ask him.

“About what?”

“Mona. No, forget Mona—about Art in general. When you look at a painting, what are you looking for?”

“Something honest.” He grins. “Does that sound like bullshit?”

“I don’t know what bullshit sounds like anymore.”

“I appreciate skill. I look for thoughtfulness—I get into work that looks like the artist really considered what they wanted to do. And I enjoy story. Before the 20th century, painting was much more concerned with story. Stories make me feel things. I want to have a reason to talk about those feelings.”

“Is that why you write?”

“Sure, yes.” He pauses again, reading the empty air as if somewhere between he and Mona Lisa are his thoughts, spelled out in invisible ink. “Writing doesn’t make me special. But it makes me feel special. And the things I want to talk about, these whimsical, philosophical ideas that wouldn’t matter otherwise, exist in this getaway place, a space where I can focus on what’s important to me.

“I write a lot of non-fiction but I keep coming back to fiction. With an essay, there’s a lot of tradition you have to follow if you want to have it taken seriously. There’s educated baggage. Like the wine sommelier. You get an education to pick up all these nuances, but you could just drink it and say what you think. Both are valid.

“Complaining about contemporary art is valid criticism, but when people say they don’t like it because they don’t understand it—it’s the baggage they don’t understand, not the work.”

Sol LeWitt said once that art is a vehicle for the transmission of ideas. Anyone who understands the work of art owns it. We all own the Mona Lisa.

Sam continues, “Essays are built around trying to prove something, about working backwards from experience.”

“To prove what you already know.”

“Yeah. But Fiction is like art; it’s created for the experience, whatever that may be. When there are fewer boundaries, you have more tools to say what you really mean.”

Sol LeWitt also said: when artists make art, they shouldn’t question whether it is permissible to do one thing or another.

“My dad calls me Mona Lisa,” I tell him. “Since I was little.”

He wakes from a trance. “Oh yeah?”

“There’s a word—tocayo—that means, someone with the same name. But as I understand it, there’s some implication of friendliness, of shared destiny. Mona Lisa,” I am looking closely at the painting observing me from some distance, “is my tocayo.”

The polished wood is cool against my back, impossibly cool and smooth and comfortable. “This is a dream, right? Tell me Lady Lisa, what do you think of that?”

Mona Lisa smiles but does not respond.

In the fictive reality, as in dreams, there are no clocks to tick out time; the lines between self and other are blurred. There are only hands and faces. But even reality is a construct you can, with practice, learn to augment.

Continue reading » the bold and the beautiful
This is part of “Radical Storytelling,” originally submitted to the SAIC Collections on 14 Dec 2013.

the bold and the beautiful

Lynne Tillman wrote “21 TV Tales” in 1976 for Barbara Kruger. A fiction writer and cultural critic, she interviewed Kruger, but also produced this work of short fiction in response to the artist’s practice.

Tillman’s short stories read like TV guide synopses, like programs flashing briefly one into the next, a kind of literary channel surfing. Each is terse, bright, and straightforward, alike in spirit to Barbara Kruger’s use of white text on bold red color blocks, paired with unidentifiable tokens of American nostalgia. There’s a feeling of something familiar in both, not unlike Cindy Sherman’s photographs; a catching simulacra, a false parody, the sense that you’ve heard these scenarios before, like urban legends. Tillman’s composites toe the line between fiction and reality.

Not only does Tillman capture the energy and experience of Kruger’s work, she does it without mentioning Kruger within the context of the piece at all. This anonymity allows Tillman’s story to stand alone as a work of art, complimentary to but not dependent upon the initial subject of discourse. In this respect, 21 TV Tales transcends the limits of traditional criticism. It speaks to art rather than for it, evoking those themes within the context of contemporary culture, imitating them, expanding upon them, while existing independent of them.

Continue reading » play dead; real time
This is part of “Radical Storytelling,” originally submitted to the SAIC Collections on 14 Dec 2013.

play dead; real time

Have you ever had a moment where, for no reason at all, you realize that you’re breathing? I remember, as a kid, being completely mystified by this. Then I would look at my leg, and think: kick, leg. And it would, which I found equally mystifying.

You are suddenly conscious of the action. You’re not sure how you know how to do it only that you do. Then something else distracts you and life continues.

There are many aspects of daily life that involve performance. Work performance. Sexual performance. Performance art, which I’ll get to in a minute. But other types too. For instance:

I’m in the Tate Britain, enjoying a sunny day where everyone else in jeans and coats seems to treat it with suspicion. (Turns out it rains here, a lot.) I walk along, lingering here, passing quickly there; I stop in a room dedicated to Basic Design and, on seeing a mobile by Victor Pasmore, catch myself in the act of a “hmm.”

In another room, two life-size elephants dance around each other on two separate, massive screens. Douglas Gordon’s Play Dead; Real Time doesn’t play with ideas so much as it just plays. The dual projections take up the entire space, wall to wall, floor to ceiling, forcing your gaze up, the way you’d look at an actual elephant. On-screen, the camera circles the elephant’s legs as they hold, back up, bend underneath it to lie down, feigning death.

And is that your reflection in the glassy blackness of its eye? No, it can’t be.

I sit on the floor, and in my memory, I’m completely inside the piece. I am feeling the elephant’s “bigness” just as I am inhabiting my own “smallness” – I am all aware but blissfully unaware of a spatial relationship between me and this absent other, this elephant, and the unseen camera crew, too, my invisible other body.

As I am here in the museum, I am time traveling, through feelings, back to 1994. I’m six, waiting to ride Rosy the elephant at the Santa Ana Zoo. I remember her legs the most, four gray tree trunks dusted California dirt brown, shifting restlessly. She takes up so much sky. Mom and I climb the freestanding staircase to the carpeted mats on her back. She rocks smoothly back and forth through the enclosure. Her skin is elbow rough underneath my hands.

A man-and-camera shadow impedes the projection and I’m back in my body, in the museum, on the floor.

Stand, legs, and my body walks out of the exhibition room.

Continue reading » please keep your hands and arms inside the story at all times – an interview with laurel foglia
This is part of “Radical Storytelling,” originally submitted to the SAIC Collections on 14 Dec 2013.

please keep your hands and arms inside the story at all times – an interview with laurel foglia


Laurel Foglia is a performance artist and writer. This is an abridged partial transcript from a 30 May 2013 interview at Reno in Logan Square. Laurel and I spoke for two hours over boozy rootbeer floats with unidentified bits of what we eventually determined to be sarsaparilla.


My mother is a storyteller and she used to put on this festival in the park in our town when I was really little, maybe four or five.

One time, she caught me waving my hands in front of my face while another storyteller was onstage. Afterwards, when she asked me what I was doing, I told her I was trying to get the storyteller out from in front of the story.

Whatever you are conveying with your voice, in your language, to a live audience, the experience happens in that space between when it leaves your mouth and hits the back of their brain. I would love to be able to create that sort of rapture; I have this image, this memory of a feeling, of seeing little children slack-jawed because they’re completely engrossed in whatever the storyteller is saying. I don’t have memory of that particular feeling, because you’re lost in the feeling when you experience it, but I have memory of the moment I become aware that I had it.

In meditation, Samadhi has many different translations, but essentially it’s the point during meditation where you achieve a complete sense of awareness, presence. But as soon as you realize that you’re present and aware, you’re no longer present and aware.

But that moment before you’re aware of meditating is possible to achieve, I think, in a performance that’s particularly captivating.

Where I would like to be in performances right now is just behind that space of the experience. 

When I try to imagine the viewer’s experience, it cultivates empathy. I’m imagining what I see myself doing. I usually first see a piece from the back of a room, and what feeling I’d want to see.

That might be what’s missing from a lot of performance work. You don’t know how to respond to it because the artist may not have considered the aesthetic experience. We have two distinct words that are still only related in concept. The artistic relates to the make or making, the skill of the artist. And the aesthetic refers to the reception of the viewer, the perception of the work. Ideally what should happen for the artist is that he or she embodies both characteristics when they make their work; they should not only pay attention to the artistic effort, but they should be able to think of it, re-receive it, and understand what the experience might be. To see it from the viewer’s point of view.

I think that the art criticism that I would like to hear is not one of evaluation at all; is not one that even says “I like this and this is why” or don’t. But rather, something that’s not evaluative. Instead of praising or critiquing, just talking about experience or knowledge that work allows for. It feels much more productive.

Matthew Goulish always says, “The first piece of evidence that a work is good is that it exists.”

And then if you start from the premise that every work of art you’re looking at is already perfect, then how does that change the way you critique it? If there’s nothing you would change, if you’re not approaching it to make it better, then what do you say about it? Then, what you say would be about your experience with it.

If Art Criticism just talked about, subjectively, that critic’s experience with the work, I wonder how the readers would respond more or approach work differently, and I wonder how artists would approach it differently.

Continue reading » occupied
This is part of “Radical Storytelling,” originally submitted to the SAIC Collections on 14 Dec 2013.