“In a culture where derangement and disequilibrium are the constant and inescapable climate of a politics of bewilderment, the militant tactic is not intoxication and excess but to come to our senses and learn to live in the space they open up”
–Thomas A. Clark, from “Imagination”
I return again and again to this line from a poem that in its entirety contains so much to help make existing but unrecognized spaces of life newly visible. It summons the imagination to form the possible, not with naïveté but maturely, with a consistency and resolve that leads to something an artist in our present reality can sustain. Whether it is territory as near as one’s own body, within redefined boundaries of community, or as seemingly distant as the worlds of strangers, Calcagno Cullen, Amanda Curreri, and Lindsey Whittle each traverse and fully claim their space. And then they share it.
Cullen, the co-founder and executive director of Wave Pool, a community art engagement organization in Cincinnati, has temporarily set up shop at the CAC with an installation that has become her working office for one day per week, also designed as a general co-working space open to anyone. In her statement, Cullen says, “The space created for this exhibition is an attempt to make visual my work as a creative organizer, and to claim this sort of fertile administration as my art practice”. The main feature of her installation is Office Working for the Visibility of Organization and Engagement, an enormous table composed of cobbled-together tables and desks that incorporates participatory elements. The surrounding walls are covered with handwritten phrases and line drawings, connected by a web of lines, a kind of mind-mapping diagram/personal sketchbook writ large. An assortment of well-used chairs, typewriters, books, and old-fashioned telephones placed throughout create opportunities for visitors to read, work, meet, or participate by responding to several prompts to interact with the phones or typewriters. One can, for example, use Cullen’s detailed formula, Happiness Calculator posted on the wall (and by a tabulating calculator) to calculate one’s own happiness, leave a message on an answering machine to “tell us about the last time you met someone new”, or select the name of someone from the New York City telephone book and write them a letter. File boxes attached to the wall in Active Archive invite visitors to contribute to or peruse documents being generated and archived over the course of the exhibit, such as visitors’ NYC letters and hand drawn maps of Cincinnati neighborhoods. Prompts direct actions designed to share personal reflections, observations, and thoughts about the community. Visitor responses remain part of the exhibit, visible and audible to other museum patrons, intended by the artist to de-emphasize the museum-object and instead emphasize human engagement.
In Cullen’s work the furniture and technology is old-school, which initially I read as a stylistic nostalgia. But then I recalled the opening up of overlooked spaces, to see that Cullen mines pre-digital-age materials and processes, finding spaces of communication within the modes of antiquated communication technology. Typewriting on paper has a musical sound and is hard to erase; the sound attracts participants and the words remain for others to read. Analogue telephones in So Where Do We Go? and Telephone Heart Audio provide a different sound quality than cell phones, while the cord literally attaches one to a location and symbolically connects both parties in a conversation. In Active Archive, Cullen’s use of newspaper ads to circulate activity prompts enable participation by readers who don’t have access to digital technology. In the invisible, dislocated, relatively immaterial world of contemporary communication, Cullen’s work emphasizes the corporeality, tactility, and time involved in an encounter with another, be it in person, via telephone, letter, or newspaper ad: glitches, clumsiness, vulnerability and all.
The challenge of trying to conduct a personal and meaningful exchange in the context of a museum may be that the community is too broad, or the encounter too fleeting, to result in probing or thoughtful responses to the prompts. For example, in Desiderate, although the typewriters were amusing props, a quick read of the scrolls on display revealed that visitors rarely used them to make profound comments. In Active Archive, the NYC letters that visitors wrote and left in the file cabinet, were a bit more expressive, whether poignant, comical, or just puzzling. Cullen does conduct “co-working with Cal” office hours weekly throughout the exhibit, and these may result in deeper exchanges, as may other on and off-site activities affiliated with the exhibition.
That said, Cullen’s durational works on display in book format, New York City Letters 2008-2015, Per Rimanere Qui, 2012, a photo documentation of Sicilian villagers, and Day by Day, 2016-2017, a record of a year she and prison-inmate Tommy King each conducted daily drawings to help King learn to draw demonstrate the artist’s distinctive approach to relational aesthetic practice, and her abiding and deep social commitment with regard to both individuals and communities. I was struck by one illustration at the entrance to Cullen’s space that seemed to be the seed of all the thoughts: a drawing of a stemmed rose in full bloom held upright not by a vase, but by a graduated cylinder with a small amount of water in it. How much water does this flower need to live, to thrive? It seems a metaphor for Cullen’s work observing, experimenting with and tending relationships.
Curreri literally plants flags in the space she has claimed. In her installation she offers a sanctuary, a place of protection she encloses with “soft architectures”, as she refers to them, composed of assemblages of textiles that take the form of large, suspended flags or banners. The pieces within that space weave together a variety of concerns and references, among them Japanese, feminist and lesbian culture and literature; Italian-American culture and labor practices; and violence against children. In Gestures (Proteggere and Rubare), I Belong to a Closed Group with No Name, and Homo Hime, she embeds imagery of Italian hand gestures meaning to protect and to steal and incorporates specific fabrics and patterns such as recycled flag material, Japanese and American denim, Japanese braid, vintage silks and kimonos.
The flags intersect with the pieces Ropewalk, Over and Over, and Lullabies are for Children, that reference labor history and protection for children from brutality. Ropewalk is a piece in which visitors can braid ropes out of recycled flag nylon, and also participate in an offsite performance with the ropes. A printmaker and textile artist, Curreri infuses her work with traditional and contemporary practices. Her materials and fabrics, along with the processes of preparation, such as screen print, soot/soya printing, rice-paste resist, and community participation to create the ropes are the archive she both draws from and extends. With this installation, she physically and conceptually deconstructs and creates flags, tearing apart prescribed or imposed forms and boundaries to stitch together and intertwine new alliances among social, political, and personal groups.
Whittle has two sites, the soaring first floor entrance and the intimate back corner of the second floor. Both spaces immerse viewers with pattern and bold color, downstairs using window clings and light, and upstairs surrounding viewers with her fabric, paper, and acrylic costumes and sculptures, along with photographs and performance videos.
Because Whittle had to wear uniforms as a schoolgirl, she began exploring and developing her own conventions of dress. In her Wearable Projects: Paper, Tyvek, and Neoprene, she lived her art by wearing a paper or Tyvek object as part of her outfit every day for a year. Her installation shows rotating images from her daily photo documentation, some examples of the paper items she created and wore, and a collaborative video documenting wearable pieces revisited in neoprene. Beyond her body as a location for her art, Whittle has claimed her space as an individual and their agency within the unspoken strictures of society, decorum, taste, and behavior, in order to create the world she wants to see. Her notions of her own agency extend to institutional strictures as well. As she relates in her statement, she had her own performance/wedding in the CAC so she could have a show there, just in case she was never invited. A performance piece, Spikow2, will reenact this wedding reception/performance during the exhibition.
Whittle is a prolific generator and recycler of her own archive. She creates print patterns for new outfits from collaged photo-documentation of previous outfits. Her imagery is derived from original shape languages she has developed, as in her Interlocking Acrylic sculptures, and as a result of organic or spontaneous shape mutations she has embraced within her process of wearing paper and Tyvek. Her clothing and other sculptural works revel in her own particular brand of conjoined chaos, Velcro-ing the awkward next to the riotous, stapled to the structurally dubious, all blanketed with garish colors. She asks that viewers be brave in their own imaginations by considering her ongoing investigations into conventions of form. Especially with regard to her unruly fashion pieces, she makes form so utterly unfamiliar that we can see it anew, in high contrast to both haute couture and everyday attire.
In addition to the three artist’s installations, related performances and events take place on and offsite throughout the duration of the exhibition, and a “zine”-style exhibition artist and curatorial statement accompanies the show, printed by a small press founded by Curreri. Whittle has an accompanying website for the show, and Cullen’s work is integrated within her art organization. All of these elements add up to a fluidity of practice that challenges the idea of art as a fixed product in a fixed context. The art in this exhibition exceeds the objects on display, directing attention toward a transparent, shared process that is temporarily moored in the art institution, but not limited by it. The archive as action is a crucible of transition, reinterpretation, and reinvention that makes space for evolving, collaborative notions of community, truth, boundary, and identity.