Review

Martha Rosler: If You Lived Here Still… Mike Kelley and Michael Smith: A Voyage of Growth and Discovery

e-flux and SculptureCenter
New York, NY and Long Island City, NY
Michelle Grabner

Martha Rosler’s recent project If You Lived Here Still… is an extension of her 1989 Dia undertaking If You Lived Here… The original project was comprised of three exhibitions, several neighborhood forums, and a seminal anthology edited by Brian Wallis and published by Dia in 1991, titled If You Lived Here: The City in Art, Theory, and Social Activism. The 2009 reiteration brings together a vast archive from the first project, negotiating the historical artifacts with twenty more years of ephemera culled by Rosler, who actively collected newspaper clippings, flyers, newsletters, and pamphlets on homelessness printed by various advocacy groups. Palpably, Rosler’s attentiveness to the crisis of American urban housing policies remains sharp. As she unequivocally states in an interview regarding If You Lived Here Still…, “Homelessness and hunger are at record levels in the United States right now. Art can serve as a condenser of complex matters into symbolic narratives, and a catalytic node for discussion and organizing. It allows for the further germination of ideas though themes that remained unmined or require a more contemporary view.”1

Martha Rosler, <em>If You Lived Here Still...</em>, 2009.

Martha Rosler, If You Lived Here Still…, 2009. Installation view, e-flux, New York, New York. Courtesy of the artist and e-flux.

The latest host of this dogged enterprise is the basement of e-flux, an international commercial network that boasts distribu- tion of direct email press releases for “the world’s most important contemporary art exhibitions, publications and symposia” to 50,000 visual art professionals on a daily basis.2 The exhibition space of e-flux’s office in New York’s Lower East Side is neither spacious nor refined. Rosler’s installation appropriately feels like a social archive, with tables featuring collections of documents and artifacts displayed under the protection of Plexiglas. Monitors that bracket the ends of the space loop installation views of the original exhibitions. Two framed documents hang on the brick wall; contemporary notices announcing foreclosure awareness and other housing fact sheets cover the space’s clean white wall in bulletin-board fashion. Eight cardboard boxes of original material are relegated to a back corner, where visitors wearing white gloves can plumb the historical records not on display in the exhibition, under the watchful eyes of an e-flux guard.

Rosler’s primary impetus for her Dia project was to expose the invisibility of homelessness and urban policies that conspire to conceal the socially under- privileged. “A more rigorous definition [of homelessness] would embrace all those who have no private living space, in other words no sphere of privacy, such that they are in a constant state of jeopardy.”3 Since Rosler took it on twenty years ago, the struggle for urban space has not abated. In the current iteration, posters produced by the National Fair Housing Alliance and flyers from the Fair Housing Center of Washtenaw County vie for space with a postcard from Houston’s Project Row House and a press release from the Times-Picayune in New Orleans. The printed matter accumulated in real time and posted en masse on the gallery wall attests to the current crisis.

Martha Rosler, <em>If You Lived Here Still...</em>, 2009.

Martha Rosler, If You Lived Here Still…, 2009. Installation detail, e-flux, New York, New York. Courtesy of the artist and e-flux.

While a replay of If You Lived Here… is timely, what is significant is that the latest site of Rosler’s discourse and advocacy is a commercial networking entity. For the Dia exhibition in 1991, “Rosler had to hijack an institution as an artist playing the role of a freelance curator, …approaches [that] twenty years later are now institutionally legitimized through collaborations between an institutional agent, the curator, and artists.”4 Prior to joining Jay Gorney Modern Art in 1993, Rosler had assiduously avoided the commercial art market, employing grassroots and underground channels to disseminate her work. But by the early 1990s, something had become clear to her: “The alternative art scene was drying up, and…I was losing any platform for my work.”5

By associating her current projects with a for-profit network structure, Rosler has overlaid a set of complicated questions regarding the appropriate platform for her work. Today’s network systems have an affinity to the alternative, classless channels of distribution of her beginnings. However, art historian Lane Relyea warns of the contradictions inherent in networks:

“The horizontal and reciprocal nature of networks is often said to make them inherently democratic and egalitarian; by the same token, their characteristic flexibility and informality, the way networks depend on the constant, relatively independent movement of their participating actors, is taken as evidence of diminished structure and greater agency. Only within such a system can one boast of being both an insider and DIY at the same time. But the extent to which these new conditions continue to facilitate hierarchies of domination should not be forgotten. They accommodate today’s unbound, networked flows of global capital—the networks by which transnational corporations…blithely conduct the business of the world.”6

Martha Rosler, <em>If You Lived Here Still...</em>, 2009.

Martha Rosler, If You Lived Here Still…, 2009. Installation detail, e-flux, New York, New York. Courtesy of the artist and e-flux.

Rosler identifies and engages a network affiliation to redeploy her now “institutionally legitimate practice.” In Nation of Rebels, authors Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter critically espouse the devastating consequences of countercultural ideology. From the standpoint of social justice, they claim that the significant gains in American society over the past 60 years have come from “measured reforms within the system.” Social welfare, the feminist movement, and civil rights have all been effectuated via drawn-out negotiation with established institutions. “They have been achieved through the laborious process of democratic action—through people making arguments, conducting studies, assembling coalitions and legislating change.”7 If You Lived Here Still… demonstrates that Rosler’s project has evolved away from the now ineffectual activist strategies that shaped her past work. Instead, she appears to have shelved the countercultural tactics of underground distribution and hijacking institutions by attaching her dense, archive- based projects to the flexible and real-time medium identified with a commercial network.

While Rosler departs from her early career focus on alternative distribution to utilize the platform of a mainstream commercial venue, Michael Smith’s thirty-year-old character Baby IKKI is pressed into service to critique the weeklong countercultural festival known as Burning Man, which takes place every summer in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. Working with Mike Kelley, Smith makes the exhibition A Voyage of Growth and Discovery at the SculptureCenter an ironic examination of the “radical self-expression” driving countercultural celebration. Smith and Kelley’s observations then satirically fold back in on themselves to critique the contemporary art world.

Mike Kelley and Michael Smith, production still from <em>A Voyage of Growth and Discovery</em>, 2009.

Mike Kelley and Michael Smith, production still from A Voyage of Growth and Discovery, 2009. Image © 2009 Sculpturecenter and the artists. Photo: Malcolm Stewart.

Baby IKKI, with his too-small pacifier, droopy diapers, and baby bonnet, has held up remarkably well over the decades as a pre-cultured, self-indulgent, inquisitive human animal. The hairy, sturdy guy who shuffles stiff-legged around the sandy environment of the desert is the very same man who crawled around the streets of Manhattan in the 1970s, still humorously naïve and cloddishly feigning curiosity. Although both Smith and Kelley relish the abject and corporal aesthetics of childhood, Smith is compelled to enact early ages of human development for different conceptual ends than Kelley. IKKI, originated and performed by Smith, is a toddler with burgeoning motor skills and an attentive observer of social exchange and language use. As a character, IKKI is concerned with the unseemliness of learning and becoming. Kelley’s stuffed animal objects and installations, music, and pimply self-portraits, on the other hand, are art-making strategies developed to explore the conditions of the social psyche of adults through the prism of childhood.

Installed within the cavernous SculptureCenter is a six-channel video depicting a two-and-a-half-hour epic of IKKI’s journey to Burning Man and his eager exploration of the festival’s social and physical terrain. Detailed are his escapades with dangerous objects “on the road” in his mobile home and his many expressions of awe in the presence of elaborately engineered totemic objects erected in the desert landscape. Baby IKKI’s encounters with adults engaging in the same infantile behavior underscore the willful arrested development that drives Burning Man. In the episodic arc of this mesmerizing video, Burning Man is exposed as a compound of counter cultural revelry, comparable to a giant playpen complete with amusing toys and base behaviors.

Mike Kelley and Michael Smith, <em>A Voyage of Growth and Discovery</em>, 2009. Installation view.

Mike Kelley and Michael Smith, A Voyage of Growth and Discovery, 2009. Installation view, Sculpturecenter, Long Island City, New York. Image © 2009 Sculpturecenter and the artists. Photo: Jason Mandella.

Large projection screens are dispersed among a fantastical environment of festival- like playground equipment from which dangle children’s stuffed animals. Dark and disturbingly loud, the space pulses with a synthetic soundtrack from Dance Beats for Baby, produced by Kelley for the project. A 30-foot effigy welded together from scrap metal clumsily represents the Homeric IKKI, its finger pointing skyward. It looms over the geometric jungle gyms as a parodic figure mocking Burning Man’s iconic wooden sculpture, which is set ablaze in a ritualized spectacle. To complete the unseemly carnival aftermath, the SculptureCenter’s courtyard is replete with a line of five portable toilets and an abandoned VW bus.

New York Times art critic Ken Johnson aptly evoked Herbert Marcuse’s theory of “repressive desublimation” in his analysis of A Voyage of Growth and Discovery. Johnson writes that Marcuse’s concept suggests a rerouting of “unruly and rebellious instinctual energies into politically harmless sybaritic indulgence, escapist entertainment and spiritual delusion.”8 Through the trope of Baby IKKI, Smith and Kelley easily pull the rug out from under Burning Man’s “radical self-expression” and alternative festival spirit. Through the lens of Smith and Kelley, Burning Man comes off as a countercultural cliché writ large.

Yet the most compelling critique put forth in A Voyage of Growth and Discovery is not of Burning Man; rather, it circles back around to the contemporary art world. Unsettling are the parallels between Smith’s Baby IKKI and the participants of Burning Man, as well as the similarities between the spectacular objects that rise from the desert and the objects that occupy museums and galleries. Both the contemporary avant-garde and Burning Man share a disingenuous complicity with capitalist consumerism while harboring notions of rebellion. The line that divides the activities and characters chronicled on Artforum.com’s “Scene and Heard” and the annual alternative festival in the desert is a slight one. Smith and Kelley are self-critical, and brazen enough to point it out.

Mike Kelley and Michael Smith, <em>A Voyage of Growth and Discovery</em>, 2009. Installation view.

Mike Kelley and Michael Smith, A Voyage of Growth and Discovery, 2009. Installation view, Sculpturecenter, Long Island City, New York. Image © 2009 Sculpturecenter and the artists. Photo: Jason Mandella.

Several notable parallels run through both Rosler’s and Smith and Kelley’s projects. For example, If You Lived Here Still… and A Voyage of Growth and Discovery each evoke a conceit that was developed decades ago. In widening a past exhibition to further expose the social inequity of homelessness and wielding the enduring trope of Baby IKKI to examine the cultural hypocrisy of Burning Man, the artists are employing strategies that they are known for. Yet most fascinating is that these artists seem to share recognition of Heath and Potter’s thesis:

The Culture cannot be jammed because there is no such thing as ‘the culture’ or ‘the system.’ There is only a hodgepodge of social institutions, most tentatively thrown together, which distributes the benefits and the burdens of social cooperation in ways that sometimes we recognize to be just, but that are usually manifestly inequitable. In a world of this type, countercultural rebellion is not just unhelpful, it is positively counterproductive.9

In the case of Rosler, a once counterculture sage has adapted the commercial network system to parlay her exigent and politically charged critiques, while Kelley and Smith blithely unmask counterculture’s duplicitous claims by infiltrating Burning Man in a droopy diaper.

Michelle Grabner is a writer and artist. She is a professor and chair of the Department of Painting and Drawing at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Together with her husband Brad Killam, she runs The Suburban and The Poor Farm, exhibition spaces in Oak Park, IL, and Waupaca County, WI.

Footnotes

  1. Media Farzin, “Still Here: An Interview with Martha Rosler and Anton Vidokle,” Art in America, September 9, 2009, http://www.artinamericamagazine.com/news-opinion/conversations/2009-09-09/interview-with-martha-rosler-and-anton-vidokle/ (accessed November 20, 2009).
  2. This is not rosler’s first collaboration with e-flux. In 2006, e-flux sponsored the Martha Rosler Library project, featuring her superabundant personal collection of printed material, which includes not just the expected scads of art history texts but also children’s books, photo albums, and maps. A list of Rosler’s 7,500 plus volumes can be accessed online under “Projects” at e-flux.com.
  3. Nina Möntmann, “(Under) Privileged Spaces: On Martha Rosler’s ‘If You Lived Here…’” e-flux Journal #9, Cctober 2009, http://www.e-flux.com/journal/view/89 (accessed November 20, 2009).
  4. Ibid.
  5. Carol Kino, “Glossy Idealism on the Front Lines,” New York Times, September 7, 2008.
  6. Lane Relyea, “Who Needs Criticism? Receptions of Art in the Information Age,” Core: Artists and Critics in Residences (The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 2008), 122.
  7. Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter, Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture (New York: Harper Collins, 2004), 9.
  8. Ken Johnson, “Those are Grown Up Laughs for a Big Baby,” New York Times, September 18, 2009.
  9. Heath and Potter, 8.