David Bowie Is Always Evolving

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Posted September 23, 2014

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“Heroes” album cover, 1977
Photo: Masayoshi Sukita
Courtesy of the David Bowie Archive

The Next Day album cover, 2013
Cover design: Jonathan Barnbrook
Courtesy of Sony Music Entertainment Inc.

Peter Margasak is the music writer for the Chicago Reader.

In January of 2013, with virtually no advance publicity, David Bowie released The Next Day, his first album in a decade. Not only was the record unexpected since its creation was kept secret, but following the singer’s serious heart attack and subsequent surgery in 2004, many assumed he’d retired from music altogether. After decades of relentless reinvention—both musically and visually—he appeared burned-out. In fact, the cover art for The Next Day seemed like a metaphoric admission that Bowie had reached the end of the line as feverish groundbreaker; a white square with the title plainly running across its center was dropped over the original artwork for his brilliant 1978 album “Heroes”, a thick black line through the original album title, as if the singer no longer cared about his image now. The answer might be that the music inside, arguably his finest effort in three decades, summons the spirit of experimentation and emotional torpor of his celebrated Berlin phase in the late 1970s, when he worked with producer Brian Eno.

Between his emergence in the late 1960s and the release of his 1980 classic, Scary Monsters, Bowie and his reserve of ideas—musical and visual—appeared inexhaustible; few musicians have ever delivered such potent and peripatetic work in such a concentrated period. He was an artistic sponge, sucking up the sounds, visions, and ideas all around him, and reshaping them in his own image with unparalleled brio and creativity. In this period Bowie was the ultimate chameleon, famously changing his image at breakneck speed—a true fashion icon fully grappling with his next challenge just as the public was coming to terms with his last phase. He was way ahead of the curve in understanding the volatile, variable nature of pop culture. His music changed shape and complexion just as rapidly and vigorously, and without the musical shifts his image transformations wouldn’t have had nearly the same impact. As he told a reporter for Melody Maker in 1977, “generally my policy has been that as soon as a system or process works, it’s out of date. I move on to another area.”

His work bears out that ethos. After several years in which he struggled to find an identity, he struck gold as the 1960s ended with his song “Space Oddity,” a chilling portent of modern alienation inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The tune’s claustrophobic chill was no calculated adaptation of what was happing in London at the time; instead, Bowie forged an expression of solitude set deep within the cosmos. As that track began to earn him a following, Bowie was finding his voice as a songwriter. His 1971 album Hunky Dory, for which he affected a Marlene Dietrich–like pose on the cover, was a pop masterpiece musing on the underground culture of New York containing his indelible classic “Changes,” a piano-driven gem that forecast his mercurial future: “Every time I thought I’d got it made/It seemed the taste was not so sweet/So I turned myself to face me/But I’ve never caught a glimpse.”

Bowie had already established this pattern of quickly moving on, and as Hunky Dory hit record store shelves he was already perfecting his alter ego Ziggy Stardust: the flamboyant, sexually ambiguous, and excessive glam-rock icon. Enlisting the talents of designer Freddie Buretti who crafted wildly colorful, form-fitting quilted uniforms, Bowie and his crack band the Spiders From Mars morphed into alien androgynies, with Bowie’s shaggy blonde mop transforming into an angular, bright orange spiked cut. Adapting the vibrato-heavy croon of British actor and singer Anthony Newly, he reached toward fizzy feminine highs over the metallic rock ‘n’ roll riffery of guitarist Mick Ronson, all of the performances injected with a supreme sense of drama and artifice. On the cover of 1973’s Aladdin Sane, he had morphed fully into an alien, with the iconic lightning bolt makeup bisecting his face and a globule of some otherworldly liquid pooling in one of his shoulder blades. As songs like “Starman,” “Sufragette City,” and “The Jean Genie” helped propel Bowie to stardom, he dismantled the Ziggy persona and his band, announcing his retirement from live performance. In the meantime he produced classic albums by some of his American heroes—Lou Reed and Iggy Pop and the Stooges—and watched one of his songs, “All the Young Dudes,” become a major hit by Mott the Hoople.

Following a palate-cleansing covers album in 1973, Pin-Ups, he made Diamond Dogs, a concept album based on George Orwell’s 1984 with an all-new band—the hyperactive glam sound was transformed into something more restrained but equally hard rocking, producing indelible hits like the title track and “Rebel Rebel.” In the middle of touring the record in the US he embarked on his next transition, fully embracing American R&B, entering Philadelphia’s iconic Sigma Sound with yet another group of musicians, including guitarist Carlos Alomar, a former James Brown sideman, and future soul legend Luther Vandross as a back-up singer. On the cover of 1975’s Young Americans, his image had fully transformed into a suave crooner in high-waisted pants and double-breasted coats, his shock of orange hair now slicked back and blonde. Opening with the slinky, saxophone-soaked title track and closing with “Fame,” Bowie’s first number one hit in the US, the singer had affected his most radical change yet. He carried on with that so-called “plastic soul” sound on Station to Station the following year, but his most adventurous and fertile period arrived next, when he moved to Berlin, and repurposed the sounds of Krautrock groups like Neu! and Kraftwerk and experimented with the cut-up technique of William Burroughs, producing three bona fide classics: Low, “Heroes”, and Lodger. With the help of producer Brian Eno, inventive sound processing warped the feel of the drums and turned electric guitars and keyboards into fluid textures and swirls of color, but ever the master syncretist, Bowie guaranteed gripping results no matter how outward-bound the process.

He returned to New York to make Scary Monsters, his final masterpiece of the decade, where he fully embraced the nascent form of music videos, demonstrated by his memorable clip for “Ashes to Ashes.” He soon retreated from the public eye, emerging three years later in 1983 with Let’s Dance, the funked-up record that asserted his ongoing dominance for another decade. Over the next twenty years Bowie continued to change, absorbing ideas from reggae, electronica, and more, always plugged into evolving sounds around him, and while his image grew less chameleonic than it was during the 1970s, fashion and image remained crucial to his work, part and parcel, just as his engagement with acting on stage (Elephant Man [1980]) and screen (The Man Who Fell to Earth [1976], Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence [1983]). Tastes and trends have never moved faster than today—Bowie anticipated this rapid cultural cycling—but his transformations were never hollow or glib, and that rigor rings truer and more meaningful than ever.

*This post first appeared in MCA Chicago (Fall 2014).

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White Mystery is siblings Miss Alex White and Francis Scott Key, a Chicago-based rock ‘n’ roll duo that is featured in the MCA’s “Covers Bowie” programming for David Bowie Is.

WAM BAM THANK YOU GLAM is a collection of the glitter, punk, and artful songs. We curated the mix to celebrate our September 23, 2014, performance at the Museum of Contemporary Art. The playlist explores vintage glam pioneers such as T-Rex, Zolar X, and Mott the Hoople, as well as contemporary visionaries such as Sam Flax, the Dandy Warhols, and Dirty Fences.

Glam unites music, style, and attitude. Wearing platform shoes and rocking an extreme haircut quickly connects a band to the genre, but it is an anti-establishment punk spirit that transports a glam contender to the glittery finish line. The artists featured in this mix are from many different cities and time periods, but they all share sparks of innovation that blend together to express what glam is about—and also continues to inspire.

You’ll just have to listen for yourself!

In addition to being a rock ‘n’ roll duo, we also DJ the vinyl records that so greatly inspire our work in White Mystery. Visit us online at whitemystery.com

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michelle's reserve shelf

When curators are researching a future exhibition, they often ask the library staff to put some books on reserve. The books a curator puts on reserve may provide some insights about her approach to an exhibition or enhance our understanding of the exhibition.

Today, we checked out Michelle Puetz’s reserve shelf.

Michelle Puetz is the Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow at the MCA. She recently curated the BMO Harris Bank Chicago Works: Lilli Carré exhibition, which featured all new animations, drawings, and ceramic sculptures by the artist. Michelle has been working on various preservation, acquisition, and long-term storage projects related to the museum’s collection of time-based media art, and has been researching sound artist Max Neuhaus’s site specific audio installation in the stairwell of the MCA’s former Ontario Street building. She is currently organizing an exhibition titled Body Doubles, which draws on works from the MCA Collection, so a lot of her research involves old MCA publications. Body Doubles looks at how artists explore identity, gender, and doubling in contemporary art and will focus on artists who depict the human body as a site for transformation.

Pictured from left to right:

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Honoring those who serve on 9/11

Posted September 11, 2014

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Created in May 2010 as a collaboration between National Endowment for the Arts, Blue Star Families, the Department of Defense, and museums across the US, Blue Star Museums is an initiative that offers free admission to active-duty military personnel and their families at participating museums throughout the summer. What began as a collection of 600 participating museums has grown to more than 2,000 museums committed to recognizing and thanking these servicemen and women and providing their families with free activities during their limited time together.

As the fifth year of Blue Star Museums draws to a close, and especially on 9/11, it’s a good time to note again that the MCA is committed to honoring the public servants who put their lives on the line for strangers by providing free admission to all active military, fire, and police personnel and their families not just in the summer months but year round.

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Susan Chun is the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Chief Content Officer.

Today, as you surf the web, you might notice that a number of sites you visit, from Kickstarter, reddit, and Vimeo to our friends at Museums and the Web, will feature a loading symbol—like the one in our header image today. This is because it is Internet Slowdown Day. The symbol serves as a reminder that the Federal Communications Commission (the FCC) is currently considering dramatic changes to internet regulations that would bring an end to “net neutrality,” the principle that all data on the internet should be treated equally by service providers and governments.

Both individuals and organizations around the country seek to raise awareness that without the protections that provide equal access to the splendid network of knowledge that is today’s internet, your experience of, say, reading a blog like this one might be fundamentally different. The new FCC policy could create slow lanes and fast lanes for content, a situation that is likely to privilege resource-rich media companies at the expense of content-rich (but cash-constrained) nonprofits such as the MCA. If you’re a reader of this blog, if you believe, as I do, that a free and open internet has transformed—and enriched—the work that museums and other cultural organizations pursue, then you care about net neutrality.

My career as a museum publisher began in the days before museums were active on the web, so I have seen the audience for museum information grow exponentially. The open internet has allowed museums to develop creative content: online publications, games, podcasts, videos, and more. It has made us publishers of encyclopedic collections that have changed the face of research into art, history, and culture. It has spurred digitization and preservation efforts. It has provided a platform for museums to broadcast the voices of our artists, curators, educators, and visitors to audiences around the globe.

Battle for the Net, a coalition that advocates for the preservation of net neutrality, is delivering comments to Congress, the White House, and the FCC. To add your voice to this important cause, visit their website.

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On Standing in Rooms

By

Posted September 9, 2014

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Installation view, Unbound: Contemporary Art After Frida Kahlo, MCA Chicago
May 3–Oct 5, 2014
Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago

Thomas Harney is a gallery officer at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago as well as a published photographer.

Museum guards spend their time standing in rooms—galleries as they are called—and in doing so, they, myself included, see a lot of things. They see the art always: the pictures on the wall, the sculptures on the floor. They see the patrons looking at both. They see the caretakers, taking care of the art. On occasion, they see the curators whose job it is to interpret the work, make it meaningful in context, and, at times, reinterpret it. And on rare occasions, guards may even see the creators—the artists.

In the act of doing this, the life of a guard may be measured in hours, days, weeks, months, or maybe even, as in this guard’s life, years: 24 to be exact as of June 1, 2014. In that time, many friendships have been made. If one is fortunate—as this guard has been—friendships with various artworks and the people who have put them there are solidified.

Let’s take one instance. It was around 1992 at the Art Institute of Chicago when a young visionary, Associate Curator Madeleine Grynsztejn, created an exhibition titled About Place. Two artists that I remember vividly from the exhibition were Doris Salcedo and Eugenio Dittborn: Dittborn especially with his Airmail envelopes and the artwork inside depicting atrocities in South America. This show was new and provocative, beautiful and exciting.

In 2009, this guard retired from the Art Institute of Chicago, from being a gallery guard, a museum guard. He put all of that behind him. Then . . . “Not so fast,” said Mr. Fate. “One more job for you Mr. Harney.” And so, in June 2011, this guard found himself at the MCA, where again he would interact with artworks, patrons, curators, and artists.

Unbound: Contemporary Art After Frida Kahlo, an exhibition from the MCA curators, is presently on view. And with it some old friends have come back to say hello. There is Doris Salcedo with something different now—her chairs. And there is Eugenio Dittborn with those Airmail envelopes. And there is Madeleine Grynsztejn, breathing life into the MCA, this time not as a curator, but as the museum’s director. A beautiful circle of old friends.

For this guard, the job has become about far more than just guarding. It has become about place, about time, about home.

Not bad for standing in rooms—or as they are called, galleries.

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How to Hang a Fiat on a Wall

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Posted September 4, 2014

Joseph Lim, the summer digital media intern at the MCA, wondered how one might hang a 1974 Fiat onto the museum wall. He took his questions to Christopher Hightower, the museum’s Assistant Registrar for Exhibitions.

Joe Lim: What is Flaga?

Chris Hightower: Flaga is a Fiat 126 produced in Turin, Italy, in 1974, and customized using parts manufactured and fitted in Poland, following a journey of 1290 km from Turin to Cieszyn.

JL: What’s the role you played in the Flaga installation?

CH: I was responsible for shipping the Flaga from Italy to the MCA. I also oversaw the installation of the work in the MCA atrium and condition-checked the work.

JL: What part of the installation took up the most time?

CH: I began working with the lender and our agent on the logistics of shipping this work in early February 2014. Due to its weight of roughly 1,000 pounds and large size, the work was shipped slightly different than other loans. It had to be loaded onto a special flatbed truck in Italy, placed in a large shipping container, and freighted to the MCA via an ocean liner.

JL: How does one mount a Fiat nine feet high on a gallery wall? What kind of planning whet into this?
What were the biggest challenges that you and your team faced?

CH: My colleague, G. R. Smith, the preparator on the exhibition, and I worked together very closely to determine weight and size of the work so he could talk with structural engineers and different rigging companies to determine the best and safest way to install the work. A steel plate had to be installed in the wall to help structurally support the piece during its installation. Placing Flaga in the atrium required collaboration with multiple departments. Choosing to install on a weekday while the museum was open, we were very conscious of the safety of our visitors during the installation.

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Extremely Mello

By

Posted September 2, 2014

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Leftover MCA wall vinyl in storage. Photo: Nathan Keay

Bryce Wilner is a graphic designer at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.

In April of 2014, I walked by the recently closed exhibition BMO Harris Bank Chicago Works: Lilli Carré and was met with the words “Extremely Mello Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. ®” where the show’s wall text used to be. The MCA’s preparators had composed a new message by strategically removing vinyl letters from the old title.

The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, like many museums, displays exhibition titles and texts on the wall using adhesive-backed vinyl. Vinyl text is typically installed in one block to ensure that each line is spaced and leveled as the designer intended. This is not true of the removal method for vinyl graphics. When an exhibition closes, the museum’s preparators uninstall the texts by removing the letters and punctuation one by one.

I believe the impulse to construct sentences or sentence fragments from moveable letterforms is common; rascally passersby rearrange marquee letters and households display loose, magnetic alphabets on their refrigerators. There is power in the act of reordering letters to compose new messages. Many MCA preparators—some of whom are artists themselves—are of this tribe.

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Wall text strategically removed by MCA preparators.

The interest in reordering language and the methods for doing so have precedents in the fine arts. In 1966, the British artist Tom Phillips began drawing, collaging, and painting over the pages of the 1892 novel A Human Document by W. H. Mallock. Inspired by the “cut-ups” (sentences pasted together from disparate sources) of William S. Burroughs and Bryon Gysin, Phillips began to form new sentences in the book by connecting words through the rivers of the preexisting text. From 1966 to 1970, Phillips constructed a loose narrative centered on a character named Toge, whose appearance was only made when Mallock used the words “together” or “altogether” in A Human Document.

Phillips published this “treated Victorian novel” under the name A Humument in 1970. To the conditioned reader, the meandering phrases brought together by his treatment cause the visual artwork to recede. The space around the words grows into an area of rest, and the reader is given a gift: the ability to reimagine the way in which a sentence can be read.

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Pages from the first version of A Humument, 1966–73. © Tom Phillips

Uninstalling an art exhibition is a slow process. Walls are taken down, sculptures are disassembled, and rooms are repainted. The next time you visit the MCA, take note of which galleries are in this intermediate stage. There is a good chance that you will see a wall with words adjusted by an MCA preparator.

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Wall text strategically removed by MCA preparators.

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Wall text strategically removed by MCA preparators.

These thoughts returned to my mind in May of 2014, when I went to Chicago’s Graham Foundation to see the artist Alison Knowles. She gave a reading to accompany her work on view in Everything Loose Will Land, the Graham’s summer show surveying the art and architecture of 1970s Los Angeles. Knowles read an excerpt from her massive computer-generated poem A House of Dust, created with James Tenney on a Siemans 4004 machine in 1967. She then spoke in conversation with the art historian Hannah Higgins about The Identical Lunch, a performance wherein she asked her friends to try her favorite lunch at the time—“a tuna fish sandwich on wheat toast with butter and lettuce, no mayo, and a cup of soup or glass of buttermilk”—and write about their experiences. The humor of The Identical Lunch was not lost on her, and she shared laughs with the audience throughout the reading. The conversation then reached a small lull. Knowles raised both of her arms, hands holding two thumbs up, smiled, and exclaimed to the crowd, “There’s poetry in ordinary things!”

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Word Weekend Wrap-Up

Posted August 28, 2014

Last month we celebrated all forms of words and language during Word Weekend (Jul 26–27). From letterpress printing and a small-publisher book fair, to concerts and choirs, to graffiti murals and workshops, Chicago’s diverse and active literary community took center stage at the MCA. Enjoy some of the highlights from the weekend here.

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Genzken Reading Room 2
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For Tech Tuesday, we asked Anna Chiaretta Lavatelli, the Associate Director of Digital Media at the MCA, to share some details of the work she did to prepare the MCA website for the first day tickets went on sale for David Bowie Is and the wave of intense interest that would go along with it.

Passing out David Bowie Is hand fans from the float of the classic rock radio station WXRT at the June 2014 Chicago Pride Parade, I began to realize the scale of adoration for Bowie. As the crowd grabbed up all the swag and swayed to the song “Under Pressure,” it gave me a glimpse of how much Internet traffic we would need to be ready for on the MCA website for the upcoming show about this rock icon—a lot.

Anticipating this, the web team had upgraded the web server. However in July, when MCA member tickets first went on sale, we felt like the technicians who during the infamous 1974 Diamond Dogs tour left Bowie himself stranded in a cherry picker, dangling awkwardly over the audience after he finished singing “Space Oddity.” There we were reloading the page and watching it get slower and slower and then . . . stop.

The web team sprang into action to bring the site back online. We installed a web server tool called Varnish and saw an immediate improvement in site performance. Varnish serves up web content requests via a cache to reduce the CPU overload caused by many simultaneous users. Getting the site back up and stable was a relief, but it was not a permanent solution. Member traffic was only a fraction of what we could expect once general tickets were on sale. It felt like we were rock concert promoters opening the doors to a massive show, but we only had one small entrance. We needed to get more doors open so that everyone could excitedly but safely rush in at once.

Our next step was to work with Rackspace server support staff, who helped us add what is known as a load balancer to our web and database servers (and also nicknamed me “Major Tom” during the process). This relatively inexpensive add-on distributes requests across many machines when there is a surge in use of a server.

We believed this would properly prepare the website for David Bowie Is, but we needed to be certain. Could we handle the traffic surge that the exhibition would bring? Next up: load testing.

Load testing is the process of putting pressure on a system and measuring the response to the demand, like adding weight to the end of a cable gradually to see when it breaks so that you are able to know how much weight the cable can support.

After calling up colleagues in the field and reading about various load testing companies I settled on working with Load Impact, based out of Sweden. The company creates virtual users (robots!) to visit a website so that you can test out whether your services can handle the crowds.

Load Impact offers a well-designed user interface, including a Chrome extension that records a script as you click through the path you wish to test. You can create a “user scenario” to mirror the way actual people would buy David Bowie Is tickets. I did this, then set up a test in which 2,000 virtual users visited the MCA website.

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Why 2,000? The goal was to calculate the average quantity of concurrent users. The number I came up with was a balance between the practical and the aspirational amount of traffic we expect to receive. I used a formula provided by Load Impact (and corroborated by some additional Googling): “concurrent users = (hourly_visits * visit_duration) / 3,600″ (the 3,600 comes from the number of seconds in an hour).

Staying up late one night to conduct the load test while the MCA website had very few visitors, I knew I could cancel it if the central processing unit on the server got close to maxing out. I started up the test and cued up the monitoring window. On a world map within the Load Impact interface, the target of Chicago (where our hosting lives) appeared, as well as the locations of the robot generating servers I had selected (Chicago, California, Virginia, and London). Once all the locations were on the map, green lines shot out of the Load Impact partner servers like rockets. The width of the lines corresponded to the amount of bandwidth the servers were pulling.

Below the map, an activity graph tracked the number of virtual users and the web page response time. I kept an eye on the graph as the numbers rapidly increased, ready to press the big red abort button above the rocket map.

Meanwhile, we added a New Relic server monitoring agent to the mix to gather more server performance data. This allowed us to monitor the CPU and memory performance of the database and web servers via the New Relic website.

Fortunately, that night nobody had to climb down from the cherry picker due to machine failure! The website passed the test and our upgrades proved to be a success. Yes, the website slowed down a little bit, but 2,000 virtual users visited simultaneously without crashing the servers. Our design team and developer were even able to fix a bit of code that was slowing down our service.

Preparing the MCA website by testing it, we are now able to handle the large audiences keen to get tickets for David Bowie Is. From here, we can continue to expand functionality and access to our digital content. The show can go on and, at least online, no one will get stuck up in the cherry picker.

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