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.
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).
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.
For the past week, much of our collective attention at the museum has been focused on Ferguson, Missouri. From my desk at work, I’ve followed the events as they unfolded live and considered the way that the story and opinions have played out online—especially on Twitter. Since so many people have begun to use Twitter as a newsfeed, I believe it’s utterly inappropriate for a chatty tweet from the museum to appear when highly charged events are happening in real time, and my role as the social media manager is to moderate our messaging appropriately or cut it off entirely when events escalate. Sadly, this responsibility has become a more frequent activity lately, with national tragedies happening in Sandy Hook, Aurora, and Sanford. As I write this, “Black Rage” is a top trending topic on Twitter, a song Lauryn Hill has dedicated to Ferguson with the message “peace in MO.”
As we all struggle for answers that are not there to these tragedies, I find that artworks become objects of emotion, contemplation, and reflection, seen in the songs, poems, and images people are posting to the Web. Some works seem to presage events; others are poignant reminders of how much work we have left to do as citizens and human beings.
I won’t forget curator Julie Rodrigues Widholm pausing next to John Ahearn’s sculpture Raymond and Toby (1989) during a tour of the MCA’s 2012 exhibition, This Will Have Been: Art, Love, and Politics in the 1980s. Commissioned for a South Bronx police station and depicting an African American man wearing a black hoodie and kneeling with his pitbull, the sculpture, according to Widholm, had been perceived as a negative depiction by members of the community, even though the artist had intended the work as a straightforward portrait. The viewers imbued the work with their own insecurities and negative emotions. The circumstances around Trayvon Martin’s shooting, Widholm noted, show that people still project their fears onto others—sometimes with tragic consequences.
— Jonah Weiner (@jonahweiner) July 14, 2013
Another work that I’ve seen regularly posted to Twitter or used as an avatar, is David Hammons’s In the Hood (1993). Over the past two years the artwork has proved both tremendously prescient and poignantly sad, an icon of projected fear and lasting prejudice. Many people on Twitter began spontaneously posting the work along with their thoughts in the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting and trial.
These artworks do not have the answers to the massive societal problems we face; instead they challenge us to face them, to discuss them, and to work to solve them.
Madeleine Grynsztejn, Pritzker Director
Because I spent two weeks in Japan, I mainly focused on its fiction and culture this summer. I loved In Praise of Shadows by Junichiro Tanizaki, as well as The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell. Separately, I eagerly awaited Lorrie Moore’s new book of short stories, Bark, and was not disappointed. I’m picking up A Short Life of Trouble by Marcia Tucker, and also enjoyed the first essay in Men Explain Things to Me, by Rebecca Solnit.
Susan Chun, Chief Content Officer
Leon Forrest, Divine Days
At 1135 pages, Leon Forrest’s epic novel is not summer reading, but a summer’s reading. But what reading! As a recent transplant from the East Coast, I’m enjoying the chance to immerse myself in the gorgeous tapestry of Forrest’s 1960s South Side Chicago and its zany denizens. It’s also the most enjoyable kind of prep for a couple of exciting exhibitions in the MCA’s future, both with roots in Chicago’s African-American communities: The Freedom Principle, an exploration of the experimental movement that intertwined art and jazz that began in the late 1960s, and Kerry James Marshall, a mid-career review of the paintings of the great American master.
Martha Lampland and Susan Leigh Starr, Standards and Their Stories
My light reading this summer is this volume on the ways in which standards are developed. It’s geeky stuff, but fascinating, and—for someone involved with the development and implementation of museum cataloguing standards—it’s particularly interesting to think about the way that standards apply to “real-life” matters (the three-strikes law is a standard!). A book for everyone, really.
Eli Horowitz, Matthew Derby, and Kevin Moffett, The Silent History
In my queue is this print version of a story of a generation of children struck dumb that was originally issued as an iOS app. I followed the story in the original mobile version, and at first glance it seems to translate well across platforms.
Lisa Meyerowitz, Editor in Chief
George Packer, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America
The Unwinding offers haunting, cold-blooded truths about systemic inequalities in the United States today. Packer profiles three ordinary individuals interspersed with shorter profiles of more public personas. An agile storyteller, he skillfully captures the voices and drives of his subjects, including Colin Powell, Newt Gingrich, Elizabeth Warren, Oprah Winfrey, Sam Walton, Alice Waters, and Jay-Z. Together, these stories of Americans both famous and unknown are enlightening and disturbing. They’ll stick with you.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah
I was captivated by this story of Nigerians who migrate between their home country and the United States and Great Britain. The main character, Ifemelu, comes to the US for college and develops a career blogging as a Non-American Black. The blog is a clever device that allows Adichie to comment on race—though some of the sharpest insights in the book are about gender, comparing the particular predicaments of women in Nigeria and the US. The book’s sweeping scope gives vivid portrayal of Ifemelu’s life, from childhood to adulthood, and that of her childhood sweetheart, Obinze. Adichie crafts a moving, universal story of the immigrant’s dual and often contradictory longings for opportunity and for home.
Peter Taub, Director of Performance Programs for MCA Stage
This month I dug into Dave Eggers’s The Circle. I’ve always relished the roller coaster of his writing, and was eager for his satire of the utopian campus of digital empires (think Apple or Google) and their omnivorous appetite to control our desires. Though I felt throughout most of the book that its rose-tinted hue was a bit coy and even superficial, so much of it was hilariously spot-on that I had to keep with it—and by the end I was caught. Like the best science fiction, it’s set it in the improbably close future, so that I carried its distractions and horrors with me once I closed its covers.
I’m now reading a book that, like The Circle, is set in the land of milk and honey. Maybe all our summer reading should be California dreaming. But Louise Aronson’s A History of the Present Illness is entirely different. Its short portraits of people in San Francisco caught by the failures of the healthcare system. Each one is a different kind of detailed gem, or maybe trap, but the surprise is that Aronson is a physician with direct knowledge of this field. Most of the stories are underlined by infuriating situations, and I’m moved by her compassion to come into lives of patients and doctors and families in homes, neighborhoods and institutions.
Bryce Wilner, Designer
Dieter Roelstraete, Iwar von Lücken: Selected Poems (With Annotations)
In 2013 the excellent Roma Publications released a small volume of poems in Dutch and English by the Belgian curator Dieter Roelstraete. Roelstraete’s poems and accompanying annotations offer focused insight into his interest in philosophy, thought patterns, and the nebulous German poet Iwar von Lücken.
Ank Leeuw Marcar, Willem Sandberg: Portrait of an Artist
Willem Sandberg famously worked as both museum director and designer for the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in the 1930s and 40s. Valiz Publications offers the first English translation of this book, largely transcribed from interviews with Sandberg in the 1970s and 80s. The result is an important, casual survey of Sandberg’s life, art, design, and politics.
Andrea Bartosik, Accounts Receivable Accountant
Markus Zusak, I Am the Messenger
When 19 year old Ed Kennedy inadvertently stops a bank robbery and becomes a local celebrity of sorts, her begins receiving cryptic playing cards in the mail with messages he must solve. Choosing to follow what the cards say, he either helps or hurts the people the cards are connected to while learning about himself and searching for the sender in the process.
This is meant as a young adult novel, but I found it didn’t read like one. It is funny, sad, deep, and mysterious. Aside from the “twist” ending, I enjoyed it very much and recommend it if you need a good and fast read.
Markus Zusak, The Book Thief
Set in WWII Germany, 14-year old Liesel Meminger is a foster child living in a small town outside of Munich. After learning to read with the help of her foster father, she begins to steal books to pass the time. She soon finds that these books not only help herself but those around her.
Another young adult novel and recently a movie, I admit I was skeptical about reading this. However, the book is a poignant read yet I found the plot to start off a little slowly. The narrator also adds an unexpected twist that I found to be interesting.
Solomon Northup, Twelve Years a Slave
The memoirs of Solomon Northup, a free black man living in New York who was kidnapped and sold into slavery against his will. This book chronicles Solomon’s memories of living 12 years in Louisiana on several plantations and the people who were involved in his capture and eventual release.
Amanda Abernathy, Visitor Services Coordinator
Mariana Thorne, Seizing Darkness
This was a recommendation from a site called The Fussy Librarian that e-mails me daily recommendations based on my preferences. I have my filters set to smut, vampires, werewolves, romance, erotica and mystery. If it’s deplorable, steamy and fantastical, I’ll read it. Since I go through a couple books per week, I try not to spend more than $2.99 for the kindle downloads, which of course makes finding a decent read that really transports me out of the my daily customer service world tricky. This is Thorne’s debut novel and I never would have guessed. She’s absolutely on par with the likes of Laurell K. Hamilton and Kim Harrison. The main character, Natalya Ignatiev is a kick-ass weretiger special agent that makes putting the book down difficult. I binge-read it all in one long day at the beach. Natalya works to recover her past, fight the big bad nasties, and get nookie all at the same time. It’s the perfect balance of crime-solving action and romancing that’s far enough out of this world to keep my mind off of real-life but also down-to-earth enough to avoid the trashy end of the pool that many bargain urban fantasy books fall in. I can’t wait to escape into the next Fur, Fangs and Fairies novel in November!
Erin Morgenstern, The Night Circus
This book took a step away from my usual smut but it was well worth the read. Set mainly in an ambiguous, old-time London this story is equal parts magic, mystery and love. It is reminiscent of the Columbian Exposition planning chapters from Devil in the White City, but instead of a fair, they are building a mysterious black and white circus that hauntingly travels around the world. It is both beautiful and bittersweet. Morgenstern weaves unique images and creative innovations within the circus. She hops around perspectives and humanizes each character to create a love story that helps carry the story, but isn’t the main focus. It is a tale in which I fear the upcoming film adaptation because I already have such grand visuals in my imagination that will be hard to translate onto the big screen.
The MCA’s education program isn’t limited to the four walls of the institution. In fact, some of our most innovative work is happening in high school art rooms throughout Chicago. Our Partner School Initiative, a three-year program that includes museum visits, dialogue in the galleries and in the classrooms, as well as art making, places teaching artists in Chicago Public School classrooms for contemporary art-based residencies. This year alone, students altered the visual landscape of school hallways, staged protests to improve school nutrition, and produced a professionally-installed exhibition of their work in a Chicago gallery.
Each collaboration is unique: teaching artists and partner teachers meet over multiple planning sessions to codevelop new curricula, drawing out compelling questions and avenues of inquiry to pursue, and designing projects that engage students in timely issues while allowing them to develop their art-making and critical analysis skills. For the 2013–2014 academic year the MCA partnered with Carl Schurz High School and artist Jason Pallas; John. F. Kennedy High School and artist James Jankowiak; and Prosser Career Academy High School and artist Jason Lazarus. We are thrilled to share their voices with you.
The Summer 2014 edition of our MCA Chicago magazine features cover art by illustrator Jesse Harp. Roll over the illustration to reveal and link to some of Jesse’s inspirations.
What did you see? Leave a comment with your find below, there’s still plenty to discover.
Summer of 2011: A friend requested I set up a comics reading during his stay in town. And so, just after finishing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I organized the first Brain Frame. My familiarity with the format was slim, and most of what I’d seen disappointed me. Unless an artist is particularly charismatic, I feel live readings generally detract from the rich personal experience of reading a book or comic to oneself. Instead, I decided, “I’ll ask my most gregarious friends to read their comics in the weirdest ways possible. At least then we will have fun.” One performer lectured on the theological underpinnings of Jim Carrey’s The Mask (1994) as it related to his comic about David Bowie; another squealed over a distortion-heavy cassette track; I read four short comics using props like a cup-string telephone and a bag of ketchup in my underwear. It was more successful than I ever dreamed. The power went out for an hour in the middle of the show but people stuck around, demanding more when it was over. That night was a sweaty affair in a busted apartment gallery. Now, three years later, I’m closing the book with a grand spectacle at the unbelievably stunning Thalia Hall.
The Brain Frame medium—what I like to call “performative comix”—is new and still evolving. At every event, six unique individuals (or groups) interpret their own comics-based work. Often, comic panels are projected as a digital slideshow, accompanied by whatever else the performer(s) deems appropriate: costumes, sound effects, music, props, animation, etc. Brain Frame has seen shadow puppetry, circuit bending, stand-up comedy, live tattooing, and rigorous exercise routines. I could go on. Brain Frame could go on, too, except I don’t think that’s a good idea.
It’s always difficult to explain the show to those who haven’t been. One of the most remarkable things about Brain Frame is the atmosphere: electric uncertainty, open-minded anticipation, mutual support, and a lack of pretension. Over the years, a growing network of multidisciplinary artists have contributed to the show. They value the opportunities for experimentation Brain Frame affords and the growing rigor involved in its execution.
The vitality of Brain Frame is dependent upon its unpredictability. Never one to give myself a break, each subsequent event has been grander in scope of production and content. I’ve noticed a few things in the past year or so: Readers will revert to methods they have seen before (when this happens I push them harder); and people have begun creating artworks specific to Brain Frame. For example, Scott Roberts created an entire comic narrative out of animated gifs. When it came time for him to publish the comic, he had a hell of a time distilling it into 2D printed pages.
As relationships and conversations migrate towards the digital realms, I feel called to bring people out in person. Something like Brain Frame is essential—and successful—because it’s literally impossible to approximate online. The show has become a hub for strange connections of all kinds. This Saturday, in a kind of phoenix-regenerative ritual spectacle, I hope to propagate the Brain Frame ethos and inspire a new generation of performative comix organizers. I’ve been watching the seeds take root already. I can’t wait to see what happens next.
Michelle Puetz: I’ve been thinking a lot about collectivity and collaboration, and the ethos of collectively building and sharing ideas is something that has always struck me in your work, Wu. Can you say a little bit about the process of collaborating on this performance—how it started and how it has evolved?
Wu Tsang: The performance is an ongoing series and also part of a larger film project that I’ve been working on with boychild. It initially evolved out of “playing” around in rehearsals for the film—sometimes we play to get into the character and story—and then we decided to explore it further, to examine and disrupt the roles we inhabit as director and actor.
MP: I saw the installation of the film project, A day in the life of bliss, when I was in Berlin—it’s incredible. What kind of play are you referring to? Do you switch roles (explanatory/active)?
WT: In the beginning I was still working on developing the story and script in Stockholm and I asked boychild to help me to better understand her performance/movement. So we began exploring how her movement could tie into to her character (named Blis) and the story.
boychild: Yeah, play became a useful medium to communicate with each other.
MP: Aah, play has to be one of the most—if not the most—useful way to communicate! boychild, how does the movement in the film and in the performance relate to the story? How did you adapt bodily movements to ideas or plot developments?
bc: First, in these exercises I developed a “vocabulary” of movements that I already use to help Wu understand what each physical articulation means to me. As he developed the character and the script, we worked together to create a series of performances, many like my own boychild performances, and adapted them to the story.
MP: I was struck by the final dance/movement sequence in A day in the life of bliss. How did this evolve?
bc: In the final scene, Blis comes home from the nightclub and has a “victory dance.”Wu describes her as being “in her power.” It’s this state of being where there is full trust in your expression and emotion. It’s this final state of bliss that I seek in my performances.
WT: Yea, the last dance is definitely like the grand finale, after the character has overcome her obstacles of the day. Blis is kind of a classic sci-fi hero. I wanted to use genre to help ground what is otherwise a pretty experimental performance art film. boychild’s movement also inspired the narrative arc, because I had in mind the feeling of the ending, based on her performance, I worked backwards, asking myself, how can I build tension through plot so that this moment really pays off?
MP: Yes, this is so evident in the physicality of the movements and their expansiveness in the space . . . but there was something quite melancholy about it for me as well.
bc: I think there is something very melancholic about victory, coming to the end of something requires self-realization and change.
WT: Something that really inspired me about boychild’s movement, which is one of the reasons I wanted to work with her on this project, is the way that her emotions seem so connected to the movement—like there is this direct connection/expression of feeling that is not based in language. As a director, this is something I am always hoping to achieve with the actors/performers I work with.
MP: Are any of these boychild performances available online?
bc: Most of the performances that are live are only documented on phones! Which is why I’m so excited about this project—I think that Wu has an incredible talent to reproduce the energy and emotion that is an evasive aspect of the live performance.
MP: Yes, the performance in A day in the life of bliss was brutal because it felt so wild and as though it was evolving as it was being recorded. How “scripted” or rehearsed is the movement in that film or in the performance, and how much does it shift and change/base itself in improvisation?
WT: With both this performance and the film, I think it’s equally important to have a script and to allow space for improvisation. The script is meant to guide everyone (including the cinematographer for example) to get on the same page about what’s supposed to be happening at any given moment. This structure gives us more freedom to interpret, each in our different roles.
bc: The rehearsal for those scenes only existed as live performances in clubs and as conversations and the “play” exercises that are now a full performance of its own.
MP: I just started reading Seed to Harvest by Octavia Butler, and as a result have been thinking a lot about past and future worlds, telepathy, networking, and what it means to be human (or rather, what it will mean in the future), which connects to some of the ideas that I’ve been mulling over after seeing A day in the life of bliss. What have you been reading/watching/listening to for inspiration?
WT: Definitely reading a lot of Octavia Butler, China Mieville, William Gibson, Fred Moten, and I’m also inspired by my cowriter Alexandro Segade’s work.
bc: Yeah, we’ve been eating up Octavia Butler.
WT: I’ve been researching a lot on biometrics, face recognition technology, and HRI (human robot interaction).
bc: I’ve been watching a lot of Justin Bieber and pop performances in preparation for the final set of shooting.
WT: Oh yea!
MP: Recent Bieber?
MP: His messy rawness?
bc: His live performance, pop performance. In addition to Lady Gaga a few years back, Beyoncé at the Super Bowl, and Miley’s live tour.
MP: Excellent, thanks you two!
As tickets for David Bowie Is go on sale, we asked MCA Staff for their favorite David Bowie moment, whether in music, on film, or in pop culture.
Anna Chiaretta Lavatelli, Associate Director of Digital Media: “I love that scene in The Man Who Fell to Earth where he’s just surrounded by TVs.” (Anna produces and directs the MCA’s video-based content.)
Abraham Ritchie, Social Media Manager: “Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York was released soon after Kurt Cobain’s death and functioned in many ways like a shared memorial, receiving heavy airtime on radio stations. Though I was young when it was released, I won’t admit how much later it was when I discovered that ‘The Man Who Sold the World’ was, of course, by David Bowie. That discovery sent me into the Bowie universe.”
Kristen Kaniewski, Visitor Services Manager: “In one of the final scenes of the Labyrinth, Sarah is able to break Jareth the Goblin King’s spell through the realization that he has no power over her. David Bowie’s face after she does that is the picture of disappointment.”
Shauna Skalitzky, Web Editor: “I grew up sans Bowie influence. My family road trips involved us singing along to the Beatles, the Who, and Moody Blues (all of my dad’s favorite music). When I think of David Bowie, I think of Zoolander; Bowie cooly ripping off his sunglasses, ‘Let’s Dance’ playing in the background. His ability to show up exactly where he is needed, at exactly the right time, is unparalleled.”
In this excerpted interview on the occasion of his exhibition at the MCA, Jeff Koons: Works 1979–1988 (Jul 1–Aug 28, 1988), Jeff Koons speaks about banality as a tool, consumerism, the cultural mainstream, and the influence of Duchamp.
This seminal 1988 exhibition was the first American survey of Koons’s work, and a few of the artworks featured eventually found their way into the MCA Collection including the ever-popular Rabbit (1986). Twenty years later the MCA revisited his work in the exhibitions Jeff Koons—conceived in close collaboration with the artist—and Everything’s Here: Jeff Koons and His Experience of Chicago, which reflected on Koons’s year spent in Chicago as a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and as an assistant to Ed Paschke.
If you find yourself in New York, check out his most recent retrospective, on view at the Whitney through October 19.