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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!”
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.