Few artists working today have expanded the conceptual parameters of photography as much as Chicago-based Kenneth Josephson. Born in 1932 in Detroit, Josephson first gained notoriety in the early 1960s for what became his signature style: playfully challenging established photographic codes, particularly the ardent belief in the veracity of the camera’s eye and its ability to document the world around us with “scientific” rigor. More often than not, the subject of his photographs is the medium itself, and his role within its process of creation.
Josephson’s conceptual approach to photography has persisted throughout his career, and he continues to explore the relationships between authorship, photographic processes, and the production of meaning. MCA Curator Lynne Warren organized Josephson’s first major museum retrospective at the MCA in 1983, and commented in her catalogue essay that, in Josephson’s work, “The photograph is revealed to be a photograph.” If this type of self-reflexivity seems commonplace today, it is very much the result of Josephson’s artistic legacy and his influence on the many generations of artists who passed under his tutelage—he taught at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago for more than 35 years, among many other notable colleges and universities.
This longstanding interest shaped the suite of four photographs that entered the MCA Collection in January 2014, which herald from the 1970s and early 1980s—a time when Josephson actively questioned the sanctity of the picture frame, often through his own physical interventions (as is the case with Chicago, 1980). The photographs in this group reveal different strategies the artist employed to interrogate the medium, expanding the conversation among Josephson’s works already a part of the collection—which now include eight photographs and one collage—and within the museum’s significant holdings of conceptual photography.
The MCA’s recent Josephson acquisition reflects its commitment to collecting works by important Chicago-based artists—and by artists with whom it has a meaningful history. (Josephson has exhibited at the MCA many times.) This acquisition also recognizes the artist’s role as a catalyst for developments in the field: at the core of Josephson’s work is a critical understanding of photography’s paradoxical nature—as both document and creative act.
This post first appeared in MCA Chicago (Summer 2014).
It is my last week as a design intern at the MCA. For the past few months I have been working on a variety of projects—exhibition labels, wayfinding signage, exhibition ads, programs, all that good stuff. The majority of the design work is done on the computer so I began drawing on Post-its as a break for both my eyes and mind. I put a few of the drawings on the blank wall above my desk to personalize my space. Eventually the Post-its added up and people started asking me about the drawings. I didn’t think people would look at them because they are tiny drawings on 3 x 3 in. Post-its. I decided to develop these doodles because people were enjoying what I made. I didn’t consider this a project, but now I do and have decided to develop it. So far I’ve made a few animated GIFS out of some of these drawings. My next move for this project will take place on the museum’s Risograph printer, my favorite perk of this internship. I don’t want to give away too much, but prepare to see color.
Michael Green: Can you let us know a few of the Bowie songs you’ve selected to cover for your performance?
Jeremy Jacobsen: Much of Low and also much of Let’s Dance, some other things as well.
MG: Why these particular songs?
JJ: Well, Let’s Dance is so familiar and my versions are super mutated from the original. I can let my style coast over the well-known songs. Also the tunes on both of these records are slightly simpler . . . a benefit to performing them as a one-man band, which you might guess is most challenging.
MG: Are there specific Bowie periods you are most drawn to?
JJ: Yes. The 1980s, Scary Monsters, Low, etc. But I love it all.
MG: Has Bowie influenced your own work in any way? Either as a musician or performer?
JJ: Yes, totally. I was listening to Low daily as I first began doing the Lonesome Organist back in 1996. I’m pretty sure no music on that record crept into my tunes but I am also sure that my idea of persona was solidified by Bowie’s many manifestations. I had hoped that the Organist would prove more malleable in terms of persona but at least my music achieves a certain variety.
MG: You played the 2002 Meltdown Festival that Bowie curated at the Royal Festival Hall in London. What was that experience like? Did you meet Bowie?
JJ: Bowie was having a baby at the time, so no, unfortunately for me I did not get the chance to meet him. It was just a gas to get called on to do it though.
MG: Were you surprised to get the call to participate in Meltdown? Were you aware that Bowie was a fan of your work?
JJ: I was totally surprised by the whole thing and was blown away that Bowie had heard something as low profile as my releases. It’s a credit to him that he is actively looking and listening for new music.
Each year, artists, organizations, and institutions collaborate on projects for Day Without Art. This year, Visual AIDS commissioned a series of videos from artists under the title and idea ALTERNATE ENDINGS. According to Visual AIDS, “ALTERNATE ENDINGS highlights the diverse voices of seven artists that use video to bring together charged moments and memories from their personal perspective amidst the public history of HIV/AIDS. . . . They share tales of love and breakups, sing songs of defiance, celebrate action, and remember those whom we have lost. Through these diverse stories we are invited to reflect upon our complex past as we envision divergent narratives and possibilities for the future, because AIDS IS NOT OVER.” On December 1, the MCA joined Visual AIDS and other artists and organizations around the world, participating in Day Without Art by virtually blacking out our website (in the past museums have hung black cloth over artworks or removed certain pieces entirely) through a roll-over screen, which blacked out our homepage and directed people view ALTERNATE ENDINGS.
Today we share these videos again and give them a permanent home on MCA DNA. Although Day Without Art 2014 has passed, the struggle against AIDS, prejudice, and fear continues all year.
One of the things that has been such a joy about working both as a curator and on a number of research-based and archival projects during my Mellon Fellowship has been finding materials like this one, an interview with Lorna Simpson in 1993 on the occasion of her exhibition at the MCA, Lorna Simpson: For the Sake of the Viewer (Nov 21, 1992–Mar 14, 1994). While this is just a short excerpt of a much longer video, Simpson sharply articulates some of the major questions posed in her work—in particular the complexities she faces trying to explore black female identity without making sweeping generalizations based on race, gender, class, or sexuality.
Simpson is reflecting on works like 1991’s Flipside, which is a part of the MCA’s permanent collection and currently on view in Body Doubles, that combine fragmented body parts (which she refers to as “dissections”) with text. She explains that these juxtapositions are one of the ways she attempts to avoid objectification and humanize her work.
As I’ll discuss this evening in the public tour, Lorna Simpson is heavily represented in Body Doubles for a variety of reasons. I included Flipside as well as two newer and related works: the photographic series Summer ’57/Summer ’09 (2009) and a large-scale, three-channel video installation, Chess (2012) that emerged from the ’57/’09 series. Simpson was one of the first female artists I felt a strong connection to, in large part because of her complex exploration of the stereotypes embedded in race and gender. Her more recent works, in which she uses her own body as a subject and performative tool, speak to the themes I’m interested in exploring in Body Doubles—specifically the variety of ways that artists have used the body to question the relationship of gender and sexuality to identity.
bell hooks (another extremely inspirational force in my life) put it best, stating that Simpson “wants us all to look again, to see what has never been seen, to bear witness. . . . Against [a] backdrop of fixed colonizing images, Simpson constructs a world of black female bodies that resist and revolt, that intervene and transform, that rescue and recover.”
Mushroom Thyme Gravy
Adapted from Food52
⅓ cup dried mushrooms
2 cups vegetable stock
3 tablespoons butter
1½ tablespoons shallot, minced
3 tablespoons flour
3 tablespoons soy sauce
½ cup cream
1 tablespoon sherry
1 tablespoon fresh thyme, minced
Salt & pepper
Bring vegetable stock to a boil. In a small bowl, pour the stock over the mushrooms. Let soak for 20 minutes.
Remove the mushrooms from the bowl, setting the stock aside. Thinly slice the mushrooms.
In a medium saucepan, melt the butter. Add the shallot and sauté over medium heat for 5 minutes until softened. Add the flour to the butter-shallot mixture, stirring constantly. Cook for 2 minutes.
Gradually add 1½ cups of the reserved stock (leaving the mushroom sediment out), stirring well to incorporate. Cook over medium heat until thickened.
Add the sliced mushrooms, soy sauce, cream, sherry, and thyme to the gravy. Cook for a few more minutes until heated through and thickened to desired consistency.
Season to taste with salt and pepper.
1 pound fresh cranberries
2 cups sugar
1 pkg cherry Jello (0.3 oz)
½ cup chopped walnuts or pecans
½ cup chopped fine celery
1 can crushed pineapple (20 oz), drained
1 cup hot water (not boiling)
Grind or crush fresh berries with food processor, or my preference, I run them through a meat grinder. In a large bowl add sugar to crushed cranberries.
In a separate, smaller bowl, mix hot water and cherry Jello until dissolved.
Add Jello to cranberry-sugar mixture. Stir in pineapple, nuts, and celery.
Refrigerate (preferably in serving bowl) overnight.
1 small onion (sweeter is better in this case)
1 small head of cauliflower
1tbs olive oil (other veg oils will do just fine)
¼ to ½ cup stock (veg or chicken would be best)
Butter (salted, unsalted, veg spread . . . all will work)
Salt & pepper
Break down the cauliflower from the underside. Remove the large trunks first and cut them in halves. Once the branches are too small to divide split into parts roughly the size of the larger halves.
Chop one small onion, a ¼ inch chop is good. Heat a medium size cast iron or frying pan to medium high. Add olive oil and then onion. Stir frequently enough to avoid browning or sticking. Once the onion has a milky appearance, not quite transparent, add the cauliflower and turn the head down to medium, medium low-ish. The goal is to pan roast these slowly to develop caramelization. After you start to see some browning add a little stock at a time and let the cauliflower drink it up.
Once the cauliflower is cooked through and browned a bit, transfer to a food processor or blender. Add 1 tbs of butter/veg spread and puree the mess out of it. Add more butter or stock to reach the desired texture. Salt and pepper to taste.
Curry powder and peas add a lovely color
Alice’s Pecan Tarts
3 oz cream cheese
½ cup butter
1 cup flour
¾ cup light brown sugar
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
⅔ cup chopped pecans
24 pecan halves
Blend together pastry ingredients into dough. Form into log and cut into 24 pieces and shape into tarts in mini muffin tins.
Beat together batter ingredients and mix in the chopped nuts. Pour batter evenly onto unbaked pastry. Top with pecan halves.
Bake for 25 minutes in a 325°F oven.
Jerk Eye Gravy
1 tbs fats (vegetable based spreads, butter, drippings or lard all work well)
1 tbs flour
1 tbs stock
2 tbs of milk (coconut milk is really nice I think)
½ tsp (or more to taste Jerk Sauce (my knowledge of jerk sauce is not extensive by any means. Currently I’m using Uncle Joe’s, a local producer, but feel free to experiment.)
1 tsp coffee (the addition of coffee is probably not necessary, I like it. Consider it an option. Chicory may also be nice although I haven’t tried it.)
Step 1) Make these biscuits or cheat and buy a premade tube. You can substitute 1 tsp of apple cider vinegar or lemon juice per cup to nondairy milk to make a vegan buttermilk substitute.
Step 2) Make a gravy
In a cast iron or frying pan with a tall lip, heat and/or break down the fats at a medium high heat. Add all of the flour at once and whisk vigorously When mixture thins and starts to bubble, reduce heat to low, and cut back on the whisking. Cook until a warm toasty aroma develops. Add stock and milk 1 tbs at a time until mixed. Add Jerk Sauce, coffee, and salt and pepper to taste.
I am wondering what it means to collect.
I meditate upon the tender memento mori of the photographer Anne Collier, who photographs her collections of books of photography, self-help tapes, and other lost and melancholic objects.
“To collect photographs is to collect the world,” Susan Sontag writes in her essay “On Photography.” A photograph in a book too, she notes, is an object to be collected.
Can you collect, I wonder, people too?
Anne Collier’s image of Marilyn Monroe from Bert Stern’s The Last Sitting, from her Woman With A Camera series (the name teasing in its anonymity). Marilyn, in a moment of playfulness, poses wearing black evening gloves and holding a Nikon camera suspended over her mouth. Looking away, her eyes crinkle in a smile. The camera obscures but does not mask what we are really looking at—the mythic face. What the camera performs here is a form of peekaboo, like the fan dance with the striped diaphanous scarf in those other Stern images, a clichéd and expected pose from a specific time period, as the title, gently wry, suggests. The camera isn’t active, posed like it’s actually looking back, taking pictures back at the photographer capturing her. As if to show the joke—she is the beautiful image here, this is not her point of view.
So who is the Woman with a Camera? The Woman with a Camera is Anne Collier. Her gaze is obsessive, sad, sensitive, droll. She’s not just looking, she’s looking at how others have looked (men, fellow photographers, all of us)—an affectionate and ironic distance, yet also with the intimacy of a collector, perhaps even a fan.
To look at this image of Marilyn Monroe is to mentally page through the rest of the book, with its somewhat morbid name—the fragility and pathos of those images—and then to linger on the biography, on Marilyn’s deep unhappiness and struggle, which she would ultimately not survive. How this photo shoot, commissioned by Vogue in 1962, was part of a major publicity effort after she was fired from 20th Century Fox, a year after being institutionalized at the Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic. Six weeks after she posed for these photographs, taken during three boozy days in the Hotel Bel-Air, she would be dead of an overdose of barbiturates. The heaviness of all of this, the tragedy behind closed doors, seeps into these photographs, giving them the weight of a historical memory. Memento mori, from the Latin for: “remember you will die.”
And yet she performed such vitality. “You’re beautiful!” Bert Stern remembers saying to Marilyn upon first meeting her. “What a nice thing to say,” she replied, always rehearsed for the public. Upon seeing only accessories laid out on the bed, she quickly grasped his idea for the shoot, a series of nudes (not very high-concept). She was worried, initially, about revealing a surgical scar on her stomach, but after consulting with her companion/hairdresser, she went for it. Champagne. Flirting. She became Marilyn (a movement she could do, how she could disappear into a crowd, or be a lonely woman on a bridge, how aware she was of performing the persona). She transformed—for the camera—into the sex symbol. “Not bad for thirty-six,” she said, or something to this effect, as she emerged from the bathroom in one of the sheer scarves.
There is no real intimacy to the nude, yet Bert Stern captured something in these photographs, something, perhaps naked, unable to be replicated. He tried to replicate them, exactly, a few years ago, with tabloid star Lindsay Lohan, and although she possessed the tortured life, she noticeably lacked Marilyn’s talent for vulnerability, her expressive and haunting face. Performances cannot be repeated—not exactly.
The red Xs of the contact sheets that Bert Stern published in the book, where Marilyn crossed out the images she disliked (are these ones showing this wounded vulnerability, where the mask drops or is askew, where she reveals such loneliness and longing?) The red X. The gesture that performs her disappearance, that looks like a cross, her cross. The cover of The Last Sitting is exactly this—Marilyn crossed out, Marilyn already a ghost, Marilyn with her mouth open as if trying to say something.
Sontag: “Photographs state the innocence, the vulnerability of lives heading towards their own destruction, and this link between photograph and death haunts all photographs of people.”
The camera is objective. And yet one desires to be inside, to enter a subjectivity hinted at in fragments. What does it mean to imagine another’s life, the impossibility of accessing their perspective? What does it mean to never escape one’s image or mythic status, while still struggling with personhood?
For Sontag, a photograph was also a fragment. This essay composed of fragments. And by that, I mean photographs.
Fragment: Marilyn reading James Joyce’s Ulysses outdoors wearing a striped bathing suit. She often insisted on being photographed with a book (a desire to direct her publicity, perhaps, away from the image of the dumb blonde). This reminds me of the press photo of a young Louise Brooks on set, shiny in black and white, reading Kierkegaard.
Some English professor once called a method of skipping around while reading Ulysses “The Marilyn Monroe method,” as she had confessed to not finishing it, and mostly enjoying Molly Bloom’s monologue. The Marilyn Monroe method: I employ it too. I skip around. I flip. I drift.
The MCA Design, Publishing, and New Media department enjoys any excuse to collaborate with outside artists and illustrators we admire. During our planning for the David Bowie Is exhibition, we were curious to know which phase of Bowie’s ever-changing career had been influential to others. We approached a few artists and asked them to contribute. Subject-wise, we left it open to their interpretation. We simply wanted the illustrations to be reflective of the energy captured by the exhibition. These illustrations would take the form of tattoos—an homage to Bowie’s own, ever-changing body art. Below are the final tattoos, as well as a few outtakes, in action.
Illustration and gif by Cari Vander Yacht
Illustration by Derek Erdman
Illustration by Michael Worful
I start everything with an image to keep me on track. It’s also the way I think, in images. I decided on the image of a space traveler. One common thread among all of my work, no matter who the character is at any time, is a new origin story. We don’t know much about space, so it’s a great opportunity to inject the nonlinear into performance personas. The image sets the tone. Next, I started planning out the flow of the performance. Short and sweet, a duration of about 30–40 minutes.
We’ll be speaking in Bowie lyrics, so I needed to print them off and design them for a score book that we’ll all read from. I don’t expect everyone to remember the lyrics. He has such a huge catalog, right? And I’ve chosen songs that maybe some people won’t know. There will be one performer who will sing one of my favorites, “Subterraneans,” from the Low album. The lyrics were written using the cut-up technique, something Bowie borrowed from Burroughs.
I’ve created a set of tarot cards that use words that rhyme with the original lyrics to prompt the performer to sing intermittently throughout the performance. In between these somewhat theatrical spoken lyric performances, there will be live art making prompted by actions inspired by the Oblique Strategies cards (originally created by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt) which were used during the production of Bowie’s Berlin triptych.
I’ve created a set of strategies with prompts to modify behavior and body language called “Loving the Alien: Other Orthographic Projections.” The strategies will be interpreted by the performers, most of whom are artists and friends. And of course, it’s my piece, which means there will be media—lots of media. I’m shooting video and writing programs for sound and video control.
As always, there will be fabrication, sound, video, movement (the Lab dancers are on board again!), and writing. Wonderful. A really fun part of performance, for me, is making the media which supports the live work.
In the fall of 2011, Chicago-based artist Joseph Ravens—founder/director of Defibrillator Gallery—asked me to join him, then-graduate student Giana Gambino, and Chicago-based artist Julie Laffin in establishing a performance art festival in Chicago. At the time, performance art remained somewhat under-recognized within the greater arts ecology of the city. So Ravens, Gambino, Laffin, and I set out to create a more visible platform for groundbreaking performance work. That idea spawned the Rapid Pulse International Performance Festival.
Highlighted below are a selection of artists who I think reflect the uncategorizable nature of performance art practices. While some of these works may be disturbing to some (and, frankly, that is part of their conceptual conceit, as they engage with difficult subject matter), others explore how movement, play, and the somatic experience (i.e. the experience of and through the body) open up new and different paths for the production of knowledge and subjective understanding.
Chicago-based artist Michal Samama’s performance took place inside the context of the gallery and involved only a plastic woven bag, the clothes she wore that day, and her body. As the title subtly implies, the underlying tone of the piece was antagonistic. The bag is one that is often used by immigrants and migrants, and its presence offered insight into the social classification of the performer. Samama entered the space nude with the bag balanced precariously atop her head. For the next 30 minutes, she moved deliberately throughout the space, drawing attention to and exploring the relationship of the bag to her body—whether as an oppressive weight, or an object of affection. To complete the performance, the artist unzipped the bag, took out its contents (her clothes) and dressed—slowly, methodically—in front of the audience. Samama is highly regarded for her work with the body, investigating its physical qualities and limitations. In this performance the body also became an object, along with and akin to the bag, raising questions about the objectification of the body—specifically the female body—and its (de)valuation in a capitalist, global society.
Cuban artist Carlos Martiel’s performance also addressed the movement of bodies, though in a much more direct and politically charged way. His work focused on the suffering, both physical and psychological, that immigrants often face. For the piece, he invited Chicago-area immigrants to donate blood, temporarily transforming the gallery into a blood bank on the night before the launch of the festival. Martiel chose blood as his medium in part because it is an extremely affective material, one that most people have a strong aversion to, in spite of its vital importance. On the opening night, Martiel created a tableau vivant, lying naked on the floor of the gallery in a pool of the collected blood, his body flexed and tense, trembling. It was a difficult sight to take in—the experience raw and challenging to the viewer—but deeply moving nonetheless, especially to those who donated their blood and felt a sense of shared experience, of political and social status, with their fellow participants.
Founded by Guillermo Gómez Peña and Roberto Sifuentes, among others, La Pocha Nostra comprises an ever-evolving roster of artists. The performance for RP14 was at times pedagogical in nature, at times carnivalesque, and focused on creating images for mass consumption and distribution. To this end, Peña would halt the performance and invite audience members to take photos and upload them to social media sites, calling on them to “send these images all over the . . . world.” Throughout the performance, Peña also gave instructions to the other performers—Roberto Sifuentes and Erica Mott—along with the audience members, all the while developing a kind of meta-critique of the live performance as it unfolded in real time. At various moments there was a skinned goat draped across the back of a performer; the likeness of a Madonna covered in roses with milk pouring down her bosom; a boxing match; and a prop gun offered to audience members to pose with, held to Peña’s body and head. Ultimately, the piece created a critical space around which all things performance were thrown into question, and in which moments of profanity mixed with references to the sacred.
The work of Alastair MacLennan—a member of the notorious avant-garde performance collective Black Market International—was meditative in nature, engaged as it was in unknown rituality. He embarked on a process that was very much experimental, improvised and momentary. Whereas La Pocha Nostra dissected performance through a series of loosely choreographed gestures, MacLennan created an impression of genuine, unscripted openness. The artist requested a seemingly random series of objects—fresh fish heads, an orange, a green apple, two buckets of water, ticker tape, a bundle of sticks, and so forth—which he arranged in a turnabout down the block from the gallery. As audience members gathered around him, he removed his shoes and blindfolded himself, relying entirely on his other senses to enact an open-ended process, punctuated at times with specific actions, like the pouring of a bucket of water containing fish heads and fruit over his head. A number of random passersby also encountered the piece, intrigued or bewildered by MacLennan’s actions. Perhaps they assumed the rest of the audience members understood what was happening. In fact, none of us did. But to be there in the moment, to be aware of one’s own physical and mental experience in that moment and nothing more, was precisely the point.
This is but a snapshot of the different performances and events that make up Rapid Pulse. I personally have found the experience of working on the festival to be transformative and eye-opening. For many years I was somewhat dismissive of performance art myself, but I understand now that this was due to my own lack of understanding and willingness to engage. Now I am acutely aware of how my experiences with Rapid Pulse have begun to color the many other artistic initiatives I am involved in. In fact, many of the exhibitions I organize for the MCA involve performative aspects and are geared towards open-ended inquiry, improvisation, and the acceptance of the unknown. It has been rewarding, if not also liberating, to push myself beyond my own comfort zone and move into this other realm of artistic activity, for it is exactly these kinds of experiences—deeply affective and challenging as they are—that become all the more formative as one pushes onward, blindfolded and barefoot though we may be.