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Featured articles from Houston Press

Shifting Baselines: Texas Gulf Coast | Jan 2016

Untitled (Intracoastal Waterway with red barge), 2015, Bolivar Peninsula, Texas

In Victoria Sambunaris’s 2015 photograph Untitled (Intracoastal Waterway with red barge), the color of the water is the pale tan of over-creamed coffee. The camera angle emphasizes the flatness of the landscape; it is as if you could see the curve of the Earth in the distance. The water stretches across the whole foreground and recedes into the distance, forming a wide triangle under a slender band of pale silvery-gray sky. The 39×55-inch image is almost all water; the banks of mottled green saltwater marsh barely encroach into the edges of the photo. It looks impossibly remote except for the broad red barge that seems to sit atop the smooth surface of the water. The Gulf Coast’s peculiar marriage of primeval coastal landscape and petrochemical industry is captured in Sambunaris’s exhibition “Shifting Baselines: Texas Gulf Coast | Victoria Sambunaris in Collaboration With Kristopher Benson,” on view at the Galveston Artist Residency Gallery.

Sambunaris creates her work through road trips in which she immerses herself in the landscape and culture of different parts of America. The GAR website explains that the artist sets out on her journeys “equipped with a 5×7 wooden field camera, camping gear, and a few months supply of canned sardines and crackers.” She researches and explores the nature and culture of the world she will photograph.

The Galveston Artist Residency invited Sambunaris down from New York for a project and gave her a stipend and housing. During her time in the area, she collaborated with Kristopher Benson, a scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Benson advised the artist about the ways in which the coastal environment of the region has been affected by man and industry and helped her get access to locations.

Two sets of untitled photographs are shown flat on shelves on the back wall of the gallery. They were taken at Virginia Point, located just at the tip of the mainland, right before you cross the bridge to Galveston. The photos capture hopper cars moving along tracks past the estuarial corridor, along the line of the horizon. In the foreground is the grassy marsh, interrupted by bands of silvery water. They are very elegant images; in the second set, a few barely noticeable pink-tinged roseate spoonbills stand in the water. The interplay between the railcars, which a viewer imagines laden with petrochemical product, and the tiny figures of the flamboyant birds is subtle. Sambunaris isn’t a polemicist. Her works are nuanced, relying on a visual tranquility that draws you in but keeps you slightly on edge. You know you can’t lose yourself in this landscape, even while you want to. The photographer gently reminds us that in the world today, most images of tranquil nature are an illusion created by careful editing.

Because of the large size of the 5×7-inch negative created with her field camera, the clarity and color of the photos are stunning. There is something so still and perfect about these images that they have the hyper-real feeling of maquettes for a film, tiny, exquisite models created to drop in digitally as a background.

The photo quality certainly makes the unwieldy camera worth the trouble. But working with a big 19th-century-looking wood-cased camera in the 21st century can result in more than just curious stares and comments. Sambunaris was photographing along the Ship Channel on a day when Vice President Joe Biden happened to be in the area. Port of Houston security pulled up to inform her a sniper had been watching her through his scope for the past few hours.

And, no matter what camera you are using, photographing near chemical plants and transit infrastructure in post 9-11 America often ends with someone coming up to ask you what exactly you’re doing. Private and public security officers confronted Sambunaris on more than two dozen occasions. She considered getting a police radio so she’d know when they were coming.

Saumbunaris’s images are almost exclusively unpeopled. We know that someone is piloting the barge in a photograph or driving the engine pulling the cars. We know that someone filled and stacked the shipping containers in a large untitled photograph, but they look like Legos left behind by a long-dead race of giants, an industrial Stonehenge. Who put them here and why?

But the artist’s photographs still have a portrait quality. Presented in an untitled grid of images on the front wall, 15 cargo ships are photographed like a series of people posing for the camera. Each has a name; each one is from a different place, displays a different color and hauls a different cargo. One is a vivid Yves Klein blue, another cerulean, another a rusted cadmium red.

In images like the barge on the Intracoastal Waterway or the shipping containers stacked in Houston, we can really appreciate the formal elegance of Sambunaris’s work. They’re beautifully composed and incredibly minimalist. Squint your eyes, and the shapes and flat areas of color simplify into the abstract forms of a masterful painting.

The rare appearances of people are restricted to a grid of 945 4×5-inch prints, a kind of sketchbook from Sambunaris’s time in Galveston and along the coast. There are a few scattered images of people standing in a boat, swimming or wading, or, in one instance, of a Channel 13 reporter reporting from a submerged road. But the photos are dominated by evidence of us, rather than us. Storm-battered buildings, humble and wooden or stone and formerly grand, pose for her camera. The seedy Ocean Cabaret building in one image is almost obscured by scrubby grasses and palms. Another captures the cabaret’s sign, “NUDE GIRLS GIRLS GIRLS 18 & UP WELCOME,” a fixture as you drive into Galveston. (I have been told it and the hillock it rests on are the only holdouts in the protected estuarial corridor.)

There is a distinctive, roughly hissing sound permeating the gallery as you walk through. It is the sound of flammable gas burnoff at a petrochemical refinery. Living along the Gulf Coast, we all know that sound and the sight of the accompanying flames. The back gallery of the GAR is painted black, and here is where the sound is originating. One wall is covered with a photomural of a tiny wooden bungalow surrounded by trees. A window-unit air conditioner pokes out of the structure’s asbestos siding. The only sign of life is the silhouette of a pickup truck parked next to the house. Behind it looms the burn-off tower of a refinery, its flare illuminating the backyard with a haunting and eternal light.

Sambunaris has given us a portrait of our region, its flat coastal plain, its nature, its history and its industry. It is a thoughtful, empathetic and sensitive response to what she encountered. It is a portrait filled with quiet beauty, melancholy and regret.

Source: Review: Shifting Baselines: Texas Gulf Coast | Houston Press

The Menil Reinvents its Byzantine Fresco Chapel, Starting With “The Infinity Machine” | Feb 2015

“The Infinity Machine”

In Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s installation “The Infinity Machine,” a cluster of mirrors dangles from the ceiling, slowly rotating in the darkened interior of The Menil Collection’s Byzantine Fresco Chapel. There are oval mirrors, gilt mirrors, beveled mirrors, wall mirrors, hand mirrors, in all shapes and sizes. Some are vintage, some are antique. In the center of the mass, two mirrors face each other, reflecting infinitely.

The mirrors hang from the dome of the chapel, where, a few years ago, a visitor would look up and see a 13th-century fresco depicting Christ Pantocrator (“ruler of all”). Illuminated by just a couple of small spotlights, the dozens of mirrors reflect darting and flickering light across the walls and over visitors. A haunting, otherworldly hum of sound emanates from eight speakers around the room. At intervals, a voice counts to eight. The “audio collage” is truly otherworldly, incorporating recordings collected by the Voyager I and II probes as they passed the outer planets of our solar system. The sounds are recordings of solar winds striking the electromagnetic fields of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. It’s like the spaceship equivalent of driving through a neighborhood with your windows down.

The Byzantine Fresco Chapel has stood empty for the past three years after the frescoes it was designed to house were returned to Cyprus. The frescoes had been looted from a Cypriot Orthodox church and then offered for sale in 1983 to Dominique de Menil by a dealer in Germany. De Menil was suspicious and launched an investigation to discover the origins of the 38 fragments. She learned from the Cypriot government that the frescoes had been stolen; the jagged pieces shown in the dealer’s photos were hacked out from a chapel in Turkish-occupied Lysi. The Menil Foundation proposed to the Holy Archbishop of Cyprus that it purchase the frescoes on behalf of the Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus. The foundation covered the purchase price and all attendant restoration costs in return for permission to exhibit the frescoes on a long-term loan. The Menil’s Byzantine Fresco Chapel, designed by François de Menil, opened in 1997. The Church decided not to extend the loan beyond 2012, whereupon the frescoes were returned to Cyprus, leaving the chapel empty.

The problem of an empty, purpose-built chapel has since become an opportunity. Organized by the Menil’s Toby Kamps, curator of modern and contemporary art, Cardiff and Miller’s “The Infinity Machine” is the first in what is proposed to be an annual series of site-specific installations.

There is a sense of quiet awe as you stand in the dim chapel and view the installation. It looks like a galactic model created by some mad 18th–century gentleman astronomer. Suspended from wires, the mirrors are densely grouped toward the ceiling but straggle downwards, like falling stars. The artists collected the mirrors, more than 150 in number, as they scavenged antique shops all over British Columbia, where they live. Each mirror is unique, some of them bearing inscriptions from the original owners who carried them along when they emigrated from Europe.

Each of the hundreds of mirrors has its own patina of use and age, bearing the streaks, smudges and fingerprints of hundreds of owners, carrying particles of dust from hundreds of different rooms. Is there DNA in a faint spatter of toothpaste? The mirrors become individuals, or maybe they just represent all the individuals who have gazed into them. You wonder what it would be like if those mirrors could play back everything they have witnessed — all the primping, crying, smiling, grieving, grimacing faces that have looked into them, all the intimate acts and spaces they have reflected.

A lot of artists use found objects. Objects carry the weight of cultural and emotional associations, and they can be tricky to work with. Their power can overwhelm an artwork; the objects can be far more interesting in themselves than in the context of the work. Here, however, Cardiff and Miller have played it well. What the individual mirrors bring to the installation only enriches the whole.

There are installations that you can absorb fairly quickly and don’t care to linger in, but “The Infinity Machine” makes you want to immerse yourself in the mesmerizing theatricality of the space. The chapel is slightly disorienting but hypnotic, as the mass of mirrors slowly but steadily rotates, the beams of light flitting around the room. Occasionally a fractured glimpse of your own face appears. You can feel the bass from the sounds of space vibrate slightly in your bones, like aftershocks from the Big Bang.

When I visited the installation on a weekday around lunchtime, there was a man in a business suit walking around looking as if he’d just left an office and would soon be returning to one. He sat down on a bench. When I looked up from my notes 30 minutes later, he was still sitting there, staring at the slowly circling work. He was still sitting and staring when I left.

I don’t know what future artists will propose for the Byzantine Chapel, but Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s “Infinity Machine” is a marvelously successful transition for the space. There is a lot of good art that doesn’t fit within the Menil’s historic focus on art and spirituality. However, “The Infinity Machine” does, managing to evoke a kind of expansive celestial spirituality that feels like the next step beyond the culturally specific religiosity of the Byzantine frescoes. An Eastern Orthodox image of Jesus doesn’t resonate with everyone, but the vastness of space triggers some sort of primal awe in us all.

Source: The Menil Reinvents its Byzantine Fresco Chapel, Starting With “The Infinity Machine” | Houston Press

Corporate Takeover | Jun 2010

The Yes Men mock business culture with PowerPoint presentations, bad paneling, motivational posters and bottles of Bhopal water.

Angry about the state of the world? You can send infinite e-mails to elected representatives, offending organizations and corporations. You can vote. You can picket and protest (but that will probably only get you coverage if you are, bless your heart, a teabagger). But even if you’re doing all these things, trying to make yourself heard can feel as frustrating as cleaning up the BP oil spill with a teaspoon. (More on that later.) So how else can you effect political change?

The “Yes Men” have the answer. Parody. With their deadpan spokesman delivery, pitch-perfect fake Web sites, press releases and PowerPoint presentations, Andy ­Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno (whose real names, Jacque Servin and Igor Vamos, sound equally fake) have fooled the likes of the BBC, the World Trade Organization and Reuters. They have passed themselves off as representatives of HUD, Dow Chemical and Halliburton. Their first solo show, “Keep It Slick: Infiltrating Capitalism with The Yes Men,” is currently on view at DiverseWorks Art Space. The traveling exhibition was curated by Astria Suparak and organized by the Miller Gallery at Carnegie Mellon University and the Feldman Gallery at Pacific Northwest College of Art.

The Yes Men sprung to prominence with the now-legendary stunt that conned the BBC and (temporarily) embarrassed and (briefly) caused financial losses to Dow Chemical Corporation. In 2002, The Yes Men created the site www.dowethics.com, closely mimicking the design of the Dow Corporation’s own Web site but offering far more candid and truthful information about the company. In 2004, the BBC was looking for someone to interview about the 20th anniversary of the Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal, in which the release of toxic gases from the company’s plant killed thousands — more than 25,000 to date by some estimates — and injured hundreds of thousands. (Dow purchased Union Carbide in 2001. The site, which is still poisoning residents, has never been cleaned up and Dow has never accepted responsibility for it.) So the BBC came across The Yes Men’s “Dow Ethics” Web site and e-mailed, asking for a representative to speak on air. Jude Finisterra (an alias used by Andy Bichlbaum) obliged. Bichlbaum’s pseudonym combined Jude (Patron saint of lost causes) with the Latin for “end of the earth.”

Finisterra declared that after 20 years, Dow was taking responsibility for the Bhopal disaster and liquidating Union Carbide to pay for the cleanup of the site, as well as care and compensation for Bhopal residents. The BBC was thrilled by the scoop, flashing “BREAKING NEWS” across the bottom of the screen and running the segment twice before Dow contacted them and denied that they were compensating anybody. Their stock dropped for about three hours until the denial.

Seeing further opportunity to call attention to Dow’s dickishness, The Yes Men issued a widely disseminated and quoted “Dow” press release with frank, detailed explanations of the greed and self-­interest underlying the company’s refusal to take responsibility for the disaster.

“Keep It Slick” is full of videos and artifacts from The Yes Men’s activities, including the BBC segment. Exhibitions presenting documentation of performances are always tough, but this one fares pretty well, bolstered by the fact that The Yes Men held an activism training session here in conjunction with the show. A video monitor with a BBC clip opens the exhibition. Underneath it is a desk with a collection of the badges and IDs the duo have faked or finagled to get entry into a host of events. The main gallery contains absurd “products” from past stunts, like the “Survivaball model x7” and the “manager leisure suit.” The Yes Men’s canny mimicry of business culture is on display in their mock boardroom with running PowerPoint presentations, bad paneling, motivational posters and bottles of Bhopal water.

The “Survivaball model x7” — The Yes Men know that model numbers make things so much more convincing — is described as  “a self-contained survival suit that allows the richest people in the world to make it through the worst climate catastrophe. It is a high-­concept, high-tech, fabulously expensive gated community for one.” Complete with detailed schematics, the giant, goofy, inflatable suit was presented at a Catastrophic Loss conference held at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Amelia Island, Florida, where attendees inquired about its comfort and affordability with a straight face.

Now, I have to assume that not everyone who attended that Catastrophic Loss conference was evil, stupid or consumed with craven self-­interest. But The Yes Men have pulled stunts like this on numerous occasions and more often than not, no one raises any objections. Anyone who has worked for a large corporation is familiar with both unmitigated bullshit and patently moronic ideas being presented with a straight face. Sometimes the company is consciously lying, and sometimes some managerial idiot’s idea is implemented through a combination of unquestioning ­fealty, self-interest, fear and apathy. The corporate world has more than its share of Kool-Aid drinkers, and the go-along-to-get-along types who will patiently sit through something they should know is ridiculous. These attitudes can also lead people to do things that in the real world are considered immoral or unethical, but in the corporate bubble are just “good business.” The Yes Men are attempting to shock these people back into reality.

Other Yes Men projects, like the gold spandex suit with butt-cheek controls and a big inflatable dick-like extension containing a video monitor for observing sweatshop workers, are just too silly. I think The Yes Men are at their best when they present a company or a government as it should be, as in the Dow stunt, or as when they masqueraded as HUD officials vowing to rebuild and reopen public housing in New Orleans, complete with health clinics. They also masterfully faked a copy of The New York Times declaring the Iraq War had ended and Condoleezza Rice had apologized for the WMD scare. The subsequent denials were all the more damning.

Considering the current, brought-to-you-by-BP environmental catastrophe, we need The Yes Men and their like more than ever. Where is the contrite Lamar McKay, BP president and chairman, vowing to liquidate the company worldwide to make right the destruction it has caused in the Gulf, and God knows where else? In the meantime, when those tar balls start washing up on Galveston, I’m thinking about scraping up as much of that crap as I can and returning it to its rightful owner, BP, conveniently located at 501 Westlake Park Blvd., Houston, TX 77079-2604. (If you’re feeling chatty, BP’s number is 281-366-2000.)Seehttp://challenge.theyesmen.org/how#start, The Yes Men’s helpful, ­activist how-to site.

Source: Corporate Takeover | Houston Press

Judge Not | Jun 2009

Unsentimentally ambiguous: The Painter

I always thought Osama Bin Laden had strangely kind eyes. At least that’s how he looks in photographs, and that’s how he looks in The Pilgrim (2006), a portrait by Marlene Dumas. Dumas has painted an “evil-doer,” not sympathetically but just as she paints everyone else, without judgment and with an eye for the strangeness inherent in all humans. In Dumas’s world, an image of a squiggling, awkward newborn feels as unsettling as an image of a fanatic. The Bin Laden portrait is part of Dumas’s mid-career retrospective at The Menil Collection, “Measuring Your Own Grave.”

Virtually all of Dumas’s images are painted from photographs, most all of them shot by someone else. She collects them from a variety of sources — porn, newspapers, old class photos, fashion magazines; she has hundreds of them stored in binders. Sampling the human condition like some sociological researcher from another planet, she looks at people objectively, without sentiment, without preconception. Her paintings, particularly the later ones, are loosely done. With thin layers and washes of paint on canvas and watercolor on paper, every painting feels like a risk, a one-shot deal that could go terribly wrong. But her work never seems facilely executed, even when it has the simplest imagery.

Dumas was born in South Africa in 1953 and grew up under apartheid. She received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the University of Cape Town and then, in 1976, left South Africa for Amsterdam, where she studied psychology. And although it’s hokey amateur psychology to explore someone’s childhood in an attempt to understand why they paint the way they do, I’ll wager that living under the apartheid system shaped her approach to her subjects. Widespread and institutionalized oppression taints everyone, even “good” people, and makes it a lot harder to make simplistic good-bad judgments. Dumas’s work acknowledges the complexity of people. Osama bin Laden, with his kind eyes, may be a mass-murder mastermind, but he might also be a loving father.

Because her art is dark, grayed-out and anything but comforting, one might expect it to be created by some wan, introverted misanthrope. But Dumas is blond, laughing, witty and downright bubbly, an attractive, zaftig fiftysomething. But she has the matter-of-fact pragmatism of her Dutch ancestry and her adopted homeland. Talking about a painting of a corpse, she says, “Well, I’m sorry to say, but we all die.” But she smiles and sounds apologetic that she has to deliver this bad news to us.

Dumas is the mother of a daughter, and any mother with a grain of objectivity can relate to the artist’s giant images of infants, The First People (I-IV) (1990). Four canvases hang in a row, each nearly six feet tall. There is nothing saccharine or sentimental here. The newborns are strange, gangly, big-headed and disconcerting. Their fists are clenched, their big-bellied, skinny-legged bodies newly uncurled. Twisted and contorted, they are startled and unsure of how to hold themselves, no longer tightly folded in a fetal position and enveloped by a warm, dark womb.

Unsentimental ambiguity continues in The Painter (1994), an image of Dumas’s daughter as a young child. The figure of a girl is sketched onto a tall vertical canvas, her body loosely modeled, with her torso toned a sickly blue and her hands covered with paint — one the purply-blue color of a bruise, the other a dark, visceral red. Her features are sparingly delineated, with dark eyes, a bit of shadow under the nose and a wavy, horizontal hint of a mouth forming an expression that could be either pouty or demonic. She’s either peeved because she had to stop fingerpainting, or she’s just butchered her family and is coming after you. It could go either way.

Dumas’s paintings based on pornography cause a lot of talk. D-rection (1999) shows a man with a big, erect, purple penis. Fingers (1999) depicts a woman bent over and seen from behind, her hand reaching between her legs to grasp herself. But they are painted the way Dumas paints everything else. The artist’s attitude toward pornography seems to be similar to the view common in her adopted country. The Netherlands is often seen as some giant den of iniquity by travelers who hit the coffee shops or the brothels on Warmoestraat, but the Dutch aren’t any more licentious than anybody else — they’re just pragmatic about it. If people are going to do drugs and pay other people to have sex with them, why not make it as safely regulated as possible? In Dumas’s work, sex is just as much a part of life as death and class photos.

Dumas may not be interested in “morality,” but there is a concern for moral justice that runs through the work. Her painting The Woman of Algiers (2001) is based on a 1960 photograph of an event from the Algerian Civil War, reproduced in a Dutch newspaper in 2001. Two men hold the wrists of a very young nude woman, displaying her to the camera. The Dutch newspaper printed black bars over the breasts and crotch of the young woman, and Dumas has painted them as thick slabs that pin down the otherwise brushy image. We don’t know who the men are who restrain her; only their arms are visible. We do not clearly see the woman, but the artist does not paint her as a pathetic victim. She refuses to stoop to obvious visual polemics. The woman confronts the camera with a neutrality that makes judgment the viewer’s responsibility. Dumas won’t do it for us.

Source: Judge Not | Houston Press

Migrants and Minutemen | Nov 2006

Most of the migrants look grim and tired. – from the Border Film Project

“The Minutemen are doing exactly what President George W. Bush requested all citizens do in his State of the Union speech” says “Bob,” a middle-aged Minuteman sporting a safari-esque khaki shirt and hat. “Here’s what he said: ‘I call on all Americans to be ever vigilant and to report any unusual activity to the appropriate authorities and to stand ready and to give aid to the appropriate authority when they do arrive on the scene.'”

“Bob” quotes Bush so emphatically, it sounds like he’s saying the pledge of allegiance. He’s part of “The Border Film Project” at DiverseWorks. The project includes a documentary film about migrants and Minutemen as well as an exhibition of photos by both groups. “The Border Film Project” is a collaborative effort by the filmmakers Rudy Adler, Victoria Criado and Brett Huneycutt. Sharing the main gallery is “Frontera” a collection of portraits of and interviews with migrants and Minutemen by William Howard.

You have probably seen television coverage of border issues. But in “The Border Film Project” video, theres no voice-over explaining the situation, no interviews with government officials or “experts.” In “Frontera,” Howard tries for similar neutrality with his photos and interviews. He shoots his full-length portraits of Minutemen and migrants in the same way. He upsets stereotypes by choosing subjects like a Native American Minuteman or a young man who suddenly finds himself deported to Mexico after spending almost his entire life in Omaha, Nebraska.

Some of the Minutemen in “The Border Film Project” video make valid points. One man explains that because Mexican migrants are working here and sending money home, it “removes the societal pressure” on the Mexican government to reform itself and improve the lot of its poor. One woman addresses corporate greed and how 20,000 meatpacking-plant workers in Iowa were laid off and replaced with “illegals from Mexico” paid minimum wage with no benefits.

But you get the sense that the Minutemen in the film aren’t exactly putting all their cards on the table for the filmmakers. They seem to choose their words carefully, vigorously trying to snuff out any whiff of racism. Still, their paranoia is undisguised – the illegals are streaming across the border and Al Qaeda probably is, too. Their vision of an ominous horde of migrants coming to take from good honest Americans is obvious.

The interviews with the hopeful migrants – a mother and her three children, one of them a small, sick boy, about to cross through the desert to follow her husband; two earnest-looking young men whose goals for the future amount to achieving a basic standard of living, illustrate that that supposedly ominous horde is made up of ordinary people with the most ordinary of dreams. The footage of a woman and her young daughter sitting in the cage-like back of a border patrol vehicle is tragic, no matter how nicely the agent speaks to them.

Listening to the Minutemen talk about illegal migrants, you get the impression that merely by setting foot on American soil, illegals are showered with cash and social services. If you look at the lot of America’s own poor, depictions of such green pastures seem a little disconnected from reality. And if you look at the project’s interviews with two guys standing in a Wal-Mart parking lot trying to get work as day laborers, the pasture looks pretty barren. They talk about standing eight, ten hours a day waiting for work. One guy says that some weeks he only makes 40 bucks.

While the border crackdown has hurt migrants, it has also hurt farmers. A recent New York Times article revealed that much of the best pear crop in recent history rotted because growers couldn’t find enough pickers. As part of Howards exhibition “Frontera,” one potential harvester, “Elias,” was photographed in Mexico after being caught in Phoenix and sent back. Howard recorded the story of his journey and return. At the end, Elias says, “This time we did not succeed but we will succeed next year. This year the gringo harvest can go to waste. We would like to see the gringos try to gather their own harvests!”

A scene in “The Border Project” shows a training session for Minutemen. They are told that it’s not about excitement and adventure; they are told they are not there to catch people, only to observe and then summon the border authorities. But in listening to them and reading Howard’s interviews, you get the impression that they desperately want it to be about excitement and adventure. They have a sense of crisis about them; these are people who seem to want drama, some reason to feel important and needed. They are answering what they see as a call to arms.

The photographs from “The Border Film Project” cover the main gallery’s walls. The project distributed 600 disposable cameras to record the realities of the border from both sides. Half went to people in Mexico who were on their way to cross over, and half went to Minutemen trying to stop them. All participants were given pre-stamped envelopes to return their cameras in, as well as a financial incentive Wal-Mart or Shell gift cards that would be funded when the cameras were received.

The exhibition of people’s photographs of themselves is about as objective a representation as you can get. The only editorializing is in the editing and arrangements of the photos. There are a lot of images of people making their way through or stopping to rest in the desert landscape. One series shot by a Minuteman shows a lone figure of a man on a road in the distance. Later, closer-up images show the border patrol stopping him and the man being arrested. It apparently documents a Minuteman at work.

These photos are filled with the trappings of hunting. The Minutemen wear a lot of camouflage; they also drape their trucks with it. They sport a lot of guns. In one photo, a shirtless guy sits at an outdoor table, a huge hunting knife stuck in his belt. Another photo captures a guy perched atop a deer stand and looking out into the desert. A big-gutted Minuteman slumbers atop the four-wheeler used to tow the stand.

A couple of guys grin at the camera, but most of the migrants who photographed themselves in the desert look grim and tired. Meanwhile, the smiling Minutemen who photograph themselves at the border with their shiny SUVs look like they are out for a tailgate party. For the migrants, crossing the border is a matter of life or death. The Minutemen seem convinced it is for them as well.

“The Border Project” and “Frontera” probably aren’t going to tell you anything major you don’t already know about the border situation. But they add nuance, and they humanize the people on both sides, giving added dimension to the ongoing debate.

 

Source: Migrants and Minutemen | Houston Press

Incest Is Wrong | Nov 2003

Corporate porn: Texans owner Bob McNair having a “spiritual” moment.

Art purists may say, “Why do a show about football? predicted Museum of Fine Arts, Houston director Peter Marzio, standing in front of a 20-foot diptych of photos depicting buxom, scantily clad cheerleaders at the press preview of “First Down Houston: The Birth of an NFL Franchise.” The exhibition presents 86 images of the Houston Texans taken by Robert Clark over the course of the team’s first year. The show’s photographs could easily pass for a special-edition game program for the Texans, a team that is — not coincidentally — owned by MFAH trustee Bob McNair. Yes, you read that correctly: This show promotes a franchise owned by one of the trustees of the MFAH. What Marzio should have said is “People with ethics may say, ‘Why do this show about football?'”

These two “aw shucks” former football players (McNair played high school ball, and Marzio attended Juniata College on a football scholarship) were meeting about the sculpture for the Houston Texans’ mascot when they hatched their plan for “First Down.” The way McNair tells the story, it sounds like a scene from some 1940s film with Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney scheming to put on a show in Judge Hardy’s barn. McNair said he was thinking of documenting his team’s first year. Marzio thought it was a great idea and, according to McNair, said the way to do it would be to get a “world-class photographer” and “do this up in world-class fashion.”

Gosh golly gee, they could even do a show at the museum!

According to the back cover blurb of the accompanying catalog, viewers will receive a “penetrating and intimate look into the world of the Houston Texans.” I don’t see what the hell is penetrating and intimate about this show. It feels like a hipper-than-average commercial shoot.

If only Clark, a photojournalist for National Geographic and Sports Illustrated, could have addressed the culture of the sport, as well as its marketing and commercialization, in an honest and incisive way. If only he could have approached the project with a Diane Arbus knack for strangeness, or at least some point of view that transcended run-of-the-mill sports photography. But Clark is a court toady who seeks only to gratify and glorify. As evidence, look at the show’s ten-foot image of Bob McNair kneeling in Reliant Stadium. Children under 18 should not be allowed to witness this colossal act of fellatio by the museum. At the preview, a smaller image of the same photograph described him as caught in a “reflective” or a “spiritual” mood. That image and caption have since been removed.

Clark took 30,000 photographs in the year he spent with the Texans, and 86 were selected for the show. According to Marzio, the “museum would only have done this if we had total access and no censorship.” Okay, what exactly is there to censor? Team members in the showers? (Actually, that might have made the show a little more interesting.) It’s not like they’re staging the My Lai massacre in Reliant Stadium.

There are images of football players practicing, football players sitting in the locker room, football players on the field. There are Vanity Fair cover-manqué images of football players leaping for studio shots that display their athletic prowess. A smattering of “wacky and rabid fans” photos feels fairly forced, given the recent provenance of the team. We have a ways to go before we rival Cleveland’s “Dog Pound.”

In other images, there’s self-conscious gravitas, grandeur and God. One shot shows the tape on Billy Miller’s wrist with “Philippians 4:13” inscribed on it. The passage reads, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Clark also has a Mapplethorpe-esque fixation with the flesh and bodies of black players. In contrast, a shot of McNair and general manager Charley Casserly shows them in the Founders Suite with stemmed glassware and a plate of grapes.

But once in a while, Clark stumbles into artier territory. One of the shots shows a blond cheerleader high-kicking with an expression of crazed zeal on her face. (The exhibition labels identify the cheerleaders by only their first names. Apparently this is NFL policy.) In a particularly creepy scene, one Diane Arbus would appreciate, we see grinning good ol’ boys Bob McNair and Jerry Jones. And a nice close-up shot of Fred Weary, Guard shows him smiling with closed eyes and a Breathe Right strip across his nose.

Many of the more redeeming photos are tucked into the accompanying catalog, which boasts 225 images and a nice layout. This whole thing would have been a lot less embarrassing if the project had been limited to just a coffee-table book.

The walls of the exhibition include quotes such as, “I am very impressed with how this organization has been put together from top to bottom. I don’t know how it could have been done any better.” It’s from Gil Brandt of NFL.com. What an informative and objective source. While we’re at it, why don’t we get Bill Gates to tell us how great Microsoft is? The ass-kissing continues with a quote by none other than Bob McNair himself: “We don’t want to be America’s team, we want to be Texas’s team.”

“First Down” also features a lengthy promotional video that looks a lot like a commercial. There is a museum bench placed in front of it for your viewing comfort. This exhibit takes advantage of every crass opportunity possible.

The show’s comments book contains remarks from some enthusiastic fans. A lot of them mention how “hot” David Carr is and add inscriptions like “Texans we LUV YA! Stay motivated!” Also: “I am the ultimate Texans fan! I never miss a game and I  David Carr! I also  photography so this couldn’t get much better. Texans rock Houston! David rocks!” The majority of comments, interspersed with kids’ drawings and teenage graffiti, are positive. But some viewers were not quite as swayed by the exhibition: “Strictly commercial — an ad for this business! Not art,” opined one. Another quipped, “This is an art museum, not a sports bar! Next you’ll rename the museum MFAHooters.”

Of course, there’s also the attendant merchandising, something that has become commonplace at practically every museum exhibition in the country. At the gift shop, we find a host of Texans paraphernalia: Texans checkers with helmet-shaped playing pieces, “Fan Face” masks that apparently save you the bother of actually using paint, bobble-head David Carr dolls, football-shaped serving trays and the pièce de résistance, a T-shirt-shaped coozie that says “First Down” on the front and “MFAH 1” on the back. All of these splendid gifts are sold by slightly embarrassed museum employees.

Boil down the MFAH’s rationale for putting on this show, and the message is this: An exhibition about football will lure the city’s beer-quaffing, crotch-scratching lumpenproles into the museum. But too often people assume that there’s some huge chasm between people who like art and people who like sports — you know, the old high school stereotypes. Such base pandering to the supposedly lowest common denominator only reinforces an off-putting impression of elitism.

The real rationale behind this exhibition is a craven, greedy desire to service trustee Bob McNair, get some scratch from him for the museum and advertise his business. An NFL franchise is a business. The Oilers, er, Titans are a case in point. Obviously, the departed team — and all the others, with the exception of the Packers — are not civic entities, however much team owners try to perpetuate that myth.

The point isn’t that football has no place in the museum. The point is that crap vanity exhibitions have no place in the museum. Football is an integral part of American popular culture, permeating everything from politics to art to religion. It is, for example, in the envelope-pushing work of Matthew Barney. The art star/former football player has integrated a host of sports and football references into his multimedia art. You could make a fascinating show exploring football in art and culture, but this ain’t it.

Happily, people are more discerning than the MFAH thinks they are. Each time I’ve visited the show (more often than anyone in their right mind should), it has been desolate. Even on three separate Thursday nights when admission is free, and the museum’s open until 9 p.m. — a free show about football! that should really bring them in! — I didn’t see more than a handful of people wandering through. The museum’s MoMA show, however, has been consistently packed. Good programming wins out.

At the press preview, Marzio said that this was an exhibition that “probably could only happen in a city like Houston.” Sadly, that may be true. The city identified with Enron’s corporate shamelessness is also host to this small-scale display of nonprofit shamelessness. Marzio, who received a $1.7 million bonus in 2000 and laid off longtime employees in 2003 — after reassuring them months earlier that there would be no layoffs — has been quoted as telling his colleagues they’d be well advised to “learn their lessons from the for-profit sector.” Maybe he should be more selective about which for-profits.

Source: Incest Is Wrong | Houston Press

Art, Lies and Videotape | Apr 2002

Lynne McCabe (left) tries to make an unsuspecting patron feel uncomfortable in the name of art.
Lynne McCabe (left) tries to make an unsuspecting patron feel uncomfortable in the name of art.

In the notorious 1920 “Little Albert Study,” J.B. Watson, the founding father of behavioral psychology, conditioned an 11-month-old orphan to fear a pet white rat by repeatedly startling the child with a loud noise. Research photos also show Watson holding a pipe with a terrified infant dangling from it by one hand — a test of the baby’s grasp response. Surprisingly, Watson’s academic career came to an end not because of the unethical and sadistic aspects of his research, but because of his affair with his research assistant (with whom he later wrote child-rearing books that advised parents to “never hug and kiss them, never let them sit on your lap”). But Watson really made his mark when he turned his talents to the advertising industry. He sought to draw upon his theories of behavior and tap the consumer animal’s emotions of fear, rage and love to better sell products. It’s in no small part thanks to Watson that today we endure a constant onslaught of attempted manipulation by everyone from politicians to Hollywood producers to telemarketers.

Artist Lynne McCabe is conducting her own research in manipulation. “The Caledonian Institute for the Study of Interpersonal Relationships presents a series of intimate exchanges hosted by Lynne McCabe” at Lawndale Art Center is an exhibit of videos showing McCabe’s interviews with art-scene participants. The questions are pulled from various resources in behavioral science, but McCabe presents them in two different ways — both truthful, but representing different aspects of her personality. In the first McCabe sells herself as a friend. She’s chatty, friendly, warm — a sweet Irish Catholic girl truly interested in the answers to her questions. In the other, she’s a businesslike artist in black executing a conceptual project, encouraging quick, concise answers to her questions. Her interest is in how people respond to the two personae and the level of participation each approach exacts.

McCabe became interested in the ideas of truth and image and trust when she worked for the Royal Bank of Scotland as a video loan counselor. Potential applicants at grocery store bank branches would speak with her via live video feed. For the job, McCabe had to take a monthlong course on body language — learning both to control hers and to read others’ for truthfulness. She was instructed to “paint positive word pictures” and to not say no.

McCabe started developing her current project with a psychology grad student, who later dropped out because of the questionable ethics of working on a “fake” survey. McCabe’s work is a conceptual art piece; the institute that provided her with a grant is fictitious. At McCabe’s opening reception at Lawndale, volunteers rounded up participants with a “Hey, can you help us out with something?” The recruits filled out an information sheet with e-mail, address and phone number. They posed for a dazed Polaroid portrait and scheduled an interview time. That most people have been conditioned to dutifully provide personal information is disturbing, but it’s understandable when you consider the context of a nonprofit arts organization. The assumed level of trust here is higher than at a kiosk in the mall.

The Polaroids are clipped to manila folders hung on the wall, each one stamped “confidential” in red ink. Tiny labels read, “Please do not touch works of art.” Because the folders may not be opened, their imagined contents become much more fascinating than what must really be inside.

A monitor in each corner of the room plays the videos. Concurrent shots of the interviewer and the interviewee run opposite each other. In the first series — with the subjects snuggled in cozy chairs and a relaxed McCabe smiling encouragement — the exchange becomes an elaborate conversation. In the second series, McCabe crosses her arms, nods impatiently and fires the questions one after another. The subject’s answers are shorter and the interaction feels more like an impersonal survey.

McCabe is clearly interested in how the level of information changes according to how she presents herself, but she also simply wonders at the fact that people are so forthcoming. McCabe moved to Houston from Glasgow just over a year ago, and her amazement that people are so open has a cultural basis. Americans freely provide what most of the rest of the world would consider “too much information.”

Of course, scientifically, the study falls short. The nature of the project selects for people who are comfortable talking about themselves and appearing on camera. Also, pulling from the attendees at an art opening provides for a pretty specialized sampling. They know that it’s an art project, whether or not they buy into any clinical objectivity. It would be interesting to set it up at a socioeconomic crossroads like Wal-Mart.

Even so, the Caledonian project probably wouldn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know. The participants and their answers are the real reason McCabe’s work is interesting. Asked to tell about themselves, the events or details people deem important are as intriguing as the information itself. The participants are mainly women, either because they are stereotypically more comfortable talking about themselves or because fewer men were recruited. And they seem surprised by and interested in their own answers to the questions McCabe poses: Who do you trust and why? Are you happy? Would more money make you happier? Do you believe in love at first sight? What makes you sad? What are your priorities right now? What do you think makes you a good friend?

The videos are compelling for the same reasons a Studs Terkel interview of a spot-welder can glue you to the page. A twentysomething girl tells of love at first sight at Amy’s Ice Cream. A man describes his grandfather as an artist and a deadbeat. A woman talks about “finding out who I am.” People speak of battling depression and giving up pot. We sense a sadness in a woman who says she went from international sales to being a homemaker at her husband’s insistence. There is enchantment and disenchantment with religion. One woman works with a company that launches human cremains into space. This is where the nonconversational interviews get frustrating. Conceptual agenda aside, how can you resist following up on that answer? Screw the project — we want to know more about these people. The videos are fascinating because people are inherently fascinating; provocative questions just help reveal it. As viewers, we evaluate their performances: Are they truthful, guarded, relaxed? We catch glimpses of underlying pain in someone and want to console them. We realize the flaws of our initial judgments as someone who at first seems superficial reveals a thoughtful depth.

The project has an additional local appeal: If you’re involved in the Houston art community, you’ll know or will have seen many of the project’s participants. Finding out who believes in God and why or what someone wanted to be when she grew up is doubly intriguing. There’s an exploitative aspect to the process, but the subjects are complicit. McCabe handles things fairly sensitively, asking if there is anything they regret saying, and then offering the option to edit it out. The questions she asks are revealing, but not in a spill-your-guts way (although some people are inclined to do so anyway). The inquiries speak more to attitudes and values than deep, dark secrets.

McCabe is an empathetic artist and thankfully unable/unwilling to pull off the clinical rigor of J.B. Watson and company. The project has a life of its own and wanders off from its stated objectives as the subjects steal the show. In the end, the humanistic wins over the pseudoscientific.

Source: Art, Lies and Videotape | Houston Press