Saturday, February 10, 2024

“Call It Something Else” in Madrid, Part 2

Ben Patterson

Your blogger continues to tussle with an account of the recent show about Dick Higgins’ Something Else Press. We meet Benjamin Patterson, Claes Oldenburg, Allan Kaprow, John Cage and John Giorno and Carolee Schneeman. And spend some time witih Alison Knowles’ “House of Dust”, a faux free school, and her “Big Book” hooked up to a toilet.

As per my last post on the recent “Call It Something Else” exhibition at Reina Sofia museum, it feels a bit silly to crank on for justice for the losers in the contest for recognition in their contemporary artworld. Of course my frustration is about me and all of us, back then and even now. The Fluxians were the classic la-dee-dah outsiders, the marginalized in the NYC artworld of their day. Their revenge is their influence today, and their status as diffident heroes of all those marginalized by the artworld made by the 1%.
As my internet searches reveal, they’re doing pretty well in recent widely distributed academic exhibitions. Scholars love puzzles.
The Fluxians laid a crooked path for others to follow in the conventional way artists move from one generation to the next. Rather than classic emulation and variation, or Bloomian reaction, the Fluxians proceeded by repetition of creative games and actions. This was true to their roots in music and theater with those genres' scores and scripts, but rather a spanner in the works of visual art. And from that grinding of the gears comes much of value for today’s concept work, performance art and social practice.

Bern Porter

The Fluxus cohort did undertake some large and influential projects, material remnants of which I'll describe eventually. But first I'll trot through the Reina Sofia exhibition and poke into just a few of its nooks and crannies.

Books Under Glass

As a publishing project, the Something Else Press was prolific, and the books it issued were extremely eclectic. A large number of these are nailed to the walls in a first room of the exhibition, in their hard and softcover editions. Among the earliest is The Four Suits (1965), like playing cards, with works by Alison Knowles, Benjamin Patterson, Tomas Schmit and Philip Corner. Knowles was Higgins’ partner, and an early silkscreen virtuoso. Corner is the piano guy. Schmit? No se.
Benjamin Patterson, the heart in the “Four Suits”, trained in the contrabass wind instrument. As an African-American, he could not get a job in a US orchestra and so expatriated. He met John Cage in Germany, and was a key contact in Wiesbaden, helping George Maciunas to produce the first Fluxus Festival there in 1962.

The Nassauischer Kunstverein in Wiesbaden remains a bastion of Flux-thought today. You might can still take Patterson’s questionnaire online for the 50th anniversary of Fluxus: “Has Fluxus changed the world?” (2012). Did Fluxus change the world?
Four Suits was Higgins first anthological book, produced around the same time as Maciunas was issuing “Fluxkits”, anthologies of miniature artworks. Barring copies to peruse, I can’t say anything about these SEP anthologies. I’ve never seen any cited. Maciunas’ group show boxes in museums you also cannot touch. More on this condition of not touching later.

Ladrones de Libros!

Other SEP publications in this gallery include their 1967 Store Days with Claes Oldenburg. I had a copy of this, which included a business card for the Raygun Store in a pocket. (Seller’s description: “Spot of dried glue residue on front endpaper where envelope containing Oldenburg's business card was anchored upon publication, typically now lacking”.) The book is a lovely illustrated record of that inspiring proto-Pop project, and of course my copy was stolen.
SEP also did an LP record with Allan Kaprow, “How to Make a Happening” (1967). (It’s on YouTube; access from Duck Duck Go’s “Duckplayer” to avoid ads.)
Kaprow taught for years at Cal Arts. He invited Higgins and Knowles. Kaprow on this record is extremely didactic: "There are 11 rules of the game. One: forget all the standard art forms." He lists them. "The point is to make something new. Something that doesn't even remotely remind you of culture. You've got to be pretty ruthless about this…."
"Art has always been different from the world's affairs. Now you've got to work hard to keep it all blurry." In this era of Netflix and auction-driven banality, these words ring like the roar of a Tyrannosaurus. [“Wait, I can’t see! Whose mouth am I walking into?”]
After 1968, most of the exhibition’s text panels disappear. Who knows what those books on the wall are about?

Carolee Schneeman's drawing for her body house book

One that’s briefly noted is Bern Porter’s I’ve Left (1971; still $15 at Printed Matter). A scientist working in NYC in 1930s, Porter was infected by the art virus. He worked on the a-bomb, and quit after it was used. He started his own publishing imprint and art gallery in San Francisco.
Peripetetic does not do justice to this pinball of a creative scientist. The book he did with Higgins “proposes wild and revolutionary improvements to and uses for books, poetry, clothing, theater, architecture, art, food, toys, and automobiles”.

Wrong Way In

During one of my visits to the show I walked into what turned out to be the back end. I ran into Bio-Music (1974), a book the SE Press made out of brain wave sound generation experiments. There was a video of John Cage wired up and beeping.
Big vinyl sheets had John Giorno’s repetitive poems stenciled onto them: Higgins published Giorno’s Cancer in My Left Ball (1973). The publication launch card was a copy of the poet’s colossal hospital bill.
Giorno’s “Dial-A-Poem” project is displayed. I remember calling this line a few times back in the day. It’s different hearing it on headphones… but I did, running into John Cage’s mallomar voice intoning “slowly we are getting nowhere” and “beginning to enjoy it”. Not me. In the days of full-out nuclear war anxiety, this Buddhist stuff, a kind of religiously managed tranquility was compelling to many artists. Now I think we gotta do something.
A wall was devoted to drawings from Carolee Schneeman’s Parts of a Body House (1972). Carolee was a a wonderfully sexy artist, and these erotic representations of a fleshly architectural conception made Dick Higgins balk. He only published the text; the Beau Geste Press in UK brought it out again with the illustrations.

A Bean-Like School: Fabbed or What?

Alison Knowles, Higgins partner, produced House of Dust at Cal Arts in 1971. This was an extended project with several collaborators. It featured two constructions (one burned down) of organic pod-like chambers, and scheduled events. The architecture came out of a computer-generated poem Knowles did at Bell Labs. (Hunh? An architecture lab in Argentina tried to explain it; see links below.) In one event a helicopter drops copies of the poem onto the house. This seems of a part with the extraordinary series of E.A.T. experiments, collaborations between artists and engineers overseen by Billy Klüver.

Knowles’ bean-shaped house was a site for events, a kind of free school within a school. “That’s what most people remember, that we would decide as a group what we were going to be doing” (Knowles in Sarbanes interview, link below).
This and other architectural pecadillos were combined in the book Fantastic Architecture, edited by Higgins and Wolf Vostell (1969/1970). (Primary Information reprinted this classic in 2015.)
That book is extraordinary. I remember the moment I found it in a college library. But again, here it is nailed to the wall and unseeable. The show emphasized artwork associated with the publication. A wall text puts the book into the historical context of artists’ resistance to Robert Moses’ LOMEX – cross Manhattan expressway, which would have obliterated the Soho industrial loft district where artists were living.

The wall texts in this show were extensive. I photo’d them, but did not reread them for this text. By the time I got around to attempting this review, the catalogue also had appeared; info overload. I’ll try to describe that also.

Fantastic Architecture in the Real

Fluxus animateur George Maciunas had architectural aspirations. Today the foundation with his name front pages his Fluxhouse cooperatives, illegally set up to house artists in Soho in the 1970s, and the struggles for living space there in those days.
Higgins and Maciunas paced each other in their overlapping spheres. The Something Else Press was born from Higgins’ frustration with Maciunas’ delay in publishing his book.
Both of them had a fascination with the vernacular. Fluxus events organized by these two animateurs tried for a mix of popular elements like circus, carnival, sportive contests, theater itself, often obsolete forms which the artists sought to reinject with abstruse experimental content. (Brecht’s concept of epic theater included similar analogs as a means of putting over political content.) If you don’t undertand what’s going on, at least you understand the frame, i.e., what might be supposed to be going on.

Return of the Monster Book

Alison Knowles made another sculptural installation she called The Big Book. It was a large sculpture represented in this show by a life-sized photo blowup. It looks like a giant wood-framed folder of photos and plastic-based collages in muted colors. The wall text suggests that it could be hooked up to plumbing like a house. The Big Book was exhibited in its day with success. The video in this show is full of shaky closeup details, but is unhelpful in understanding just what this installation artwork consisted of.
An idea of what The Big Book must have been like comes from a later work, The Boat Book, exhibited in Pittsburgh in 2016.

The Boat Book in 2016

Nadine Wasserman writes of it, The Boat Book, an immersive 8-foot-tall sculpture with proportionate, movable wood-framed pages…. [T]his book, similar to earlier versions called ‘Big Book’ and ‘The Book of Bean,’ is intended to be physically and mentally navigated. As an assemblage that includes a bean turner [?], poetry, books, a soundtrack of Knowles reading nautical-related material, and (the potential) for interaction, it has [a] non-hierarchical density of experience”.
The is surely the clearest example I’ve ever seen of the artist’s book as alternative space.

NEXT: Some more on the Reina Sofia show. A visit to the Vostell Museum in Caceres, another redoubt in the Fluxus “Game of Beans”. The catalogue.


Dick Higgins daughter has written on the movement from the rug rat’s eye view:
Hannah Higgins, Fluxus experience (University of California Press, 2002)

re. Ben Patterson

good precis of his life and career: Andrew Russeth, “Ben Patterson, Cornerstone of Fluxus and Experimental Art, Dies at 82”, June 27, 2016

An Alternative History of Art, Episode 8 of 10 (13:44; 2018)
Naomi Beckwith, curator at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art, explores the work of overlooked artist Ben Patterson - the only African American founder of the Fluxus movement.

See also "Ben Patterson Tells Fluxus Stories (From 1962 To 2002)", and many recordings of his music at

Carl Little, “Bern Porter: Never Finish”, April 26, 2015

Rachael Morrison, "Bern Porter" in MoMA Library; online exhibition

On Alison Knowles’ House of Dust:
Jonathon Keats, “Meet The Female Artist Who Programmed A Computer To Make A House In The 1960s”, July 30, 2022

See also Carlos Trilnick, "The House of Dust" (ESP; many photos)

On Knowles’ experiences at CalArts, see:
Janet Sarbanes, “A School Based on What Artists Wanted to Do: Alison Knowles on CalArts” interview, August 7, 2012

George Maciunas’ Fluxhouse Cooperatives

Nadine Wasserman, “A retrospective gives Alison Knowles her due: A Fluxus artist’s journey is mapped in beans and unconventional ‘books’”, 2016

Saturday, February 3, 2024

"Call It Something Else”: The Tangled New Wilderness of Concept Art 1 of 3(?)

The recent exhibition "Call It Something Else: Something Else Press, Inc. (1963-1974)" at the Reina Sofia museum in Madrid "focuses on the books, projects, and activities of Dick Higgins’s publishing house Something Else Press, as well as on his theoretical notion of Intermedia, a term the publisher reappropriated to designate the heterogeneous and category-defying forms sustained by the Something Else matrix."
Fluxus? Neo-Dada? Proto Conceptual Art? Whatever it might be called, the Something Else Press projects were essential book things which ushered experimental art into a new terrain vague, an expanded field, a fertile littoral zone that Dick Higgins, in his chatty critical writing, called "intermedia".
Fine. But this was one seriously weird exhibition. Higgins’ publication project was so idiosyncratic, so surpassingly strange that it is, or has been until now, largely unrepresentable. Or, rather, no one has tried. The museum is heroic to make the attempt to do so, but the Reina Sofia is not afraid of obscure hardtack art. It’s the art institutions in the USA who, despite holding most of the cards, are the timid ones.

The Book as Alternative Space

That feels like a Lucy Lippardism. It was a concept to wrap one's head around in 1976 when Printed Matter artists bookstore was founded in NYC.
The book as exhibition: That was Seth Siegelaub's innovation, the gambit in 1968 that made him and his gang famous, producing exhibitions that weren't sited in an art gallery, but rather existed as books. His select group of WMA's became known as the group of conceptual artists. This is canonical 'contemporary' art history in the 20th century. From time to time bleatings might be heard from the margins, but the institutional shows and market of conceptual art revolved around that loud self-description.

These were the art scientists – the very programmatic, very deliberate “look at me doing scientific things”, very well documented trials of simple actions. Measuring things.
The bleatings from the margin, indeed the first ‘books as alternative space of exhibition’, had been done some while before by the Something Else Press. And conceived some years before that. This was in the context, more or less, of the international Fluxus movement. That was named by George Maciunas, proceeding more or less (a frequent term in this terrain of shifting variables, complicated by a team of jokesters who like to move the scenery around) from the Wiesbaden events of 1962.

The Boys Are All Right

This is not to say that Siegelaub's crew were pikers. They were just packaged better, and they had the enchufe. The outsider band of Fluxus was too gangly, too inscrutable. Many of the artists involved were tied to Dada, and to European lifeways which didn't square with American values. Besides, George Maciunas was a known communist and property outlaw. Higgins was this oddball Brit whose family made medieval armor. Check with the board of directors? Fuck that guy and the horse he rode in on.
What is art now? That’s easy: It’s what can sell and be sold, what you can stand in front of in the museum and take a selfie. And your friends will be impressed because they've heard of the celebrated author of the work you are in front of. (Which was most probably not made by her or him, but who cares about the creative supply chain?)
The ideas that motivate art, the generative source code for these creative effusions of human energy – that isn't usually on display in museums or art galleries.
You have to look for that in the trash. Sift among the pile of reject misfit toys.

Sorry, Too Strange

The Something Else/Fluxus project is where that code is to be found, the algorithms of mid-20th century post-modernism. In its day the movement was too casual, too heterodox, too 'dirty' and too confusing. Seth S. and his crew nailed it down to one thing – “this book is the exhibition”. In New York City. Advertised in the art magazines.
There is a lot more in the Fluxian nexus than the minimal hard edge concept art of the mainstreamers, the canonicals, whose work has been regularly exhibited and chewed over by academics for decades. Or, let's say, Fluxianisms are quite different. More 'arty', art-derived, game-oriented, experimental, much more mixed and opaque in their motivations, sources, and manifestations.
The one who brought it together, made it seem rigorous like a scientific procedure-based art should be, was John Cage. He elaborated a theory of chance operations which could make sense of it all. Or not at all, really. But seem to.
Despite that Something Else was NYC based, and quite a number of the artists were USAians, Fluxus has always been a European thing, as evidenced by the more extensive network of institutional formations given over to the movement there. (One of which, the Vostell Museum in Spain, I will come to in this blog.) In the USA there are a lot of Fluxus collections, but they are sequestered institutional repositories, archives, and not usually seen in spaces of exhibition or activation.

So, What About the Show Already?

That’s for next time. But a good start is the text in “links”, a review by a member of a group of East Europeans studying Fluxus.
“No idea is clear to us until a little soup has been spilled on it”.
“A Something Else Manifesto by Dick Higgins”, Great Bear Pamphlet, Something Else Press, NYC, 1966.
“If you can’t do it twice, you haven’t really done it.”
-- DH, 1974


"Call It Something Else" exhibition flyer

Museum of Modern Art › exhibitions: The Seth Siegelaub Papers as Institutional Critique
“This was the first show Siegelaub organized in which the catalogue, displayed in a private apartment, was the entire exhibition in itself.”
Do we detect a bit of mirror-gazing institutional narcissism here? Siegelaub, BTW, was also a Red. Maybe just quieter about it.

Book as Exhibition
Seth Siegeulab "Xerox Book"
“A well-known example of a book as exhibition is the catalogue published in 1968 by Seth Siegelaub, which was the sole site for exhibitions of conceptual artists…”

An intelligent review of the show, drawing on the extensive wall texts
Aga Wielocha, “Call It Something Else: Something Else Press, Inc. (1963-1974)” at Museo Reina Sofía, Madrid, October 10, 2023

Monday, October 30, 2023

“Friends, Neighbors & Distant Comrades”: Introduction

The big project this year was an exhibition of my collection in Milwaukee. “Friends, Neighbors & Distant Comrades” closed in September. This was the third exhibition of this assemblage of art and ephemera in the city where it the collection is stored since my mother's death in 2020.
The installation, directed by Michael Flanagan in the gallery at MIAD (Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design), was superb. Thanks to the sale of a small work by Martin Wong, I was able to invite several friends to speak and present – Seth Tobocman and Susan Bietila, James Love Cornwell (aka Jim C), Robert Goldman (aka Bobby G), Andrea Callard, Jack Waters and Peter Cramer, and Mysoon Rizk all gave talks at MIAD during the show.

Becky Howland's Flaming Oil Tanker, related to her early '80s installation at ABC No Rio, Brainwash

So far as I know, this has been the only recent show attempting a historical overview of the downtown NYC art scene of the '80s and '90s. The collecting I did coincided with my tenure in the city, 1974-2009. And, while no group of objects can fairly represent the incredible diverse vitality of that period of creative production, this assemblage did a fair job.
The installation was roughly arranged into thematic sections. This first blog post on the project reproduces the wall texts from the show:

“Friends, Neighbors and Distant Comrades” –
The Sections of the Exhibition

This third show of my family’s art collection is organized to be a kind of occluded x-ray of a remarkable period of artistic production in the bohemian districts of New York City at the end of the 20th century. It is installed and listed here roughly chronologically – although many different things happened at the same time – to give the viewer a sense of the unfolding of an urban artworld from its countercultural roots. It includes paintings, drawings, sculpture, and publicity materials, posters and flyers of a kind that were common means of artists communication in the centuries before the internet.
The basic narrative behind all these works, the conditions of production from which they came, is “DIY”, do-it-yourself, aka autonomous self-organization. This was the golden age of the “alternative space.” Most of the work in the show was made and shown in artist-organized spaces, not in galleries and museums.

At Home with Joan and Burt:
Between Milwaukee and Los Angeles

The installation begins with an evocation of my parents, the patrons. (This homage was perforce the theme of the first show, in my mother’s house, in 2020.) We may imagine my parents at home, comfortable in their chairs, the oriental carpet Joan’s father left her spread out in the living room, books close at hand. While their son lived in New York City and bought art for them there, Burton and Joan W. Moore collected art and decorative objects on their own. As a sociologist teaching at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Joan’s specialty was Mexican Americans, specifically, Chicano/a gangs in Los Angeles. Burt was a writer and a Californian. Their collecting therefore focused on Mexican artisanal art, and some work by Chicana/o artists. That work is hanging here.

Campaign poster for Oscar Acosta's 1970 run for sheriff in Los Angeles; anonymous artist. Oscar was a friend of my mother.

This poster, by the Black Cat poster collective, hung in my mother's office.

Arriving in 1970s NYC

I arrived in New York City from California to work at the national magazine Artforum in 1974. He was mostly ignorant of the city’s artworld but found his feet fast. He was naturally drawn to the artists of Fluxus, although the zenith of that movement had passed. Younger artists, his peers, were starting their own projects. Among them was Stefan Eins, an Austrian emigre who ran a “store” in his studio exhibiting his friends. Alan left Artforum and went to work with the more convivial Art-Rite, a community art “zine” in Soho. The artists he met during these years of the ’70s, whose work he acquired for his parents, went on to form the art groups and take part in the movements of the 1980s.

Poster for Lil Picard's event at 3 Mercer Street store, 1975

Collage by Jean Dupuy; records his address in 1974

Colab and the Times Square Show 1980s

Colab was the first group I became involved with. Formed in 1978 by artists from the Whitney Studio Program, the same class as the editors of Art-Rite, Colab was an assembly of some 40 people, with a diverse and constantly changing membership. The group generated many projects of publication, cable TV production, performance and art exhibition. Most of their work in the late ’70s revolved around independent film and video.
The artists of the Colab group had a hit with the “Times Square Show,” which received close attention from the NYC artworld. Burt and Joan began to collect NYC art at that time. The couple visited the show and bought a few pieces, which are on display here.
Not long after, disaffected Colab member Diego Cortez curated “New York/New Wave” at P.S. 1 in 1981. This show launched the careers of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, and set off the art market frenzy of the decade. Both Basquiat and Haring had been minor players in the Times Square Show.
In 1983, Colab produced a show in a vacant Washington, D.C., hotel called the “Ritz Project”. Much of the artwork had a strong political content. It was too much for Ronald Reagan’s city, and the exhibition was soon shut down. The sudden chaotic conclusion of this project left many works behind in storage – several of which are shown here.

ABC No Rio and Fashion Moda

The epochal 1980 Times Square Show exhibition in the seedy, vibrant central amusement (and prostitution) district of Manhattan was preceded by two independent art spaces affiliated with the Colab group – Fashion Moda, which opened in the South Bronx in 1978, and ABC No Rio, begun on the Lower East Side in 1980. Stefan Eins and Joe Lewis ran Fashion Moda. Alan was a co-director of ABC, along with Becky Howland and Bobby G (Robert Goldman).

ABC No Rio was used by Colab continuously for meetings and shows through 1989, when the group disbanded. Fashion Moda closed in 1993. ABC No Rio continues active to this day “in exile” as a new building is pending construction.

East Village Art Movement

Colab’s success with a rough, socially conscious style of work was a kind of starting gun for a feverish period of art and radical culture in New York City.
Artists poured into the city from across the country and around the world to develop the scene in the city. They were attracted by cheap rents and a burgeoning number of art galleries and nightclubs in the working-class district of the Lower East Side, the city’s traditional bohemia. The East Village was the place to be in the 1980s.


The AIDS pandemic began to hit in NYC in the late ’70s, and slowly built throughout the ’80s. The U.S. government under Ronald Reagan was unconcerned for several years as gay men and IV drug users began to die in large numbers. Among them were many artists, luminaries of the art scene like Keith Haring, David Wojnarowicz and Martin Wong. Large numbers of other artists, young and old, popular and little-known, also died. Loisaida’s street people, addicts and the homeless, also began to disappear. As the ’80s rolled on, rents on the Lower East Side began to rise dramatically; gentrification had begun. The writing was on the wall. The scene would soon be over.

Preparing works in storage
Rivington School and the Subterraneans

In a very public area of the Lower East Side, a wild art performance scene began to bubble around a former Latino drug den and social club called No Se No. It was kicked off by “99 Nights” of daily events. The Rivington School of metal sculptors, fueled by alcohol and testosterone, soon colonized a nearby vacant lot with a jungle of welded steel and carved stone. This anarchistic scene lasted from 1983 to 1987, and several of the artists became involved in the Lower East Side squatters movement.

Linus Coraggio frames a photo of the Rivington School sculpture garden
Graffiti Art Movement

Mostly it was white artists who arrived in NYC from all over in the ’70s and ’80s to pursue their careers. But an indigenous art movement was already there and gaining steam – graffiti “writing” on subway trains and hip-hop culture in the South Bronx. These artists, mostly people of color, began to show their work in East Village art galleries in the ’80s, boosted by the early graffiti writing of art stars like Haring and Basquiat. The South Bronx art space Fashion Moda played a key role in the process of integrating the graffiti writers into the NYC artworld and beyond to Europe.

Issues of the aerosol art zine IGT designed by Phase II
Return to Order

This section of the show has a multiple sense: It includes artists active in the East Village and some in Colab whose work was more formal in nature and did not directly engage volatile social themes. The theme also alludes to the first invasion of Iraq in 1990, and a new cycle of wars with the reassertion of U.S. hegemony in the Middle East, which is most definitely a political question.
What is more, the “order” of culture in lower Manhattan was basically festive; nightclubs were very important. Throughout the ’90s, artist-made film and video became more visible through screenings in clubs, self-organized festivals and new distribution networks like Colab’s MWF Video Club. New social concerns began to emerge through inventive cultural activism. And the queer community, badly impacted by AIDS, became more assertive.

To the Streets for Global Justice

The final section of this exhibition takes its title from the many artists who became involved in large demonstrations against the series of summit meetings of world leaders of government and business in capitals around the western world in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s. The demonstrators demanded Global Justice within the emerging neoliberal economic order. These demonstrations were colorful and telegenic parades as artists provided pageantry and made publicity posters to mobilize in a period when social media was only beginning to emerge. The Just Seeds co-op formed to distribute political artists’ poster works. Activist artists also moved into cultural institutions in a bid to amplify their cause.

Rocky Dobey, “Take the Capitol”, poster for G-8 protest in Ottawa, 2002

The "Smalls" in Vitrines

The small objects in the show are contained in large vitrines, and listed separately.
Entering into the art market was very important for most young NYC artists in the 1970s and '80s. Self-organization, independent exhibitions in friends' lofts – all of these were strategies that for many substituted for acceptance into galleries.
Exhibitions in state-funded alternative spaces were non-commercial. The shows of the Colab group also had no commercial aspect; nothing was for sale. The Real Estate Show was a political act, an art squat. Both ABC No Rio and Fashion Moda received state funds, and neither sold art.
At the 1980 Times Square Show, Tom Otterness and Cara Perlman organized a "gift shop" where artists could sell their low-cost hand-crafted multiple objects. Unlike gallery editioned multiples of the 1960s and '70s, these were usually a series of more or less identical artworks quite often unnumbered and unsigned. They appealed to buyers by their novelty and interest, since the artists were young and unknown.

Later that same year, Kiki Smith arranged for the "A More Store" to sell small artworks by Colab members and their friends in the art district of Soho during the holiday season, and Colab store projects continued yearly until the end of the group (1989). Most of the works in vitrines in this exhibition are from those Colab sales projects.
In time, most non-commercial art spaces have come to sell artists’ editions to support their programs. The artists book store Printed Matter, rooted in sales, was among the first. The strategy was also popular among individual artists who created branded merchandise – Keith Haring opened his own store called the Pop Shop (1986-1990); KAWS dolls are everywhere. Artists continue to organize collective store projects, for example the Buddy store in Chicago (

NEXT: Accounts of the visiting artists’ presentations – Seth Tobocman and Susan Bietila, Robert Goldman (Bobby G), Andrea Callard, Jack Waters and Peter Cramer, and Mysoon Rizk

References, Online:

Alan W. Moore's website:

The Hunter College Art Galleries “Times Square Show Revisited” exhibition, 2012
Website includes extensive artist interviews

online book ABC No Rio Dinero (1985 print; e-version 2010)

MWF Video Club transferred content online

References, Print:

Max Schumann (ed.) A Book about Colab (and Related Activities), Printed Matter, Inc, 2016

XFR STN exhibition brochure PDF (New Museum, 2013)

Lauren Rosati and Mary Anne Staniszewski, eds., Alternative Histories: New York Art Spaces, 1960-2010 (MIT Press, 2012)

Alan W. Moore, Art Gangs: Protest and Counterculture in New York City (Autonomedia, 2011); Art Worker: Doing Time in the New York Artworld (JoAAP, 2022)

Carlo McCormick, The Downtown Book: The New York Art Scene, 1974–1984 (Princeton University Press, 2006)

Julie Ault, Alternative Art, New York, 1965-1985 (University of Minnesota Press, 2002)

Selected Filmography

Downtown 81 (1981/2000; 1:11)
Edo Bertoglio [Glenn O'Brien], director
Basquiat himself stars in this film, conceived by his friend O’Brien. Made in ‘81, but released later, it is very artisanal. and

Wild Style (1983; 1:21)
Hailed as the first hip-hop movie, Wild Style captures New York's early hip-hop culture. Stars graffiti writers Lee Quiñones and Lady Pink (Sandra Fabara), along with Patti Astor. Includes Busy Bee Starski, Fab Five Freddy, The Cold Crush Brothers, and Grandmaster Flash. Directed by Charlie Ahearn.
Amazon Prime video

156 Rivington (2003; 56 min.)
This documentary traces the history of ABC No Rio from the Real Estate Show, and profiles later activities in the space. Directed by Andrea Meller.

Blank City (2010; 1:34)
Documentary about the “do-it-yourself" independent filmmaking of the punk era in late '70s and ‘80s downtown NYC. Beth & Scott B, Nick Zedd, and others are interviewed. Directed by Celine Danhier.

Shadowman (2017; 1:22)
Interviews and footage of street artist Richard Hambleton, known for his evocative paintings in dark corners. Chronicles his heavy drug addiction, and fall from prominence. Directed by Oren Jacoby Amazon Prime video

Boom for Real (2017; 1:19)
Detailed documentary on the rise of Jean-Michel Basquiat, including interviews with those who knew him. Directed by Sara Driver.
Amazon Prime video

Make Me Famous (2022; 1:33)
A portrait of a forgotten striver in the East Village art scene of the 1980s, as recalled by those who knew him. This “in search of” documentary takes a very different view of the epoch. Directed by Brian Vincent.
In theatrical release; screened during this exhibition.

Other video and film….
The MWF Video Club collection on, and Colab Video on YouTube contain extensive video content of varying lengths produced and/or distributed by Colab during from 1986-2000. Archival uploads are ongoing to the site.

Pedro Linares (family), Tourist with camera, n.d. [acquired 1981]

Saturday, July 22, 2023

"Machinations" at Reina Sofia: Part Two

Dengbêjs storytellers in "Love in the Face of Genocide" by Rojava Film Commune

This is the second part of my review of “Machinations” at the Reina Sofia museum in Madrid this summer. I renew my attempts to encompass this huge summer show which is more like a biennale than a themed exhibition. In this segment we move from “War Machines” through “Schizo culture” to “Cinema Machines of Care”. The old hospital-turned-museum fulfills its new task of lancing traumas and salving subjectivities.

Among the “War Machines”

Resuming my roam through “Machinations” , the Indonesian collective Taring Padi has a setup in the first room, a large-scale banner print behind an assembly of brightly painted cardboard cutout figures of evil corruptos. As part of the show, the Reina’s Museo Situado project organized a workshop with Taring Padi in the community garden "Esta es una plaza". Participants made similar wayang kardus, puppets in Indonesian style to express issues of the neighborhood.

Taring Padi is the best known of the art collectives that emerged after the end of the Suharto dictatorship in 1998. A mural they made in 2002 was part of their retrospective at last year's Documenta, curated by another Indonesian collective, ruangrupa. The enormous work, like Cian Dayrit’s work, was an attempt to come to terms in cartoonish vernacular with the continuities of colonialism and the inheritor elites who continued the exploitation, in a kind of pulp fiction muralismo.
The work was the trigger for a nasty scandal. An anti-Semitic caricature, pointing to the material support the Israeli government provided to the Suharto dictatorship, led to a prolonged media attack on the public-funded exhibition as rightwing media seized upon the issue.

at right: Mish Mish Effendi
This is a specifically German version of rightwing culture wars, a cynical exploitation of minority sensibilities. These representations of post-colonial Indonesia’s hard history, which Taring Padi included in their Documenta retrospective, were not made for European audiences. Jews are a minuscule part of the Indonesian population, while the actions of Israel in support of dictatorships, mobilized through Mossad, have earned that state great international enmity. Subsequent to the scandal, both art collectives have been working to repair their relationship with German Jewish groups.

Not So Comical

Jews are the original ancient European nomads. The installation of Eran Schaerf, an Israeli architect, urbanist, and photographer, Nomadesque (2023) is a full set of displays built around the Frenkel brothers, cartoonists in Egypt in the 1930s. The Frenkels created the Mish Mish Effendi character in animated cartoons, which Schaerf reads as an avatar of Jewish exile. Through a wraparound set, a tiny movie theater, and artifacts, Mish Mish cartoons assert a cheeful cosmopolitan identity through borrowing attributes from other pop culture icons like Mickey Mouse. Perhaps this lightheartedness was only possible in the prewar era before postcolonial boundaries in the ex-Middle East had hardened.

Nomadology: Lifeways and Military Motions

In Exquisite Corpse, the Lebanese artist Rayyane Tabet digs deep into an antique intellectual job site. His great grandfather was a translator for a German ethnographer who produced a four volume work (displayed) on the Bedouins of the Transjordan region. That zone is now a few different countries. The point of this, the key artifact in Tabat's installation, is that the means of roaming used by these nomadic people – a tent form called bisht – was adapted by imperial militaries. Most of the room is hung with the looming drab canvas of different military tents; related hardware, pegs etc., are hung along the walls. These ethnographers then were in a way spies, and agents of colonial governance. Knowledge is appropriation.
The Rojava Film Commune, working in active war zones, is among the artists whose work concerns ongoing processes of ethnic dislocation. In the video Love in the Face of Genocide (Shero Hinde, dir., 2020) traditional Kurdish singers recite their new and old verses of loss.

Slipping along we leave the realm of analysis and enter a terrain of affect unleashed where the museum becomes an annex of the asylum.
These are the artworks posited as examples of “Schizo Machines”. There is politics behind this too, as was elaborated early on in Deleuze and Guattari’s book Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1972 FR/1983 ENG). The idea that conditions confront us with impossible choices which lead to a nomral kind of madness is adumbrated in the work of Gregory Bateson on the double bind, and R.D. Laing’s idea of knots – the bundles of contradictions that both motivate and paralyze moderns.

Above right: Huanchaco blesses you

Cuidado: Here Be Madness

Tai Shani's Neon Hieroglyph video takes as its subject a direct organic cause of derangement: ergot, the hallucinogenic fungus growing on rye which caused medieval epidemics of madness. Based in microphotography, the shifting swirling colors of Shani’s “feminist psychedelia” spin a bleary erotic narrative of alienism, endlessly replicating rhizomatically (another of Deleuze and Guattari's favorite metaphors).
A vitrine and wall works concern the personal territory elaborated by the Zush/Evru (aka Albert Porta) who imagined a personal “Evrugo Mental State”, a country which manufactures ironic weaponry that kills with pleasure and hilarity. Artifacts from that construct – a flag, currency, passport, map – occupy a vitrine.

A wall is given over to Huanchaco (Fernando Gutiérrez), a kind of obsessive Peruvian music-priest, whose universalist Manual para Hablar con Dios (2018) is elaborated in meticulous blue ink drawings of the machines he proposes. In a video he does costumed performances with lots of smoke and mirrors.

Queer Plastic and Fish

Probably the oddest of the odd videos here are two rooms given to the queer Indian artist Tejal Shah. Between the Waves (2012) is a kind of choreographed bacchanal of unconventional semi-nude young bodies, floundering about in ways that seem profoundly uncomfortable. The dancers(?) are costumed with bindings and protruberances and move through an underwater-scape of colored plastic sea vegetables. A confused fish wanders into the frame. Braided e-waste floats over a bleached coral reef.
In another scene set on a high balcony terrace with a scenic urban overlook, the queer bacchantes clamber over and penetrate one another. Pomegranates are burst, and the seeds massaged into orifices. Ouch. A couple of light sculptures in the room seem like gilding the lily beside this exceptionally weird set of filmic setups.
Another room shows the video of Tejal Shah’s stagings of performances in landscapes of industrial waste, mountains of it, overlooking deep vistas of urban development. These include hill-sized walls of the dumb brown shredded unrecyclables Western countries export to Asia. A black-and-white animation on a screen alongside abstracts the theme, rapidly proposing hieroglyphics. You give us garbage we give you back spectacle.

Healing in the Movie Theater

From here the rooms branch like labyrinths, as we enter the segment “Cinema Machines of Care”. Guattari worked with La Borde, Jean Oury’s psychiatric clinic. Their innovative protocols – in brief, the inmates ran the asylum together with the doctors – shared a lot with the clinic regimens of Francesc Tosquelles Llauradó, whose work was the subject of an earlier exhibition at the Reina Sofia packed with classic “outsider art” called "Like a Sewing Machine in a Wheat Field". (It's a Surrealist poetic conjunction; Tosquelles invited Surealist artists and poets to his asylum.)

Oury and Guattari

That exhibition revealed the broad scale project of the Catalan psychiatrist, who came from frontline mental clinics in the Spanish Civil War. His goal was to reform the asylum and reintegrate mental patients as a cooperative cultural society and creative production unit.

Another Reina Sofia favorite, Dora Garcia has some rooms here, the talking heads video “Deviant Majority from Basaglia to Brazil” (2010; 34 min.), and a darkened tunnel with an impassive smiling young face and a couple of gesticulating forearms. A blackboard proposes the excercises I was far too exhausted to consider. Later I saw a boy waving his hands, trying to interact with the smiling face video. Sorry, no dice.

My Spinning Head!

At this point my partner arrives. She has watched parts of the video featuring Guattari and Tosquelles, among others. She describes an installation I have just seen in terms completely unlike what I saw.

A show as dense and lengthy as this is a tesseract. The videos all together would take many hours to watch, and most visitors will only enter each viewing room rather briefly. What any one person gleans from it is going to be completely different from what any other person sees.

Among the Many Dead

It took me a few times to get it, but Gee Vaucher’s Lost (2018) is a synthetic anti-war message. It's delivered through the scale of the images – four enormous portraits of abused children, four paintings, four heads. Then a fat 6” thick book hand written, page upon page of apparent markings, scratchings in ordered rows. The first pages are stick figures; the figures diminish in size on each successive page, becoming in the end just innumerable tiny marks in blocks.

Gee Vaucher is renowned as the illustrator for the anarcho-punk band Crass, and her theme throughout her life has been anti-war. This is that – a kind of metaphorical accounting of the uncountable, the incomprehensible damage done to the legions of victims, especially children, by the endless ongoing calamities of warring adults. The work plays out in this abrupt change of scale – “4 things at a time” – then a diminuendo, on and on and on, which we can only “read” about.

Eternal Return… 65+ Get in Free

The density of information presented, the multiple unfamiliar contexts made it near impossible for me to make it through the entire show from beginning to end. I saw that the only way to cover it, to get to the later pieces, was to re-enter the exhibition from the rear. As it turned out, there are two other separate museum rooms with yet more works.

Recollecting Radio Alice

The Sala del Protocolo, a chamber in the museum with a dramatic spiral staircase and extensive cabinetry holds Loreto Martinez Troncoso’s installationPoemarios garabato (scrawl poems; 2023). Troncoso covers the walls with scratchy texts and markings. An eclectic selection of sounds issues from a floor-crawling array of speakers. The artist works with collaborators, and gathers multiple voices and readings, including Franco "Bifo" Berardi, a principal in the free Radio Alice project in Bologna in 1977.

Radio Alice was an important pirate radio station during the Autonomia organizing in Bologna. It was a continuous source of in-the-moment advice to street fighters (phone booth calls to the station), in between playing music and cracking jokes. Félix and Bifo were close. Guattari wrote a script for a film about Radio Alice, set amidst the 1977 Autonomist uprisings. Berardi wrote a biography of his long-time friend and collaborator.

Big Head Economists

So, coming in at the back door of the main exhibition, I encounter the videos of Juan Pérez Agirregoikoa, grouped under the title Undesireable Aliens (2021). These works feature big-head puppets – cabezudos, a popular festival tradition in Spain – delivering and listening to economic discourses. Among them is Milton Friedman, the influential anti-Keynesian monetarist economist who advised Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.
The misleading simplifications and condescension of Friedman’s discourse, especially his attempts at humor, come across sharply when he is caricatured in this way.

Misery Is Profitable

Around the corner, Femke Herregraven’s work Spectres of Calculated Prophecies (2023) visibilizes the catastrophe bond market. This is an especially bleak infographic, a lightbox with a soft colorfield look to it. If you have the feeling that major disasters have been accelerating in the last several years you are correct. Moreover, speculating on them constitutes a rich market for investors.

I reference Herregraven’s explanation of her work in the links below. Looking through that chart, with its chronology of hundreds, thousands, and sometimes millions of deaths did not incline me to understand how capital markets make money off of this.
Another of her works, drawings called Split Ends, show clumps and loops of hair with micrographic captions of a fatalistic nature alongside them.
A regular feature of Reina Sofia exhibitions are the products of critical cartography groups, nearly all of them downloadable with QR codes. In an earlier room, analyzes migration in a graphic data visualization, and the Iconoclasistas present the map of autonomous sites in the museum's neighborhood of Lavapies as it was annotated by visitors in a group exhibition three years ago.

Painting with Props in a Theater

Some relief from the panoply of works with thick content and context is Heiner Goebbels’ The Last Painting (20 min.; 2023). A record of a 2019 NYC performance in the vast Park Avenue Armory space, a team of ‘actors’ move large cloths around. Really large. It is a theater of objects, an abstract exercise, relaxing, mesmerizing even, in its flow with honking foghorn saxophone accompaniment. My partner sees one man working harder than the others….

Ismaïl Bahri’s Foyer (2016) is another abstract exercise. So easy to pass by, it consists of an apparently blank screen with subtitles in Spanish of Arabic speech. A group of men joking. Splashing is heard. Bahri is filming a sheet of paper. Conversations gather around him. “What are you doing?” Discussions about skin color.
The video resulted from Bahri’s purely abstract experiments filming a sheet of white paper placed up againist the camera lens. He did this in the street in Tunis, and soon curious passersby started to talk about the artist’s work and about other things, which changed Bahri’s experiment. “I stopped watching in order to start listening.” What began as "an abstract operation" about "blindness" ended up to be a film about Tunis.

To Murder Poets

Another of those separate rooms is made into a theater for the work of the Italian filmmaking couple Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi, presented under the title Frente a Guernica (100 min.; 2023). They work with found footage, in this case Spanish – there is footage of the Civil War, advancing troops, wounded carried from the field, Republican refugees… sad images of a sad time.
One of their segments covers the Mandelstam affair, part of which played out in Spain, a consequence of the country’s alliance with Stalin’s Russia. During a conference in Republican Barcelona, Russian writers debated the matter of the poet Osip Mandelstam’s insults to Stalin. The poet died some years later in a labor camp: "Only in Russia is poetry respected, it gets people killed,” he wrote. “Is there anywhere else where poetry is so common a motive for murder?"
Subsequently, many countries may be added to the list.

The Hospital Become a Museum

There are significant exhibitions within the “Cinema of Care” segment of “Machinations” that deal with African subjects. One of the largest is Jean-Pierre Bekolo’s room. The work of the Cameroonian theorist of a “healing cinema” is presented in a classroom-like setup, quite cold in the summer, with large monitors on two sides showing black faces watching the screen.

I came back with a jacket.
Several films were shown. In one, contemporary speakers discuss the discourse of colonialism, how the national anthem includes deprecatory words about the country’s people. Historical footage shows Cameroonian dignitaries negotiating the decolonization. A visit to the country by De Gaulle. What would be the continued relation between the two countries? The African diplomats are stepping lightly, speaking circumspectly durinig their visit to Paris.
In one scene, Leopold Senghor speaks of the extreme difficulties of uniting African countries which speak French, English and Arabic. A contemporary head intervenes – “The French project of De Gaulle was a petroleum project!”
Bekolo’s cinema heals by reflection and reference. It is about “how the story should be told, how the story should have been told.”

Human Zoos and Filmic Paradise

One Afro-German artist filmed in her studio by Bekolo’s crew speaks about her work with the history of Cameroonians who were taken to Germany. (I missed the name; maybe it’s Amma Asante?) She begins discussing girl children kidnapped at the turn of the last century by German missionaries, trained in Germany, then “exported” back to Cameroon. There they endured extreme isolation; were told that they were white people. Many died of depression.
She spoke of Afro-Germans who were prisoners in a film set paradise, a twisting tale that begins with Carl Hagenbeck of Hamburg, a purveyor of wild animals, and “an ethnography showman and a pioneer in displaying humans next to animals in human zoos” (WikiPedia). In Berlin, Templehof, site of the UFA film studios, housed Cameroonian actors who played in serial films. Elaborate sets were built for these. Later Templehof became a wartime training ground for Nazi concentration camp admininstrators. More recently it was the site of a camp for migrants.
An adjacent gallery housed an extensive presentation of documents from the Cultural Association of African Workers in France. The centerpiece of this was a filmed play, Traana, Temporary Migrant (26 min.; 2017), by Raphaël Grisey and Kàddu Yaraax.

The 1977 play treats the exodus of rural people to the city, and to Europe. The background of this work, explicated in the display, goes back to the failed '60s and '70s liberation movements in Senegal and Mali. The peopie with whom the Paris-based activists reconnected, seeking to help them form cooperatives, soon became experts in migration.These are the fishermen who navigate pirogues full of migrants to Spain.
The weight of multiple oppressions is twisted in knots bound up with fictional and religious fantasies. The moment we think we understand is the moment opportunist politicians can fool us. Reconciling to the trauma and recognizing the responsibility of an oppressor nation is a lifelong work.
This museum used to be a hospital. Now they are trying to mend the cares and worries of the world in another way.



Taring Padi

on Taring Padi at Documenta – Dorian Batycka, “‘All the Red Lines Have Been Crossed’: Just Days After Opening, Documenta Conceals an Artwork Depicting Antisemitic Stereotypes”, June 21, 2022
succinct resume of the Taring Padi crisis last year; the after-effects continue to reverberate

Jews in Indonesia

"Rojava Film Commune lanza un nuevo documental sobre la tradición de dengbej en Sinjar" includes clips of the video

In Conversation: Tai Shani on "Untitled Hieroglyphs"... speaking on centuries of "tripping" in Italy, ergot outbreaks and witchcraft, and more.

A 2014 MACBA project on free radio begins with a 1/2 hour podcast on the Radio Alice project, "RADIOACTIVITY #1 Radio Alice" is at:

See Félix Guattari, Isabelle Mangou, Un amour d'UIQ: Scénario pour un film qui manque (Editions Amsterdam/Multitudes, 2012)
Félix Guattari (trans. Graeme Thomson and Silvia Maglioni), A Love of UIQ (dist. By U. of MN Press for Univocal Publishing, 2016)

Franco (Bifo) Berardi, Felix Guattari. Thought, Friendship, and Visionary Cartography (Macmillan, 2008)

Femke Herregraven text describing the basis of catastrophe bonds, and profiting from climate disasters

Ismaïl Bahri Introduces His Film "Foyer"

Carl Hagenbeck [human zookeeper in Hamburg]

Damian Zane, “Being black in Nazi Germany”, BBC News, 22 May 2019, on the work of Amma Asante

"Traana" -- Raphaël Grisey, Kàddu Yaraax, Bouba Touré

Wednesday, July 19, 2023

“Machinations” at Reina Sofia: Part One

Queer Futures poster hangs over the cafe in the plaza in the plaza of the Reina Sofia museum.

An exhibition review -- Your intrepid reporter steps off the griddle-like streets of Madrid to explore the frozen reaches of the latest enormous summer exhibition at the Reina Sofia museum, “Machinations”. It’s a mad mad mad mad world of artistic experiments, built upon the rickety theoretical pretext of Félix Guattari’s theory of machines. 50 artists, 50 chances to freak out.

Another Reina Sofia museum exhibition, another enormous labyrinth of misery, frustration and madness. If in any doubt that these are now ruling aesthetic emotions, "Maquinaciones/Machinations" should dispell it.
I have been defeated before in my struggle to understand and report these museum projects. This time I shall not fail. I re-enter the museum for the third time determined. And get off on the wrong floor. I am in the waiting room of the small show, “Instituto del Tiempo Suspendido”. I sit on a couch. The number 45 is on the light board. Of course no one is there to attend anyone, and the number will never change. It’s an art show….
I won’t try to figure this one out. I am back down the stairs to find my object of study.
The wall text for “Machinations” explains that the show proceeds from ideas developed by Félix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze on “machines”. I read their Anti-Oedipus 40 years ago and didn’t understand the concept. Years later, their 1,000 Plateaus fell from my listless hands. Historiographically the D&G machine idea is derived from Karl Marx’s text “Fragment on Machines”, which dealt with the relation between the worker as human agency and the machine which capital favored to replace them. But radically extended to cover vast realms of subjectivity.

Machines on Wheels

Wall text explains that the exhibition is organized according to Guattari’s idea of “a machination embracing life as a connective synthesis of affects”. There are three “axes” – 1) War Machines, 2) Schizo Machines and 3) Cinema Machines of Care. Most of the 50 artists are from the Mediterranean countries and Africa.

Felix Guattari with Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil, 1982. A book resulted, "Molecular Revolution: Psychiatry and Politics".

As I study more, I find this 4-minute video explaining the theoretical context for the show. It seems so very clear from this, rather like that moment in high school when the teacher led me to actually understand quantum mechanics. Ha.

This framing theory isn’t easy for the non-theoretically inclined person. Even trained political philosophers struggle with D&G’s ideas; there are no simple correlates. (For you who still strive, I link to the full text; actually, I just found another hidden brochure which might be clearer.) Despite all this, "Maquinaciones” is a tremendous show.
The problem with it, as I suggested above, is its breadth and its density at every point. The historical interweavings at every level in almost every work make for a banquet of fruitcakes.
In the first room is Cachorro [“puppy”?], a cart made by the activist architecture group Todo por la Praxis. It’s a kind of portable protest vehicle, used most recently in demonstrations against cuts in public health. TxP worked with the assembly of the Reina’s Museo Situado (the Situated Museum), a program to support the community of Lavapies where the museum is located.
A sign hangs from the cart, #LasFronterasMatan (borders kill). Domestic workers, who used the cart for one campaign, include many migrants.

This kind of vehicle has always charmed me, since I first saw Nils Norman’s “The Gerard Winstanley Radical Gardening Space Reclamation Mobile Field Center and Weather Station Prototype” (1999). TxP has built a fully functional cart which every cadre of a social movement should have to support their actions in the street. Photos on the wall show the cart in action.
Scattered here and there in the exhibition are drawings, “analytical cartographies” from the archive of Guattari. These obscure diagrams we are told are “assemblages that open, work, and machinate” something something. It is certain they would repay study, colored geometrical drawings of the “politics of meaning”, the “politics of experimentation”, “the angle of meaning”, and etc.

Panicked Pulsations

First video stop at this entrance is a banging, slamming video work by the techno sound collective Test Dept, DS30 (2014). This is a kind of imagistic alternative history of mining in the UK. It pulls many images from the 1984-85 miners’ strike broken by rightwing PM Thatcher in a decisive death knell for union power in the neoliberal era.

Formally it’s fast cuts and loud sounds. (Thump thump) industrial ruins (boom boom) brownfield redevelopment (blang trang) striking workers being beaten by cops. The label says, “with each repetition, a difference. And the accumulation of differences leads to a group consciousness.” Hmm.
Punk cultural philosopher Mark Fisher called these "sonic mosaics, pulsing with panic"… “a weaponisation of memories and archives, a mustering of resources for a struggle which could be resumed at any moment.” It’s part of industrial “hauntology”, more threatening to the status quo than mere antiquarian melancholy. A lot of this show plunges us into the past and all its unresolved wrongs. Other works queer our present. Maybe we are still upstairs, in the waiting room of suspended time.

Better there waiting than out on the water, in the Channel or the Mediterranean, striving to reach the fabled European land of missing opportunity. Simon Vega’s cartoon 3rd World Space Module Blueprints seem almost wistful. We might imagine far future generations of high tech migrants trying to break into the big space stations, listening to music, taking drugs, and smuggling whatevers.

The Bonsai Tree of Liberty

Cartooning is a major medium in this first grand room. First we pass Angela Ferreira’s “talk tower”, an Oldenburg-sized loudspeaker, inspired by Gustav Klutsis. The soundtrack of Rádio Voz da Liberdade (2022) is drawn from the little-known solidarity broadcasts between Algerian and Portuguese activists in the 1960s.
The main wall in this room is given over to Efrén Álvarez, Propaganda by the Deed of Remembering the Age of Reason (2023), a “schematic composition, a graphic history of ideology” of art against “capitalist homogenesis”. (Theory is like weeds here, growing in every crack of text – def. bio: "method of reproduction in which each generation resembles the previous generation".)

Enlightenment-era figures meet, one trailing deep roots of enslaved people out of sight

This is brutal humor, colonial history in the mode of Mad magazine’s Sergio Aragones. Albarez shows European civilization as a huge bloody pile including vomiting priests and passive kings which vaults the oceans and forcefully converts the folks in the “Terra nullius” (territory of no one) into a similar bloody ruined pile.
There’s a series of panopticon drawings in Albarez’s wall of visual excess that shows cloacal cycles of the outcomes of philosophies, cartoons about the self-deception of the bourgeois elites, the “redistribution of absolutism” and such.
My favorite, the standout objet trouve which kind of says it all, was the “Bonsai Tree of Liberty”, complete with Phrygian cap on a chopstick pole.

In sum, this is an exegesis of European Enlightenment philosophy which strips its high clothing off to expose pure venality. A banner hung high in the room bears the legend, spoken by a ghostlike priest: “La tierra para quien se la roba” ("The land for those who steal it"). A tiny king kisses his hand.

The Wizard of Benin

Georges Adéagbo’s room-scale installation really confused me. I was delighted to meet the 80+ artist at the press preview, and be able to express my admiration for his work. I spoke first with a young French language journalist who expressed amazement at being the only black press person there. “Welcome to Spain,” I says.
After racing through the huge complex exhibition, I returned to chat with Stephan Köhler, who works with Adéagbo in the Kultur Forum Sud Nord in Hamburg, connecting Europe and Benin, where the artist is from. Köhler told me that the array in the “Machinations” show was in the Shanghai Biennale curated by the activist Raqs Media Collective.

Georges Adeagbo's work "The Revolution and the Revolutions…" at the 2016 Shanghai Biennale

Many things then had to be removed from the show in Shanghai – all mentions of Tibet; a photo of Ai Wei Wei (he has been cut out of the photo in a collaged-in clipping shown in Madrid, but that was not enough for the Chinese censors). As well, Köhler said, numerous items disappeared from the array. Sinister? Or… I can only imagine the vicissitudes of traveling with such a massive array of things.
I taught Georges Adéagbo’s work years ago as one of the clearest examples of conceptual art. It deals with real objects signifying real cultural and political pasts placed on the wallsand which is almost exclusively content arranged on the walls, in vitrines, and on the floor. In Madrid stuff is also placed on a rug.
Adéagbo’s subject matter has been European colonialism, its intellectual artifacts (books and printed materials) mixed with traditional African cultural objects – “art”. His work is like a material mindscape, sparking a myriad of connections. It’s like being inside an exploded library or whatnot store in Africa where everything has been purposively arranged as if in some cheesy magic-driven movie – “I think it’s trying to tell us something”.

The Darkest Room

Exit right, you’re in a room with a shadowy occluded platform. A title on a screen: “The performance will start soon. Please enter the stage”. This installation is built off a film record of the Living Theatre’s performance of Paradise Now, probably the most famous collectively created participatory theater piece in postwar history which toured US & EU in ‘68 (Alexander Tuchaček paradise now - Echoes from the Future, 2019).
Not sure why this is here, except as a type of ‘machination’ which it surely is, and a big inscrutable cool thing, which it also is. Except for a bit ‘o’ history – I recall Judith Malina was raped several times during these performances, a pre-Altamont early inkling that the hippie liberation had a dark underside.
The rest of the room is given over to decolonial art, which for me is the strongest tutelary aspect of “Machinations". Much of it is unsubtly enraged. In this company the elder Adéagbo seems suave and suggestive, able to draw on a settled set of traditions (in Benin) to punctuate his associative panoramas of cultural artifacts.
Many of these artists are grappling with dispossession, either unresolved historical crimes or ongoing assaults in the present day. The postwar question posed by the German philosopher Teodor Adorno, how to make culture in the wake of catastrophe, is starkly present for them.
Works in film, bas relief, video and installation speak to colonialism and its inheritances. It is composed in many different registers, as artists work the archive at multivarious strata, or lock themselves firmly in a personal dreamworld.
This room holds a number of works in film, bas relief, video and installation which speak to African colonialism and its inheritances both north and south.
Filipino artist Cian Dayrit’s heavy tapestries embroidered over period photos printed onto the fabric are dense political cartoons, rough and tough like the 18th century work of James Gillray. The Philippines was colonized by both Spanish and Americans, and indigenous elites picked up the ball. Dayrit has annotated the colonial era images with patches and embroiderings to show the continuities of colonial, corporate and corrupt politicians’ oppressions and exploitations.

Dayrit is an activist. Not for him the irony and humor of Kidlat Tahimik's massive multi-scene colonial anti-monument, "Magellan, Marilyn, Mickey & Fr. Dámaso. 500 Years of Conquistador RockStars" we saw here at the Palacio Cristal in 2021.

Kidlat Tahimik's installation in Madrid, 2021
Sammy Baloji's 2018 work is titled A Blueprint for Toads and Snakes. It's an evocation of a Katangan native company town in the era when the King of Belgium literally owned millions of Congolese. Baloji uses plot maps of the native town and a built stage set in a kind of cynical realism around the era of colonial administration. The set is flanked by two walls of reproductions of period portrait paintings of, one supposes, actual inhabitants of this deep jungle company town.

NEXT: A few more cries for justice, then “Machinations” takes a turn into the asylum, stepping off the train of reason to get truly weird.

Baloji's installation


Mark Fisher quotations from “Test Dept: Notes from the Underground” (Ludmilla Andrews, 41:44; 2021)
A documentary about the post-punk music and video group. The doc focuses on the work in the “Machinations” show, DS 30, on the history of the mines of UK’s northeast, and the 1984-85 strike broken by prime minister Margaret Thatcher.

Benin-Germany collaborative cultural organization working with Georges Adeagbo

Maya Kovskaya, "Propositioning the World: Raqs Media Collective and the Shanghai Biennale", 2016, an interview (from 2016 journal Yishu)
[text save disabled for this website]

The Living Theatre’s “Paradise Now” documentation is on YouTube in some kind of edit by someone
Sheldon Rochlin’s documentary on the group, Signals Through The Flames A Living Theater Documentary (1:36; 1983) is likely a better source on LT's work
"Particular attention is given to Paris in 1968 in a performance called "Paradise Now" and the occupation of the Odeon Theatre."

Rebecca Anne Proctor, “Biennale Star Cian Dayrit Was One of Dozens of Artists Arrested in the Philippines for Supporting Farmers’ Rights”, June 14, 2022

Congolese artist Sammy Baloji's gallery page links to several interviews