AA Bronson The Transfiguration of the Bureaucrat

New York, Tuesday, November 1, 2011, 3:31 am:

I have been reciting the opening lines of this essay to myself for several days: this essay was due yesterday and I am beginning it today. I am in the midst of travelling: I have returned from Berlin and am on my way to New Haven. I chose the title “The Transfiguration of the Bureaucrat” some weeks ago, and, if all goes well, the text that follows will illuminate the title, and the title will illuminate the text. I think of the tradition of illuminated texts, of text exalted with gold. I am sitting naked in the dark in the middle of the night, illuminated by the pale light of the computer screen. Writing is a magical act: all my best writing takes place naked and in the middle of darkness—physical, moral, or emotional.

Penn Station, New York, Tuesday, November 1, 2011, 8:05 am:

My train is pulling out of Penn Station, on the way to New Haven, Connecticut, where I am participating in Sensational Religion, a conference that promises to join artists, architects, curators, and creative people with theologians and others of a religious background. The word “sensational” identifies the conference as an academic event of the cutting-edge variety. Organized by the Initiative for the Study of Material and Visual Cultures of Religion, the conference includes visual art as an integral part of cultural production, high and low, past and present. This gives the event its particular character. I do not recognize another name on the schedule except for Kathryn Reklis. Kathryn and I are Co-directors at the Institute for Art, Religion, and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. The two of us will speak this evening about the Institute and I will speak openly about the problems we have had in operating in an academic environment.

The Institute is modelled after the artist-run centres of Canada, artist-centred and focused on primary evidence of visual arts activity rather than secondary exposition. We provide a platform for visual artists with the idea of creating a conversation between art and religion through the lens of social justice.

Union Theological Seminary is an institution long steeped in social justice, a centre for feminist, liberation, and queer theologies. We hope to bring about a conversation between visual artists and theologians. To date that hasn’t been the case: rather, the artist finds herself in a surrounding in which she is free to talk about her work in a new and different way, and so she does.

The Institute programs have included exhibitions, lectures, performances, and artists-in-residence. As there is no dedicated exhibition space, the exhibitions have been “pilgrimages,” with works situated throughout the seminary. The lectures have been by contemporary artists with a social justice bent, such as Alfredo Jaar, Gregg Bordowitz, Paul Chan, and the Guerrilla Girls. We have addressed racial and cultural issues with a performance series of Dominican and Haitian artists, curated by the Dominican artist Nicolas Dumit Estevez.

Unlike an artist-run centre, the Institute operates in an academic setting. This makes it structurally similar to a university gallery but without the gallery. As we want to maintain the Institute as an artist-centred organization, the structural relationship to the seminary is important.

Although the Institute is located in a Christian institution, it is not defined by a particular approach to spirituality. We have featured artists of Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, Christian, and atheist persuasion.

New Haven, Wednesday, November 2, 2011, 10:48 pm:

I am on the train from New Haven to New York City (it is seven minutes late). The Sensational Religion conference was an academic affair, strangely unsettling. All the speakers spoke as if anthropologists, their experience of both art and religion derived from secondary documents; as Mark texted to me: “Is anyone speaking from the heart?”

Kathryn and I presented last night, after a prolonged dinner from which a number of the participants never emerged. Luckily a contingent of students from the Yale School of Art showed up in their places, and so we had an audience. The art students were notably “other.” They sat in a gaggle, looking a little dishevelled and hyperactive, openly turning their chairs to look at those who asked questions, while the rest of the audience politely maintained their forward stance. After the lecture, one quadrant of chairs was higgledy-piggledy, while the rest remained neatly in rows. I exited to the forecourt, where a table of coffee and sweets shared space with an exhibition titled Making Sense of Religion. The art students were standing in a circle, scarfing down quantities of cheesecake from paper plates, while the remainder of the audience had vanished. These young artists took physical pleasure in being present—present to the lecture and present to the remainder of the audience—but also unashamedly enjoying the offered treats, and hanging out for a few last words with me.

One question stands out from those asked during the lecture: a conference speaker asked what our goals were in programming a particular Marina Abramovic video at the Institute. My response was this: we wanted to throw together a little of this and a little of that and see what happened. It seems to me that this is the way to generate a conversation between seminarians and artists. It’s a little like throwing a good party: you supply the right ingredients, stand back, and see what happens.

New York, Thursday, November 3, 2011, 4:22 am:

I am sitting in my underwear in the dark in the middle of the night. I feel a cold coming on. I should give some indication of why I am writing this text. I first refused to write, on the basis that I had nothing to say, but the organizers of this publication did not find that reason convincing. They cite my text of 1983, “Humiliation of the Bureaucrat,” and ask me to respond to it twenty-eight years later, as an American resident, as the ex-Director of both Art Metropole and Printed Matter, and as the current Director of the NY Art Book Fair. All of these are artist-founded and artist-centred organizations. My current knowledge of Canadian organizations is limited to those that exhibit at the NY Art Book Fair—mind you, that is some two dozen institutions. My other credentials are these: I was one of the originators of the Canadian artist-run network; and my book From Sea to Shining Sea [1] documents artist-initiated activity in Canada from the postwar period until its publication in 1987, not only in institutions, but all forms of public and collaborative engagement. I have misgivings about the current state of affairs in Canada.

New York, Friday, November 4, 2011, 6:36 am:

The wee hours. I am tired and tired of writing. I seem to have an essay perpetually on the go, and my most productive writing times are before dawn, preferably much before dawn. My jetlag from my trip to Berlin is lingering and I will return to Germany at the end of the month for a lecture at the Museum für Moderne Kunst (MMK) in Frankfurt. I have yet to write that lecture. The subject will be the museum and publishing today, and in a sense it is not so different from this text. The underlying assumption is the same: The world is going through a major transformation. How will our institutions survive? What will they become?

New York, Saturday, November 5, 2011, 6:24 am:

I have been thinking about dying. I read this morning in the New York Times of the death of a curator, someone I admire, at the age of seventy-one. That’s only six years away, and my father died at the age of sixty-seven. What is it that I want to accomplish in the time I have left, and what is it that I have accomplished in my life to date? Writing this article is a kind of retrospection. I have been asked to respond to “The Humiliation of the Bureaucrat,” my essay of 1983. But in order to understand that essay I have had to consider where I was at the time that I wrote it, and where Canada was, and the history that preceded it: my own history, and the essays that preceded that one, especially “Practising Non-Artists” [2] (1972) and “Pablum for the Pablum Eaters” [3] (1973); and the unfolding policies of the Canada Council, which seemed so intelligent and yet flawed at the time.

My own history as an artist, becoming involved in the cultural world in the late ’60s, parallels the history of visual arts funding in Canada. I left the country three years after writing “The Humiliation of the Bureaucrat,” and it feels to me that policy-making for visual arts funding also stalled at that time. It wasn’t long before funding morphed from the support of culture into support of the marketing of culture and career-building for artists—support for those who are driven by career or who can act out being driven by career for the benefit of the funders. I feel sad when I look back at the last years of policy-making at the Canada Council. I wonder what happened to the innate intelligence that seemed to reside there, and how it collapsed into this peculiarly contemporary obsession with “career” rather than vocation, and with marketplace statistics rather than the cultural maturation of a country. “Success” is a word that General Idea made fun of in our 1981 “Success Issue” of FILE Megazine. [4] But now success lies at the bottom line of current cultural policy, and money has become the primary indicator of value.

I went to the fridge to pour myself a drink, tried to remove the cap from a bottle of sparkling apple juice, and burst into tears, wondering: What has happened to this world, this new world of culture that we thought we were building, that has shape-shifted into a simulacrum of the world of finance and is equally unregulated, corrupt, and morally bankrupt? Of course that is a generalization—there is always a counter-movement towards morality, truth, and justice—but the world seems to have become worse, rather than better, during my time on the planet.

New York, Sunday, November 6, 2011, 11:18 am:

I am in bed with a hacking cough. I would like to continue this text, and yet my brain is too fried to think of anything much at all. I picked up Patti Smith’s book Just Kids, her autobiography of her years with Robert Mapplethorpe, and read a few pages. I remembered our time in New York in 1976, meeting Robert, and publishing his more extreme photos in FILE. Once I ran into him in a magazine shop and apologized for the bad quality of our printing. He was unconcerned. “At least you printed them,” he said. “No one else will.”

I think back on those days: being an artist was to be part of a network of peers, of interesting people doing interesting things, both individually and together. Now artists are encouraged to set up studios from which they can direct the production of luxury objects for collectors. Not only the dealers push artists in this direction: the art schools too have succumbed to the glamorous aura of the world of collectors, art fairs, and dealers. And the Canada Council, once so clearly an intellectually advanced and groundbreaking institution, now qualifies its grants to artists with remarks like these: Research/Creation grants “can be used for . . . residencies and specialized professional development activities,” Production grants require “at least one confirmed public presentation of the work in a professional visual arts context,” and Career Development grants support “the development of an artist’s career through development activities and/or the growth of a professional network with partners such as critics, curators or art dealers.” [5]

This professionalization of the visual artist has been unrelenting for the last twenty years, so it pleases me when I see art students still acting like artists, and refusing the relentless push towards the professional. I always tell my students that artists are chosen by their vocation, not vice versa: and that nobody in their right mind would choose to be an artist. We, as artists, are chosen—like court jesters or witch doctors—to be “unprofessional,” and when confronted with a situation in which we can choose between professional or moral behaviour, I choose the latter. Truth-telling is the prerogative of the artist; but it is invariably professionally incorrect, even suicidal.

New York, Wednesday, November 9, 2011, 10:08 pm:

I am sitting with my spouse Mark, both of us side by side at our matching desks, typing at our respective keyboards. We both have vestigial coughs. I have been reflecting on last night’s board meeting at Printed Matter, one of the few non-profits in the USA that might be said to bear a resemblance to a Canadian artist-run space. The Board consists of four curators, two art dealers, a high-end book dealer, a publisher, and three collectors. I am the only artist. I ran Printed Matter for the last six years but stepped down last year. In the meantime a number of staff changes leave us with only one artist on staff, by my counting, whereas previously the majority of the staff were artists. Similarly, the emphasis on Printed Matter’s mission as first and foremost a service to artists is being eroded, as financial “obligations” step in. And I fear that Printed Matter will be run in competition with other non-profits, rather than as a collaborative venture for the improvement of the general and artistic culture. Perhaps I am being too Canadian in thinking that collaboration trumps competition. Or in thinking that service to artists should be put ahead of the “success” of the organization. After all, culture in New York has come to replicate business: non-profits compete for donor dollars and membership. And although everyone has good intentions, I am sure, non-profit activity is coloured by the desire to be involved with a successful organization, to have the best fundraising galas and attract the hippest celebrities. The kinds of concerns that I wrote about in 1983, in my essay “Humiliation of the Bureaucrat,” seem irrelevant now. Strategies for creating networks and communities pale beside the reality of the Internet and social networking. And the 1 percent of artists who achieve some degree of “success” in the world of art magazines and art fairs are generally considered to be all that count.

New York, Thursday, November 10, 2011, 5:14 am:

Naked in the morning dark. I have been rereading my 1983 essay “The Humiliation of the Bureaucrat: Artist-run Centres as Museums by Artists” [7] online at Goodreads.ca. I’m actually a little blown away by this essay. I read it as if it were written by another; I can’t quite imagine the mental space I inhabited that allowed me to write like this. I feel sad that that time is gone, when the poetics of existence seemed to run through my veins freely. Now life seems much more prosaic. There are policies to set and decisions to be made. But as a resident of the USA, artist-created institutions are rarely on my radar any more, and even artist-centred institutions have mostly disappeared. The business of survival has taken over from the art of living one’s life as an artist, and there seems little or no interest in creating the infrastructure that might allow artists to determine their own lives. What we seem to be looking for, both in the USA and Canada, is not a healthy vibrant culture bristling with ideas and innovation, but access to the international marketplace. This makes me sad.

New York, Friday, November 11, 2011, 4:58 am:

Sitting in the early morning darkness. Yesterday I read K8 Hardy’s conversation with Oscar Tuazon in the current issue of Parkett. [8] They talk about W.A.G.E., the American artists’ organization that has been lobbying on behalf of artists. It is reminiscent of the lobbying in Canada from the late ’60s and ’70s by the Canadian Artists’ Representation/Le Front des artistes canadiens (CARFAC), founded in 1968. By 1975, the Canada Council had made artists exhibition fees mandatory to public galleries receiving funding from the Council, and the rest is history. But whereas W.A.G.E. seems to have an aura of self-congratulatory bravura, promoting each salvo in its cultural warfare like a television mini-series, CARFAC accomplished major work on behalf of working artists, lobbying at the national level—the distinctly Canadian talent for bureaucratic accomplishment distinguishes the Canadian artist at a very early date. It’s interesting to see W.A.G.E. developing a relation to Occupy Wall Street, whose tactics they share. Perhaps in this country of commerce no other approach is possible.

When I introduced artists’ fees at Printed Matter in 2004, the response was a quiet (sometimes amused) incredulity, from artists and non-artists alike. Printed Matter employees and working artists were ready to argue that artists already benefitted from promotion and distribution of their work at Printed Matter. How could a little organization like Printed Matter afford artists’ fees, they asked, and so on. But once an organization makes artists’ rights a central tenet, it is in fact not difficult to raise the money to pay them: most foundations and government funding bodies are happy to give money for this purpose.

New York, Sunday, November 13, 2011, 7:23 am:

I fly to Toronto today, back to my Canadian context. At one time I would have said “my beloved Canadian context.” But today I am not so sure. What is it that has changed there? I have changed too, but how?

I read this morning that Performa, the annual New York performance festival, is presenting a series of three conversations about the work of Dennis Oppenheim in relation to performance. I remember the exhibition Project 70, at A Space, Toronto, in the spring of 1970 (in fact the gallery was still called the Nightingale at that time). Dennis Oppenheim was included, but his art seemed already classical, iconic. What we were doing, with what we would call today “queering” performance or the performative, went largely unnoticed, although it was one of our most important works. I won’t describe Line Project here, but it still seems fresh and even groundbreaking today. More importantly, that exhibition made visible a phenomenon whose time had come, work from a local community of artists who were not painters or sculptors, but who were exploring new relationships to media and community. There was a countercultural mode to the presentation that was a new phenomenon. We hadn’t thought of art as countercultural before but, at this moment, it was clear that much as music carried a clear countercultural energy, so could art, theatre, and other cultural forms. (The Festival of Underground Theater in 1971, in which we produced our sprawling opus What Happened, featuring the first of our Miss General Idea Pageant performances, had a similar effect the following year.)

I have written elsewhere about the importance of the Festivals of the Contemporary Arts in the mid ’60s in Vancouver, and the Trips Festivals of 1966 and 1967. Intermedia (1967–71), one of Canada’s most important, and most frequently forgotten, artist-run spaces, and the first artist-run centre to be funded by the Canada Council, was founded in Vancouver in the aftermath of one of the festivals, and created a whirlwind of energy that travelled across the country, energizing artists in Winnipeg, Toronto, and Montreal. Project 70 and the Festival of Underground Theatre in Toronto were later manifestations of that countercultural cross-country tsunami.

Toronto, Monday, November 14, 10:59 pm:

I am in a stupor, sitting at my computer eating rye bread with liverwurst and goat cheese, the kind of open-faced sandwich I found strange and inedible as a child, now standard fare whenever I visit Toronto. I haven’t been outside today and I am prone to a kind of agoraphobia that keeps me in this apartment, blinds down, in the semi-gloom, sorting the perpetual rain of financial papers that I never seem to complete. I have been aware of this incomplete essay lurking in the background. Tonight I fell asleep for a nap with the television on (I don’t own a television in New York) watching the Canadian news, the CBC National, one of my favorite preoccupations when I return. Now I am up, I have eaten my sandwiches and am ready to write, but write what?

I know I am supposed to be writing in response to my essay “The Humiliation of the Bureaucrat,” and yet what is there to write? Conditions in the world have changed so much that the subject hardly seems relevant. I once saw artists as holy beings, chosen by their inner nature to answer a call, but a call to what? I believed that artists were somehow benignly psychotic, out of touch with normal reality but in a way that made them a keeper of truth for mankind. I have often compared artists to court jesters, witch doctors, medicine men, hermits, and even priests. Like the saddhus of India, who wander the streets without home or clothing, carrying only their beggars’ bowls, and awash with a greater understanding of the world, their individual particularity has been swept away by their immersion in a larger reality.

But alas, the artists of Canada have transformed themselves into bureaucrats, much as those of New York City have shape-shifted into simulacra of financiers. I warned of this danger, already so evident, in the early ’80s. Now it is too late.
The true artists among us are those travelling invisibly beneath the bureaucratic radar. They are mostly of a younger generation. They don’t need galleries, museums, or artist-run centres in order to be artists, because it is their daily practice that marks them. Theirs is a practice of exchange, of community, of a creative formation of culture, the culture that binds them to each other, on a daily basis. They do not model their lives on the requirements of the Canada Council. And when they gather, it tends to be in ephemeral shifting groups more reminiscent of the early ’70s than the corporate structures of today.

Today’s artist-run institutions have modelled themselves, necessarily, after their major funder, the Canada Council, with memberships, boards of directors, and conflict of interest policies. But the most vital and elusive energies of creation have escaped these ossified structures and are running in their own riverbeds, carved out of the bedrock of this nation by the artists that have come before them. When we look back at Intermedia, for example, or the many other loosely knit organizations in Vancouver of that period—the New Era Social Club, the Little Hot Stove League, Granville Grange, Image Bank, to name a few—we find a flowing community of invention and collaboration, for who living was art and art living. I’m sorry to speak in platitudes as I hit my mid sixties; it seems a betrayal to my generation. But now we are witnessing an explosion of artists again, the “real thing,” not multi-media careerists strategizing their way to success, but individuals brave enough to give up their individuality, to abandon themselves to the inner flames that consume the personality and leave one floating in the ether of pure being, to abandon the idea of success entirely in favour of doing and being. Often success follows these strange creatures anyway, because we recognize something in them that we would want of ourselves. But that is our projection, not their intention. [9]

Toronto, Tuesday, November 15, 9:35 am:

I want to mention the contract that The Fillip Editorial Board, the publisher of this text, first offered me. It appeared to be a standard publishing contract, the sort of contract I complain about, that gives all the rights to the publisher and as few as possible to the artist or author. It was written in language that presumes a hierarchy, language that derives from the distant past of the publishing industry. But the publishing industry is reinventing itself at this very moment: publishing houses are collapsing and there is an explosion of independent and experimental publishing. If Fillip is artist-run, it should put the rights of artists ahead of its own.

Toronto, Tuesday, November 15, 2011, 10:10 pm:

I am falling asleep at my laptop.

New York, Saturday, November 19, 2011, 1:47 am:

I awoke thinking about the title of this essay. The title is meaningless. It was written in advance of the essay, at the request of Fillip, who needed it for a grant application. It was a guess about the direction I might take. But I haven’t gone there. Although I am a student at a seminary, although I have been trying to set up my School for Young Shamans, although I want to write about a new generation that is more passionate about what they are doing, the title is gratuitous and meaningless.

New York, Tuesday, November 22, 2011, 11:37 pm:

Nothing.

New York, Thursday, November 24, 2011 (American Thanksgiving), 11:03 pm:

I am wearing red Liberty of London boxers with a purple and chrome flowered shirt from Richard James, a rather loud colour combination left from our holiday dinner with our friend, the artist Erik Hanson. Dinner conversation veered between sex, men, and fashion with a little nostalgia for previous dinners thrown in. We reminisced, too, about how easy it was in the early days, for example in 1973 when I first visited Warhol at the Factory. It never occurred to me at the time that I should be nervous or intimidated; I was simply meeting a fellow artist, albeit one I admired. Now life seems much more complicated, everything is increasingly hierarchical, less democratic. Artists, gallerists, and collectors spend increasing amounts of energy being unavailable.

I spent this afternoon reading about transfiguration. The Transfiguration of Christ refers to a time when “Jesus is transfigured and becomes radiant on a mountain top.” [10] This miracle is unique among the miracles of Jesus in that it happens to him, rather than because of him. This is the moment at which Jesus acts as a conduit between the human and the divine. The Transfiguration is especially interesting in the context of art, because it appears in icons before it appears in theology. The development of the representation of the Transfiguration prefigures shifts in Christian theology. It remains today a primary image of the Eastern Orthodox church, where saints often have reported transformation from an inner light; whereas in the west the image of the cross is central. If we consider the image of the Transfiguration, rather than that of the Crucifixion, we can see the relationship between the artist and Christianity.

In my essay of 1983, “Humiliation of the Bureaucrat,” by bureaucrat I mean artist, and by humiliation I mean humbling. The Canadian artist is famously eager to create her own infrastructure, the parallel system of galleries and other services referred to as artist-run centres. The artist is, then, in a position of service, not only to the artists’ community but to the general public. The artist is facilitating culture, the growth of culture at a local level, and, through networking, at a national level. This requires a humbling, a humility, which is not foreign to the Canadian artist. While the American artist takes on the role of the hero, the Canadian artist takes on the role of the humble servant. The Canadian artist is therefore less likely to succeed, but more spiritually developed. We may think of the Canadian artist as replacing the Parish Pastor. She is the one who is positioned to act as the conduit between the human and the divine.

We are talking about transfiguration. It is the artist who must move beyond her role of building community and culture, and act as a model for inner transformation. The artist is a vessel to be filled with light. I am thinking of Keith Murray, but also of Terence Koh; of Jane Siberry, as well as the Hidden Cameras; of Paul P. and Scott Treleaven; David Altmejd and Annie Pootoogook; I am thinking of myself.

JFK Airport, New York, Monday, November 28, 2011, 6:54 pm:

I am sitting in the Oasis, a shared business class lounge at JFK, on my way to Frankfurt on Singapore Airlines. I have been invited to speak at the MMK as part of a three-person panel on the subject of museums and publishing today. I presume I have been invited because of my non-museum—even anti-museum—stance, my long history of “alternative” culture, from underground newspapers and communes in the ’60s to the NY Art Book Fair and independent publishing today. Publishing has been changing very quickly and the museums have been responding in a very pragmatic but ultimately self-destructive way. These days, museum publishing is all about “deals,” deals with commercial galleries and even collectors, who pump in the money, and with mainstream distributors and publishers, who put in no money but provide the distribution. The book is paid for before it even goes to press, and so the museum can afford to hand it over to a distributor knowing that they may never see a penny in return. Of course it is more complicated than that. And often the commercial galleries and collectors are supporting excellent artists who deserve to be supported. But those without a commercial face do not stand much of a chance of being published. And there is no real economy of books: the galleries pre-purchase catalogues to give away to press, collectors, curators, and friends. It is a vanity culture built around the ongoing project of entertaining the rich.

Meanwhile, there is an explosion of independent publishing going on. Why, at the very moment when bookshops and publishers are dying, has there been such an interest in DIY books, zines, and periodicals? Marshall McLuhan used to say that when a medium dies, it becomes an art form, and that is what is happening now. The young have taken over books, and transformed them into something immediate, energetic, and engaging. While museums are indulging in their moribund “deals,” and at the same time siphoning off talent from the DIY explosion, the independent publishers have a life of their own, with their own gathering places, distribution nodes, and style of celebration. While the museums use books to talk about culture, the independent publishing scene is culture, actively creating culture. What was once a very contained phenomenon of the underground newspapers in the ’60s has expanded into the world of independent publishing today: a lifestyle, almost a life form. The NY Art Book Fair is the primary gathering spot for a variety of publishing clans, but only one of many. For the last two years, more than fifteen thousand people gathered in the space of three days. What we term alternative can hardly be thought of as that anymore, it is a dominant cultural form.

Hotel am Dom, Frankfurt, Wednesday, November 30, 2011, 9:11 am:

I spoke last night at the MMK about (supposedly) museums and publishing. I found myself focusing on the birth of DIY culture in the ’60s, a culture brought about by a certain level of wealth and education, but also by new technologies: the web offset press allowed for cheap small-run newsprint publishing, and the underground newspaper movement was born. To my mind, the counterculture owes as much to the invention of the web offset press as it does to music. It is difficult to remember that before the ’60s, special-interest publishing as we know it now did not really exist.
Now I am on my way to meet with my Berlin dealer, Esther Schipper. My solo exhibition is halfway through its run there, and we need to resolve problems brought about by exhibiting what is essentially non-commercial work in a commercial context. Flesh of My Flesh (2011) is a large twelve-foot square painting on canvas on the floor. I produced it as a collaboration with the Chicago artist Elijah Burgher. It is the residue of a private performance, a kind of sex ritual during which we invented, painted, and “sealed” a collaborative sigil on canvas. Produced outdoors in Fire Island Pines, the work addresses both generational shame amongst queer men and the generations of the queer dead who have passed through that magical place. On the evening before the Berlin opening of the exhibition (at midnight on the new moon), I performed Invocation of the Queer Spirits (Berlin) with two friends, using the painting as a performance site (I thought of it as a magic carpet). There should have been six of us, but three cancelled the day of the event. The Invocation involved a panoply of props: candles, incense, tree branches, feathers, food, drink, lubricant, butt plugs, rooster feathers, and much more. The remains of the event are on exhibit on top of the painting, as we left them. The candles continue to be lit and the fruit replaced as needed. This performance addressed the complex queer history of Berlin, and invited the queer spirits of Berlin to join us in the circle. This superimposition of two works leads to a difficult decision: What is for sale? Is it only the painting, or do the props also form the piece? In my youth, working primarily in the context of artist-run spaces and artist-initiated culture, we would not have seen this question as a “problem.” But in today’s world of “material culture,” the archival has been transformed into fetish. I think of the painting as a kind of altar on which ritual is enacted. The candles, fruit, and so on can be maintained, as is fruit, flowers, and candles on any altar.

Hotel am Dom, Frankfurt, Wednesday, November 30, 2011, 7:58 pm:

I missed my flight to Berlin by three minutes, was unable to book another until the late afternoon, and came back to my hotel to sleep instead. I spent the afternoon looking at the amazing collection of the MMK and ran across Jean-Christophe Ammann [12] in the lobby, who once again reminded me that I should write the semi-fictional biography of the perverse Spirit of Miss General Idea. The book will be seven hundred pages, he has decided, and he declared Miss General Idea to be more intelligent than the Marquis de Sade, and very complicated in her perversion. He gave me five years to complete the task. As others have pointed out, the word “spirit” in “The Spirit of Miss General Idea” is not accidental. So perhaps when we are talking about transfiguration we could begin here: the artist, impregnated by his inspiration, devotes his declining years to an accounting of the various perversions of the Spirit of Miss General Idea, a sort of catalogue raisonnée.

Hotel am Dom, Frankfurt, Wednesday, November 30, 2011, 11:09 pm:

Before I go to bed this evening, I want to describe my sculpture Kanchipuram, which is in the garden of Esther Schipper’s gallery in Berlin. It is a black basalt lingam, a standing stone carved from a single rock, and about the size of a person. At the opening on October 28th, lit with flaming torches, I blessed the lingam with a sequence of liquids poured from copper vessels: milk, honey, yoghurt, ghee, sugared water, and finally plain warm water.

Singapore Airlines, Boeing 747-400 Business Class, Thursday, December 1, 2011, 8:51 am:

We have taken off from the Frankfurt airport, Terminal 1, Gate C-4, and the seatbelt sign has been turned off. The young Asian woman sitting next to me has asked to move (she is clearly terrified of me), and now I have the double seat to myself. Here above the clouds, the sun is shining.
For the sake of symmetry, this will be my last entry in this diary/essay. More has been left out than has been put in. For example, what is an artist-run centre without financials? At the November 8th meeting of Printed Matter’s Board of Directors, I was elected Board Treasurer, a position I had held already for some years before becoming Director in 2004; I was Treasurer of Art Metropole for almost three decades. I love numbers. The finances of a non-profit and the finances of a for-profit are misleadingly similar. But in the end, it is the differences that give a non-profit its specific character. This has not changed between 1972, when we founded Art Metropole, and today. What has changed are the increased restrictions regarding the charter, and the increased restrictions involving financial management and government reporting. But these restrictions heighten rather than change the character of the non-profit. (break for breakfast)
I keep coming back to this: What would the cultural landscape of Canada look like today if the Canada Council had promoted the idea of artists’ co-ops rather than non-profit corporations? The co-op movement is a grand Canadian phenomenon that began in Saskatchewan and influenced much of the country. However, in the art world, it was essentially killed off by the Canada Council. Many smaller non-profits continue to operate as if they are co-ops anyway. Wouldn’t they be better served by having the legal and financial structure of a co-op? (nap)
In two hours I will land in New York and go to a meeting with Kathryn Reklis about the Institute for Art, Religion, and Social Justice—we are trying to craft an agreement with Union Theological Seminary that will protect the concept of the Institute (and its budget) from the harsh world of academic politics. I also need to set in place a larger vision for the NY Art Book Fair, a mission statement that clarifies its intent as an artist-initiated, artist-centred event. Operating in New York City, in the USA, in the midst of the overwhelming machinery of the marketplace—whether academic or cultural—it’s difficult to imagine that an artist-run institution can survive. Perhaps it cannot. Perhaps, like certain rare species of North American orchid, it requires the very specific ecology of a certain place to flower, and perhaps that place is Canada.

Notes

  • 1. AA Bronson, ed., From Sea to Shining Sea (Toronto: The Power Plant, 1986).
  • 2. AA Bronson, “Practising Non-Artists,” FILE Megazine, vol. 1, nos. 2 and 3 (Toronto: Art Official Inc., 1972)
  • 3. AA Bronson, “Pablum for the Pablum Eaters,” FILE Megazine, vol. 2, nos. 1 and 2 (Toronto: Art Official Inc., 1973).
  • 4. General Idea, eds., “Special $ucce$$ Issue,” FILE Megazine, vol. 5, no. 1 (Toronto: Art Official Inc., 1981).
  • 5. “Assistance to Visual Artists: Project Grants,” Canada Council for the Arts, last modified September 2011, http://www.canadacouncil.ca/grants/visualarts/cj127698811705242142.htm.
  • 6. AA Bronson, “The Humiliation of the Bureaucrat: Artist-run Centres as Museums by Artists,” in Museums by Artists, eds. AA Bronson and Peggy Gale (Toronto: Art Metropole, 1983).
  • 7. “The Humiliation of the Bureaucrat: Artist-run Centres as Museums by Artists” is available online at http://www.goodreads.ca/aabronson/.
  • 8. Oscar Tuazon and K8 Hardy, “Hard Work,” in Parkett no. 89 (Zurich: Parkett-Verlag AG, 2011).
  • 9. I am thinking here of K8 Hardy, or the Canadian artist Terence Koh.
  • 10. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transfiguration_of_Jesus
  • 11. AA Bronson and Elijah Burgher, Flesh of My Flesh, acrylic and semen on canvas, 144 × 144 in., 2011.
  • 12. Jean Christophe Ammann was the founding director of the Museum für Moderne Kunst in Frankfurt in 1989. Prior to that he was Director of the Kunsthalle Basel, where he presented the first retrospective of General Idea in 1984.
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