1.21 / Review

Best Of: Elyse Mallouk

By Elyse Mallouk August 18, 2010

Best Symbioses Between Visual Art and Poetry: Malak Helmy, Tom Comitta, and Lynne McCabe.

Malak Helmy’s installation at CCA’s 2010 MFA show included two video works screened on a loop and doubled on abutting flat screens: Notes from the Carbon Coast (2010) alternated with Statements from the Compound (2010), a cross-disciplinary collaboration between Helmy and poet Tom Comitta. Both pieces examine the relationship between the way sentences are uttered and the way societies are built, playing on the word compound for its triple-denotation of organic, textual, and social bonds.

Statements from the Compound calls to mind the particulate, sedimentary, and often volatile nature of social systems by directly connecting them with syntax. It begins with a still image of a hexagonal play structure and the spoken words, “This is the place where we all sat, and we all were, being.” In the first of a series of associative transformations, the six posts surrounding the platform are marked with C’s, likening ties between people to those that structure carbon, the “breakable helical structure” that makes up graphite, ashes, and diamonds. The fictitious city is collaboratively imagined by its invented inhabitants, and the society is self-built and altered through repeated speech. Comitta’s visceral reading provides the sense that in scripting the city, there is a kind of physical accumulation: “a word above a word above a word is a word above a word above a word…” These constructions become concrete the moment they are spoken.

While the potential for a sudden alchemical transformation seems promising, the compound’s current state and ideal direction are left unclear: is it graphite or diamond? Which should it be? Almost imperceptible variations in tone and timing become exciting, bristling with potential energy like “this, this, this…” But this is not a utopia. It is a place rife with confusion: mixed messages and lapses in memory. Statements suggests that being (and being intelligible to others) is intimately connected to speaking. Who gets to speak becomes a question of utmost importance: it determines the kind of society that will be built—who will be considered a present part of “this, this.”

Lynne McCabe’s 14hrs (2008) treads a similar line between the textual and the visual, the social and the intimate. The video represented She Works Flexible Now, McCabe’s gallery and home, at this year’s CCA graduate open studios. In it, she balances on a tightrope suspended a few feet above the ground, reciting a poem about childbirth and starting over every time she falls. By the end of the fifteen-minute long effort, her breath is heavy, exhausted. Metaphors for emptiness and fullness, for tearing and making, are repeated with such determination that they begin to lose their polarity, becoming instead equal parts of an exercise. The playful gesture of walking a tightrope becomes Herculean with the frustrated frequency of each repetition. The role of witnesses here, of the people who watch these words being exerted, is ambivalent—there is nothing anyone can do to help. Yet bearing witness is proposed as a means of actively taking part, not unlike speaking.

These pieces suggest ways of imagining ourselves in relation to one another. They bring to mind a question that has permeated many of my recent experiences of art in the Bay Area: What is the place for symbolic gesture and interpretation in the process of imagining our ties to one another, and how are these metaphorical and performative forms situated in the broader field of projects that investigate our ability and struggle to communicate, our need to relate?

Malak Helmy. Statements from the Compound; 2010. still from color video. Courtesy the Artist.

Taha Belal. Street Sign (detail), 2009; spray paint on paper taped to street sign; 10 x 36 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

Best Harbinger of (Productive?) Dispute: “Open Engagement: Making Things, Making Things Better, Making Things Worse,” May 14-17, 2010, Portland, Oregon.

The last few years have seen a marked upturn in concern with art’s social function among artists, curators, and critics. This increased interest has taken on a particular kind of potency in the Bay Area. Social engagement appears in many different configurations, from pragmatic awareness of a project’s public, to focused investigations of the ontology of social forms—but what is it that holds this diffuse kind of practice together? Does it make sense to group different kinds of socially engaged practice together and call the aggregation something new? What do artists, artworks, and their publics stand to gain from this grouping?

This year’s “Open Engagement,” an annual conference at Portland State University organized by Jen Delos Reyes , was a confluence of approaches to a kind of art- and project-making that most in attendance could agree exists. While the four-day long cacophony of panels, workshops, and meals indicated that the term “social practice” is both highly valued and hotly contested, no one could agree on exactly what it is. It has a power that many are anxious to harness, but a complexity (and a diffuseness) that makes it difficult to do so.

On the last day of the conference, this difficulty erupted in argument: should the term “social practice” even be used? What is lost in the rush to reach definition? There was a sense that a lack of cohesion might be productive. What remains to be seen is how generative this debate will be, and for whom. The way that we speak about and witness new projects, and whether or not we speak about them as part of this debate, will impact the kind of dialogue that is created, the kind of community that is described and built around it, and who will be considered important in it.

In Portland, there was a great deal of anxiety about this very question: who is considered important? The demographic present at the conference was mostly white, mostly affluent, and in large part associated with art schools and institutions. Though there were many informal debates about the conditions that may have resulted in these exclusions, very few pieces and panels interrogated them directly. Anna Martine Whitehead and M.A. Brookes took up this question as part of Me, Her, and Us, a panel/performance that sought to probe the intersection between otherness and socially engaged art. In an improvised intervention, Brookes lay across the doorway to the panel of which I was a part, and was stepped over, over and over. This gesture evinced a problem—it revealed an evasion—without offering a solution.

Best Use of Private Space for Public Purposes: Home Is Something I Carry With Me.

Home is Something I Carry With Me (2009), a group show curated by Adrienne Skye Roberts, approached the question of its public by utilizing private space in San Francisco’s Mission District for public purposes.1 It took place in three private residences and presented the work of over forty Bay Area artists, some of whom are represented by galleries or affiliated with art schools, and others who maintain their practices outside of institutions. One unplanned conflict demonstrated the hard line where public and private are divided at the level of the state. The San Francisco police handcuffed artist Taha Belal, who was caught taping a piece of paper over a street sign. The spray-painted paper translated 24th Street into Arabic. This short-lived intervention made evident the exhibition’s position at the edge of acceptable speech, at the boundary of what the city considers sayable. When this physical attempt to script the city was rebuked, the rift between what is hoped for, uttered, and realized became clear. Nonetheless, a small shift occurred at that intersection. It became visible as a text: both arbitrary and embedded with assumptions that are subject to debate, if not alchemical transformation.


1. Disclosure: Adrienne Skye Roberts is a contributor to Art Practical.

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