1.15 / Review

The Bitter Valise

By Christian L. Frock May 18, 2010

“You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes/ you might find/ you get what you need,” the Rolling Stones intoned over the radio on my way to sit in on The Bitter Valise (2010), an itinerant social sculpture‑cum‑curatorial program organized by Joseph del Pesco. Organized around the common experience of art-world rejection—specifically the rejection letters received from residency, grant, and job applications, exhibitions, galleries, and the like—del Pesco’s project consists of house visits to administer home-brewed bitter liqueurs to the rejected. He arrives with a walnut, wood-lined valise fitted to accommodate several unlabeled glass bottles of hooch, a set of four small glasses, and a chamois cloth. The case conjures the trunks of 19th-century traveling salesmen who sold cure-all elixirs, guaranteed to ward off everything from thinning hair to bad dispositions.

Invitation to participate in The Bitter Valise is open to any artist or curator who has received a rejection letter within the last month. The April 16th iteration of the project took place at the home of an artist who recently received a “no thank you” from the American Academy in Rome, a highly competitive residency program. Del Pesco had encouraged our host to invite a few people over to experience the project; hence, my presence, along with that of another curator/writer. The evening was largely unstructured, beyond a brief introduction to the project and an overview of the liqueurs on offer. Everyone was offered a sample of each, in the manner of a wine tasting. Flavors included Shiso, Fennel, and Celery Lemongrass, among others.

Somewhat unusually for contemporary art, The Bitter Valise is rooted in social exchange but is untethered from the notion of the archive; there is no photography or other documentation by del Pesco. This policy, accepted without question by the group, undoubtedly contributed to the very relaxed, unguarded atmosphere of the event. While a shared familiarity with rejection united those of us in attendance, we didn’t linger on the subject beyond a cursory discussion of individual experiences. Though it was clear that each of us were resigned to occasional rejection in our careers, the conversation, while rueful at a few points, was generally light and infused with laughter. Comingled with optimism, bitterness becomes bittersweet—like a traditional Italian Amaro, another flavor in del Pesco’s offerings.

Everyone has stories, especially those whose careers are still in the making. It is also an accepted fact that every opportunity—even the lousiest gig with the worst pay in the crappiest location—is highly competitive and that we compete, regularly, with our friends and colleagues. While one might expect this sense of resignation to, over time, shield us against disappointment, there is still the desire to succeed, to continue to make work and to write yet another application. Rejection does not quite overwhelm the glimmer of hope that propels us to try in the first place. Since one is guaranteed to miss every shot not taken, chances of success increase exponentially just by taking the shot, right? So we keep trying and, at the end of the day, we have this common experience with our friends and colleagues—our competitors—to dilute the bitterness of defeat.

Parallel Blackjack Tournament, The Secret Society at the UC Berkeley Art Museum, April 29, 2010. Courtesy of The Thing Quarterly. Photo: Lenny Gonzalez.

Joseph del Pesco. The Bitter Valise, 2010. Courtesy of Joseph del Pesco.

This consideration of artists and curators as equally vested creative practitioners mirrors the absence of these distinctions in del Pesco’s work. His creative practice increasingly blurs the distinction between artist and curator with an emphasis on discursive, ephemeral projects that rely on a contemporized mode of folklore. Some of del Pesco’s other recent endeavors include Anecdote Archive (2009–ongoing), a web-based video publication of personal narratives about art and, most recently, The Secret Society, a onetime happening of sorts at the UC Berkeley Art Museum premised on a set of clues that led visitors to various “secret” events throughout the museum. In his statement about the latter project, del Pesco remarked, “A secret starts with an individual or a small group and spreads outward from person to person, turning into a public secret and then finally public knowledge.” Although ostensibly a private encounter, the core experience and public knowledge of The Bitter Valise arises from the commonality of rejection among artists and curators. Both projects seek to reinvent singular, or rather personal, experiences as public programs—gestures that shortchange their potential critique as exclusive.

The sticking points in The Bitter Valise are obvious: it is limited in scope; participants are granted access by invitation; and the project takes place in a domestic setting rather than a public forum. However, exclusion from another opportunity inversely creates the invitation to participate in this one. The Bitter Valise attempts a paradigm shift away from old-school divisive models by disempowering the experience of rejection on a case-by-case basis, even while it does not promise a completely democratized experience. In some ways, The Bitter Valise tacitly acknowledges that there are no fully democratic experiences in contemporary art.

Socially engaged work does not promise mitigation of this imbalance, although one might construe otherwise, as its success is often linked to a notion of broad inclusion. The critical reception and success of a socially engaged project such as The Bitter Valise, which exists outside of institutional and object-based practices, lies in its ability to translate as narrative, interestingly a tradition as old as the traveling salesman. In this instance, success is not determined by affecting a broad and expansive public directly; instead, it is determined by how well the project is relayed indirectly as retold by the participants.

Much like the liqueurs that night, The Bitter Valise isn’t farfetched or overly complicated. It can be appreciated as an outgrowth of the seminal relational practices that guided us to have a beer, to share a meal, or to take a piece of candy from a glittering pile. It is a deceptively simple gesture—a group of colleagues gathering to raise a glass and share in the bitterness of the field—that aims to revisit the value of a good tale, from within and without. True, you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you get what you need—on this night, camaraderie and a rare sense of inclusion in a cold, cold art world. A tonic, if ever there was one and certainly a story worth telling.


The Bitter Valise is an ongoing project by Joseph del Pesco.

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