Nomads, Satellites, and a Dry Heat; Or, Whitney Houston’s Crypt and the Failure of Communication


Image: a tasting event that took place in the Art Gallery during the exhibition Preserved: The Art of Canning at Southwestern Michigan College, courtesy Marc Dombrosky.

by Marc Dombrosky

Ever had a phone call you wish you could take away? Two come to mind off the top of my head, but I’ll share one here. While we were living in Las Vegas I took a phone interview with a school in the Pacific Northwest for a position teaching contemporary studio practices. One of the interviewers, a grad student in the program (which immediately struck me as a pretty progressive tactic), asked me what I thought the *big* issues in contemporary art were at that time. When I pressed her on the issue for context—like, "do you mean, where you are?”—she (and the interview as an entity itself) quickly took a hostile turn.

A phone interview is pretty much an academic first date (ours was conducted while I was standing in the rain in Chinatown in LA, outside a gallery exhibition we had driven over from Vegas to see—I remember helicopters flying overhead at close range), and the rapid progression of this bad noise (as well as my setting) was all immediately disruptive, startling, and threw the whole conversation into a downward spiral of programmed questions and responses, condescension (both sides), and some jargon that I vaguely recall being peppered with phrases like new media, critical dialogue and something about participatory works. She dismissed me quickly, as though I didn't understand the question and couldn't possibly be ready for this job.

I think about this sometimes.

In hindsight, here’s what I should have probably responded (although my sense is that my candor still wouldn’t have been the right approach for their program): the issues for me at that time driving my work extended in broad, active streaks from my adopted community in the desert. They were ones that were specific to Vegas circa 2010: water usage; communities polarized and relentlessly pushed towards hostility by a constantly (d)evolving tourist population; an economic monoculture built on gambling (effectively gambling on gambling), loss of institutional/collective memory (from a city routinely bent on imploding casinos to make room for more casinos), and blazing, unrelenting heat.

When I speak about this incident now, in the Midwest, I'm often reminded that it's different out there; that my experience with any of these things can be rapidly diminished and dismissed by people here explaining to me that Vegas is really another world, and that the heat that drove so many poor decisions (mine included) is other, as in "well, it's just a dry heat".

It is a dry heat, for sure.

The questions posed by these failed connections and mis-perceptions of locale, expectations, and possibilities for the creation of dense networks are what continue to drive programming in our Art Gallery on campus. Which is to say, it’s not only our desire to overcome these deficits but often, exposing these challenges is itself the opportunity and focus of our work here. Dowagiac is small—we’re a whistle-stop on Amtrak’s line from Kalamazoo, we’ve got both Dollar General and Family Dollar but no Wal-Mart, and we used to be the production site for Round Oak Stoves (founded in the late 1800s). Southwestern Michigan College has been described to me as “a gem in a cornfield”; geographically isolated but with a stated mission of Knowledge for All. For me, we’re Black Mountain College, Deep Springs, the Bauhaus, and the New School all at once; part anechoic chamber and part laboratory, constrained only by our limited reach. Our curriculum promotes critical thinking, encourages a collaborative learning community, innovative pedagogy, and reflexive teaching practices. And we’re only 30 minutes from South Bend (SBN) with direct flights to McCarran International leaving every Thursday.

In these ways, the gallery becomes an analogue for the institution, functioning as both site of enculturation (to college, to artistic production, to a community of learners) and platform for radical experimentation (both within specific projects, exhibition design, and related programming). My hope is always that I can showcase some of the things I find so eloquent and singular about being here without losing that connection to place (the evolving and elusive sense of place that J.B. Jackson dealt with) and providing our learning community with an expanded locational identity that responds to where we are while actively engaging with other institutions, other communities, cultures, groups.

In Dowagiac, Michigan, that's meant outreach to the programs on and near campus: we've organized collaborations with the Department of Communications, Advanced Technologies (including Welding and Precision Machining), The Pokagon Band of the Potawatomi Tribe, area High Schools (their art instructors have an exhibition on view as I write this), and a large, hidden community of home canners. This last group emerged from a cold call of emails sent to faculty, staff, students, and community members asking for a loan of any kind of canned, dehydrated, or preserved goods they’ve made. This exhibition featured over eighty different jars from aficionados across the region, filled with everything from cake in a jar to ceramic fish heads *pickled* in some sort of inorganic brine. Complemented by a series of progressive tasting events, this project saw more visitors than anything we’ve ever done in the gallery during my tenure. The exhibition also highlighted our growing collaboration with agricultural degree programs through Michigan State University, offering a platform for discussion and outreach (Niles High School brought two classes to see the show, discuss careers in food science and agriculture, and share some of the best pickles I have ever tasted in my entire life).

"The Art of Canning" exhibition flyer design by Jacob Hainer

"The Art of Canning" exhibition flyer design by Jacob Hainer

Likewise, many of the artists we’ve worked with on projects have been strategically approached by engaging and prioritizing overlooked aspects of their practices; older works, side projects, anonymous experiments, and prototypes break hierarchies and are presented on equal footing. This notion of reaching into an archive (or crypt, maybe) is offering new ways for us to engage artists in increasingly conversational ways; to recontextualize or examine projects that, for whatever reasons, have been put away, dismissed, or sidelined from their current interests. When we transitioned our annual faculty exhibition from the late spring semester to its current site as the first exhibition in Fall, we book-ended—or better, reverse-book-ended—two years of programming: the Spring 2013 exhibition asked for older, previously exhibited works while the Fall 2014 exhibition previewed new experiments, all previously unseen and some still incomplete and being transformed at the time of the exhibition.

This particular strategy of engagement seems vital (especially given our budget and resources), and from a curatorial standpoint, offers the potential for not so much a revisionist look at the artists but rather something closer to Aby Warburg’s combinatory wanderings in his Mnemosyne Atlas (1924-1929), pulling the archive back into a broader visual conversation.

Case in point: last year we designed an exhibition of works by Vegas-raised artists Thomas Willis and Patrick ‘Q’ Quilao. Thomas is currently based in Boston and Q lives in Chicago (although his work with School of the Art Institute of Chicago takes him far and wide). I met both of them when I first arrived in Las Vegas at a party at the home of Brian Porray and Kyla Hansen. Q was preparing to move to Chicago (to start his MFA; this was 2009). We lost track of one another but through Justin Favelaand Mikayla Whitmore, we were able to reconnect and stay in touch.

Willis and Quilao were staying at our house a couple of seasons ago and I approached them with the possibility of designing an exhibition centered around two of their respective works. Willis has managed a pseudo-anonymous YouTube channel for years. Perceptual Ballads (the name of the page and the larger project) essentially follows the artist shooting videos on his phone through several museum and gallery exhibitions across the world then editing and synchronizing that footage to bootleg versions of popular songs that riff off of the exhibition, the artist, or the work (visiting the Whitney Museum with Whitney Houston still gets me every time—it may actually be my Greatest Love of All, Chris Burden’s Extreme Measures conflates with Billy Joel’s I Go To Extremes, Phil Collins and Phil Collins, …you get the idea). Willis wanted to keep the project at arm’s length—conceptually and physically (we got his submission in a slender envelope in my mailbox), and his email correspondence on the work noted,

My intention in starting Perceptual Ballads was to have it be an anonymous channel like so many other YouTube channels on the Internet. I never made these videos with the consideration that I would take credit for them in a formal sense (or at least take credit while I'm still creating new ones), and this YouTube channel persona was what helped liberate the creation of the work. Having an author would add a layer of hierarchy, which is against what the piece is about. [Perceptual Ballads] is meant to bridge forms of media, methods of exhibition, and types of artistic industries… I'm definitely okay if my name or contact info is shared via word-of-mouth to anyone who asks, but I think I would prefer there not to be any written text of my name in the programing of the exhibit.

So, yeah, don’t tell anybody you read this but you can tell them about it.

Installation view of Thomas Willis' Perceptual Ballads exhibition at Southwestern Michigan College in Dowagiac, MI. (photo courtesy Dennis Hafer)

Installation view of Thomas Willis' Perceptual Ballads exhibition at Southwestern Michigan College in Dowagiac, MI. (photo courtesy Dennis Hafer)

Quilao’s work was a thesis piece from his MFA exhibition, consisting of a set of cast porcelain BlackBerry phones, each inscribed with a mouth expressing a mouth/form that, sequenced together, forms the phraseI Miss You. The animation of this was transferred to DVD and projected at nearly 1:1 scale in the gallery, along with all 27 wall-mounted porcelain works positioned nearby. His description of the piece is concise, describing it (writing becomes the shell) but cracking it open ever so slightly for meaning to enter,

Cast porcelain translated into already antiquated technology questions the necessities and allegiances of form, material and function while also giving pause to reexamine rapidly and continually evolving modes of communication and consumption.

Their joint exhibition continues to raise deep questions for me about what Q described in an interview as “the futility of communicating”; his phones are crypts themselves, sealed from their communications and communicators (in sound production) but now transforming, acting as transmitters and sentinels of that very sealing (they remind me in some ways of Isa Genzken’s cast concrete series Weltempfänger (World Receiver Radio)). It also became significant that (on the sidelines, in conversation) both projects in the exhibition emerged in 2009. Willis was the first to notice and announce this to me, and again looking in retrospect, that they reached into their archive to share these works seems prescient to this whole thing.

But these are all just leads at this point.

During my first year here, one of my colleagues informed me that after you’ve lived here for five generations, you hear the land speak to you. After five years now, I’m catching faint whispers in the wind, hearing glimpses into a more mystical realm. Floating above and around us; disembodied, distant, and erratic sounds may be close now. These are fragments, perhaps not articulating anything yet, but announcing (their) presence. This is closest to what my work as curator here feels like now and where our Art Gallery is and can go. In introductions to the role of the Art Gallery on campus, I’ve described our exhibition series as akin to respiration—exhaling and inhaling—shaping the progression of projects to spread outwards to the community and inwardly illuminating our own campus of assets.

And like all this, the *big* issues confronting and engaging this community are slow to present themselves.

Change occurs glacially here, turnover happens infrequently and the roots run deep (and, like roots, they infrequently show themselves). Our community is veiled, shielded from the outside and takes so much longer to impact. On November 6, our township voted on new levy that would assess an increase of $60 for four years in order to maintain and upgrade our roads. The wording of the millage read like a biblical threat—as in, if we don’t approve this, all of our roads shall be ground into gravel. While the issue was covered intensely in the press prior to voting, we’re unable to find any reports on the outcome. This weird example points towards the difficulty in sharing/locating information as well as the utter strangeness of it all. We drive down Eureka Road now wondering when (or if) this millage apocalypse will hit it. Hopefully the patches they did this summer will hold in the interim.

Social practice in the Midwest, as a means of artistic or curatorial production, may be the simple act of making socially engaged work here in the Midwest.

Reaching this point in my draft version makes me doubt parts of this, and surfing my bookshelves and screen for something—the right thing—to quote adeptly and pull this all together for myself helps assuage this; trying give a sense of how difficult deploying and sharing contemporary art production is now, here, anywhere, everywhere, and why that’s even necessary. Not that we don’t know who the audience is (we do) but that the audience often doesn’t know who they are, and if they did, probably wouldn’t buy it anyway. The works and experiences we’re bringing to light are new approaches towards events and objects that have always been here. Evolving their context—even briefly or temporarily—asks for difficult conversations.

Probably because of our shared Michigan boosterism, Lester Bangs (he described Detroit as “rock’s only hope”) was one of the first places I looked for solace and assistance for a trajectory to keep going with this work. Oddly, Lester’s essay “James Taylor Marked for Death” grabbed a bunch of us into his/its orbit. With his work the gravity gets heavier, the air gets thicker, and yet, as Maria Bustillos writes for The New Yorker,

What he was really leading us to was the one true church of intellectual curiosity and open-mindedness. There was subtlety and elegance in his reasoning, generosity, and the best kind of skepticism: the skepticism that turns back on the author himself. This last aspect of Bangs’s writing was the most revelatory to me. It was the virtue I sought most to emulate, then and now.

Maybe these markers aren’t even necessary, and these conversations could and would arise in other ways without curatorial efforts, but the Art Gallery hopefully helps give us orientation and a platform for the work we all do here. In January 2011, I wrote an email that was forwarded to every faculty member at Cranbrook Academy of Art in hopes of engaging their alumni in exhibition proposals. Here’s what it said:

Southwestern Michigan College is a community college, and as such our primary work is engaging with our community and fostering an active learning environment. In the gallery, we explore this through an exhibition program that brings together new works by contemporary artists, students, and faculty. In thinking of the gallery as a laboratory and the exhibition as a site of inquiry, what insights into the processes and methodologies of a working artist are potentially crucial for a (new) viewer to understand or to acclimate? How does the function of the gallery as a teaching environment or platform for experimental pedagogy influence the production and presentation of work?

What roles can working notes, sketches, maquettes, and prototypes play in this exchange? How can works exhibited here express their own transience or portability, and in what ways can the gallery encourage and expand transitional, temporary working spaces for artists? Which is all to ask, if we’re approaching artists from across the state and country to participate in this discourse—in this program—how does your desire to contribute reflect or manifest in these projects, and are these potential inroads to our shared community?

And, to be completely candid, the SMC Art Gallery has been running on a shoestring (like, one shoestring) budget for some time. We have not had the opportunity to offer an honorarium or shipping compensation to exhibiting artists in the past. With these limits to our current operating budget and facilities, I'm asking artists to consider all these things as conditions of the space; not necessarily as negative constraints, but hopefully as flexible boundaries.

So, we’re offering honorariums now, assisting with shipping, and passing out free punch and cookies at every opening. Hopefully your readers will consider ways they can also contribute to our community here, and this whole thing won’t get ground into gravel. Thanks for the opportunity to discuss all this. Knowledge for all.

Marc Dombrosky is an artist, educator and curator. Solo exhibitions have been held at Portland Art Museum, Portland, OR; Clark County Government Center, Las Vegas, NV and Platform Gallery, Seattle, WA. His work has been included in group exhibitions at Cranbrook Art Museum, Bloomfield Hills, MI; Craft Alliance, St. Louis, MO; Bellevue Arts Museum, Bellevue, WA; Gregg Museum of Art and Design, Raleigh, NC; and Tacoma Art Museum, Tacoma, WA. He is currently Chair of the Department of Visual & Performing Arts and Gallery Director at Southwestern Michigan College in Dowagiac, MI. His work is represented by Platform Gallery in Seattle.

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