Artistic Innovation, Like the Web, Is Often Hidden

Lisa Jevbratt, 1:1 (2), Interface - Every, 1999-2002

Lisa Jevbratt, 1:1 (2), Interface – Every, 1999-2002

Heard a segment on The World tonight on the “Dark Side of the Web.” The piece focused on police action against illegal activities on the “dark web,” many of them reprehensible, but it also made me think of Lisa Jevbratt’s project 1:1, which she first created when part of the artist collaborative C5 in 1999 – only a year after Google was founded.

It’s commonplace to talk about artists as visionaries of the world to come, using new technologies in ways that were not even imagined let alone intended by their makers, which nevertheless “soon” become the norm. It’s so commonplace that the trope has become almost meaningless. Lisa didn’t invent robot crawlers or data viz or discover how much of the internet is unseen, unknown, and inaccessible, even to Google, but she sure as hell created an amazing project that did use visualization of big data to create just this understanding – some 15 years before public radio can do a general interest story about the visible web being only the tip of the iceberg.

Artistic innovation is often hidden in some deep valley between hype and fantasy that only time can clearly reveal. That’s a conundrum worth supporting.

Check it out.

Night Visions (173 days)

Last Saturday, the StarTribune reprinted a story, which they called “Stop counting followers,” at least in the print edition. It was called “Quality over quantity in social media” in the original Chicago Tribune version. I’m not sure if this a difference that makes a difference, but the article caught my eye because Northern is currently going through a process to better understand the 40,000 people or so who show up at Northern Spark.

This process is part of our organizational work through the Arts Midwest ArtsLab Peer Learning Community, which is designed to support Resiliency in the arts community and enable the development of ideas and skills that strengthen the Ability to adapt to Change.

One aspect of this project is functional: to implement a Customer Relationship Management system. I have no doubt that this alone will allow us to communicate more efficiently and more effectively with our various audiences: donors, attendees, artists, volunteers, etc. You can only go so far with spreadsheets and Google docs.

But the real thrust of the program is to “move” some of that 40,000 audience to or toward the “core.” What is that core, you might ask? I know I do. The obvious marker is how do we get someone who attends and enjoys Northern Spark, a free event, to contribute to it. We sometimes call this the MPR model. But what is our pledge drive? More importantly, contributing is a potential outcome and not an actual description of this core. It’s about more than a transaction.

In my fantasy notion of the MPR model – I have no inside knowledge of their actual process or thinking – this non-transactional core is exemplified by the “driveway moment.” And we have something similar at Northern Spark, at least from my point of view: “night visions.” These are the moments that some people describe in our surveys of the event, and on social media.

“I had so many beautiful interactions with the city and her art, but the part I never expected was walking back to my car across the Stone Arch Bridge, sun rising over the smokestacks of the power plant as the city was slowly waking up around me. The river was inexorably making her way to NOLA, and I stopped and realized how amazing the little apple is. I have lived here for ten years and never experienced her in such a way before. It was our little secret: the river, the little apple, and me. A magical night!”

I have curated art and created cultural platforms for over 20 years, and never have I experienced so consistently such genuine enthusiasm about an event. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t criticisms. There are, of course, and there should be. But these night-vision-driveway-moments, quite honestly, keep us going. Keep us trying to make Northern Spark something that is truly Sustainable, Resilient, and with some Awe.

My goal as Artistic Director and our goal as an organization is to support the artists, build the audiences, and create the environment that enable these moments to occur. It is also our goal and desire to understand them. If you have a night-vision-driveway-moment, we’d love hear about it and for you to share it.

Northern Spark: 175 Days

175 days. A little less than 6 months.

As we settle into some holiday relaxation – or at least a different kind of frazzle – June 14, Northern Spark,  seems like a long way off. But we have learned from experience that it’s not. The deadline for project proposals is open through January 13 and partner proposals still have some leeway as well, so we don’t even know the full line up of the program yet. At the same time, web deadlines, print deadlines, contract deadlines, permit deadlines, kicksstarter campaign deadlines, sponsor support deadlines, press deadlines, budget deadlines are all advancing like demographics, inexorably.

Over the next 175 days, I want to give an insider perspective on putting this event together. Not just the daily what-I-had-for-breakfast minutia or the here-comes-the-next-appeal appeal, although I’m sure some of that will be mixed in. It’s part of our friending, tweeting, rough and tumblring micro-cultures that sustain the new environment of Sustainability, Resiliency, and Innovation we all find ourselves in.

But I’m also interested in sharing our version, or at least my version of the thrill of victory and agony of defeat that is the human drama of artistic experimentation at Northern Spark’s free, annual, multidisciplinary, multi-venue, multiple partner, dusk-to-dawn, public arts festival.


Steve Dietz
Founder and Artistic Director, Northern Spark


Playing the Building

Playing the Building at Aria, Nov. 5 - Dec. 4. Photo: Jake Armour

I first saw David Byrne’s Playing the Building at Battery Maritime Building in New York City in 2008. It was after hours, and I was the only person there besides the attendant. It was a magical moment, and the building, under renovation before reopening as the summer ferry terminal to Governor’s Island, seemed to sigh and wheeze and pound its history as I prodded the organ keys. In my mind’s eye, it was late afternoon, and the light was slanting through the grimed windows like a Francis Frith cathedral.

The thing about Playing the Building, however, is that it is intentionally a secular experience. It is not about star power. In the technical rider for the project, it states several times words to the effect: DAVID BYRNE WILL NOT PLAY PLAYING THE BUILDING. Do not ask. This is not a not a blue M&M’s clause. It is out of respect for the intent of the project, which is all about exploration and play, not awe. By exploring the re-programmed keys of the organ, you are drawn to explore the recesses of the building. Where did that sound come from? What made that sound? Why does it sound that way? By hacking the organ, you are encouraged to think about how to hack the building. This building. Any building. Any thing.

I saw Beatrix*Jar at the recent opening of Playing the Building at Aria, the old Jeune Lune theater, and I wanted to ask them what they thought about the relationship of circuit bending to playing around with buildings, but we didn’t get the chance. Maybe we would have discussed Gordon Matta-Clark’s building cuts. Usman Haque’s Evoke, “a massive animated projection that lights up the facade of York Minster in response to the public, who use their own voices to “evoke” colourful light patterns that emerge at the building’s foundations and soar up towards the sky, giving the surface a magical feeling as it melts with colour” might have come up. What’s interesting about Playing the Building is the way it deconstructs the organ and building, stripping them both of harmony and ornament. It’s not really about making music. It’s more about making. And listening. The organ is an amplifier for the solitude of an empty building.

 Theater de la Jeune Lune was a fabled theater company. Playing the building, their building, one can’t help but hear Cyrano in the wings or Juliet on the balcony or perhaps urgent late night whisperings pouring over the books in a back room. It’s a magnificent building. Playing the Building does it full justice and First&First is to be congratulated for bringing this exciting event to the Twin Cities and bringing excitement back to the building of Theater de la Jeune Lune.


Travels in Associative Reality

I look at this nearly every day.

I arrived at The Soap Factory’s $99 Sale late in 2011. Most of the work had already been claimed, but it didn’t matter to me. What I had eyes for, only, was Landscape Simulation : Fargo / Former PetSmart, Westgate Shoping Center, Macon, GA, 2011. At least that’s what is written on the back of the drawing. Of course, I didn’t know that at the time.

I wouldn’t say that it “spoke to me,” but there was something deeply satisfying and nourishing looking at it.

I feel like I squint whenever I look at the drawing. There’s something indistinct about it, but it’s also like scanning the horizon in a Western. Like you’re wearing that battered, square leather cowboy hat that Clint Eastwood wears in The Good The Bad and the Ugly, shading his eyes as he holds  binoculars up to them like a submarine captain, elbows akimbo. Maybe I’m misremembering the binoculars. Does he even use binoculars or just wear that poncho and chomp on a cheroot? And where did the submarine come from? But it’s like that.

I scan this drawing nearly every day, but I’m a lake person, not a plains person. What do I know? What is the attraction? How could something so desolate be “nourishing?” Especially with no water, no weather to eye.

According to its title, the structure is a PetSmart at a Westgate Shopping Center in Macon, GA. Isn’t Eleanor Savage from Macon? When I had my second 50th birthday party, it was about 95 degrees and sweltering. Everyone was sweating like, well, like a pig. I’ve gone to the State Fair for tons of years, but I don’t actually know how or even if pigs sweat. I’ll have to ask the 4H girls about that next year. I still remember that Eleanor said it was just getting comfortable. Like back home. That’s about the extent of my knowledge of Macon. In 2010, I commissioned Chris Baker’s offscript for Santana Row shopping center in San Jose as part of the 01SJ Biennial. I remember it was across from a Westgate shopping center. We would have done it there, if they had sponsored us. We asked them first. I also curated Jennifer and Kevin McCoy’s Big Box (2007) for FeedForward at LABoral. Big Box is all about the “former” part. Nature takes over. Like New York City in I Am Legend.

I attended a great conversation by artist Pamela Valfer and critic Christina Schmid tonight. It was thoughtful and open, and even though there was a lot of talk about Baudrillard, it was everything a public conversation should be but often is not.  Thank you! Christina and Pamela. Nevertheless, by the end, I still hadn’t figured out exactly why me and the PetSmart in Fargo  had hit it off so well.  When I got home, I looked at Valfer’s website, and it turns out she had “renamed” the work on my wall: Landscape Simulation: Fargo (movie)/Vacant Pet Smart, Macon, GA. Not only had the Pet Smart (PetSmart?) changed from “former” to “vacant” but turns out the landscape is from the movie Fargo.

This was necessary, the copying from movies part, Valfer averred during the conversation, because until a recent residency in rural Ireland, she had never really been in nature. While I cannot claim the same, it is impossible to deny that it is nearly impossible to look at nature, especially representations of nature, without a kind of virtual overlay and infinite reflection of representation upon representation. I suppose you could say, a la Baudrillard, welcome to the hyperreal, but Christina said something else that was interesting. She mentioned that in some study, people who looked at representations of nature did not have the same visceral, emotional reaction as people who looked at nature. I’m paraphrasing her paraphrase here, but the point she wanted to make is that the body knows. In some sense you cannot lie to the body and there is a difference between representation and the real.

Pamela Valfer, Landscape Simulation: Fargo (movie)/Vacant Pet Smart, Macon, GA 2011 Graphite on paper 8" x 10"

While I do believe this in my bones – nature is different than its representation – the nourishment of Valfer’s bleak Fargo landscape with its vacant Pet Smart may just be its embedded, rich, complex, seductive, vital history of unnatural associations.



Installing ReGeneration: Tuesday

In Habit work-in-progress

Lights on Tampa Etch a Sketch

It appears that this year’s Lights On Tampa new work will be primarily Pablo Valbuena’s delicate and transformative etch a sketch-like N27°57’00” W82°27’41” and projects by Juliet Davis & Stephanie Tripp, Eva Lee, and Molly Schwartz to be displayed on a permanent installation called The Portal, which looks from renderings like it may be in danger of being a better idea than actualized project.

Rendering of The Portal, Tampa, FL

Nevertheless, I can appreciate the attempt – and I’m sure the experience will be impressive – in light of this comment from Tampa’s Daily Loaf.

“In its first year, Lights on Tampa was a revelation: Look! Lots of people! Downtown! On a Saturday night! Now that there’s actually a little life in the district’s nightlife, think of this year’s LOT as a party to celebrate a downtown that has, at last, a lot to look at.”

This is my oft-quoted  “network takes over” effect in panel six of Archigram’s Instant City.

Archigram, Instant City, installation view "Edge Conditions," 2006 01SJ Biennial

Introducing Responsive City panel

Rethinking the Exhibition & Curating Communities

Amanda McDonald Crowley and Steve Dietz in conversation with Shane Mecklenberger

Soil Kitchen

Futurefarmers, Soil Kitchen

Soil Kitchen is a planned temporary public art project by Futurefarmers addressing issues of sustainability specific to the urban environment.

Futurefarmers is one of my favorite artist groups, and I have had the privilege of working with them on a number of projects (Free Soil Bus Tour, Sunshine Still/Speak Hard, A People Without a Voice Cannot Be Heard), so I was excited to see notice of this new project in Philadelphia, Soil Kitchen. The press release from the Office of Arts, Culture, and the Creative Economy describes the project –

“[Soil Kitchen] will incorporate community involvement, naturally generated energy, local foods, food exchange, the creative reuse of a brownfield site, and brownfield mapping. This new site-specific public artwork will provide a stage for interaction, dialogue, and education on topics of sustainability that impact every Philadelphian.”

It’s a tall order for a kitchen, but the project builds on a related history of Futurefarmers’ work that bodes well for its success. Victory Gardens – “A local network of home gardens = A community of food producers!” – was an exemplary community involvement project, which sought to at least reference if not recreate the remarkable “community” success of World War II victory gardens. It was also the occasion for the creation of the photogenic Garden Trike, which you can see referenced in the sketch above. Rainwater Harvester/Greywater Feedback Loop was a DIY system not unrelated to the rooftop windmill for naturally generated energy (presumably).

Futurefarmers, sketch of interior view, Soil Kitchen

Futurefarmers, sketch of interior view, Soil Kitchen

The exterior sketch of Soil Kitchen reminds me of a place like Waffle Shop in Pittsburgh, where a normative architectural facade of a restaurant belies an interior experiment in creative sociability. Inside Soil Kitchen, it’s not just dour tree huggers expounding on the chemical propertiesof this and that agent. It’s a party! For Futurefarmers’ Sunshine Still/Speak Hard project as part of Out of the Garage Into the World, they appropriated  the idea of the glamorous prohibition era speakeasy but made it a “speak hard,” where hard truths – or at least assertions in an ongoing debate between solar and bio fuel energy proponents – were debated in forums well lubricated by their sunshine still.

Abiding commitment, expert knowledge/knowledge of experts, social conviviality, a formally beautiful DIY aesthetic, and an uplifting playfulness distinguish Futurefarmers’ projects. I can’t wait to taste test in the Soil Kitchen.

Sidebar rant

Kudos to Philadelphia’s Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy for commissioning this project, but I can’t help but think that their press release headline “Philadelphia’s Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy Commissions FUTUREFARMERS for the City’s First-Ever Temporary Public Art Project” identifies just about the least interesting and unimportant aspect of the project. What’s up with that? We produced similarly unimaginative headlines for the 01SJ Biennial, and I also plead guilty as charged. The press is fascinated, of course, by “first,” “most,” “biggest,” and various other ests, but we cater to them in our short term desire for coverage at the peril of lack of understanding and ultimately support over the long term.

Goodbye and hello

For its first year, Public Address, our blog about experimenting with art in the public sphere, was a collaboration with Forecast Public Art, publisher of Public Art Review since 1989 and one of the premiere public art organizations in the country. Recently Forecast’s pioneering efforts were rewarded with grants from both the NEA and the Warhol Foundation to fund an online version of PAR, and that is where they will be focusing their energies online for the foreseeable future. It has been and honor and a pleasure working with Jack Becker, Melinda Hobbs Childs, Kaitlin Frick, and Nichole Goodwell, and we wish them all the best with their ongoing efforts and look forward to working with them again on Northern Spark and other efforts.

On a personal note, I recently completed a 6-year stint with another pioneering organizations ZER01, as the founding Artistic Director of the 01SJ Biennial in 2006 and again in 2008 and 2010. It has been an incredible run, and I will miss my colleagues and friends on the West Coast dearly, but I also look forward  to directing my efforts full time as Founder, President and Artistic Director of Northern

And I am especially pleased Jaime Austin, who was the Assistant Curator for the 2010 01SJ Biennial and is now Curator and Director of Programs for ZER01, has agreed to become the West Coast Editor for Public Address. She will be writing about and finding writers about art in public on the West Coast of the United States. Look for her byline soon.

Thank you Forecast! Welcome Jaime!

steve “mediachef”

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