(published in November 2006 in Artweek)
Moved to the West Coast
Packed up their things
The winters are gray
Now so are the dreams
They tried to make it all right
-Sleater-Kinney from Wilderness
In The Song of the Dodo David Quammen explains that species that evolve on islands tend to gigantism or dwarfism– hence such species as the dodo or the giant tortoise. Unlike the mainland where a surfeit of competition and predators force species to evolve to more efficient sizes, islands lack predators and competition within a niche. On an island a bird can become large because it can maximize its caloric energy from lack of competition and becomes flightless because of its large size and lack of a need for escape. Which is why the dodos were so easy to kill. An island is a microenvironment. Quammen used another term when describing the dispersal of species from the mainland: relaxing to equilibrium. This is when a new species is introduced on an island and it either causes the extinction of the existing species, or evolves into the ecological niche of one that has gone extinct. There are no additional niches, no upsetting of the balance, the island relaxes back to ecological equilibrium. The ecology of a regional art scene is like an island. Separated from the mainland, regional art scenes create their own versions of the dodo and giant tortoise. And like the ecology of an island, it depends on the mainland for fresh genetic material to occasionally drift onto the island, upset it for a short time and then relax into equilibrium. For the art world, where is the mainland, the place that has the competition and the predators? That would be of course, New York, L.A., London and Berlin. To mix metaphors for just a moment, regional art is seen as a perpetual AAA team whose biggest stars are still dwarfs to the big leagues. The dodo visiting New York City would be just another country rube waiting to be had.
I live in Portland, Oregon. Like many western mid-sized cities, Portland is an island. It is part of a cultural archipelago that stretches from Vancouver, B.C. to Seattle to Olympia and then to Portland. There are some smaller outer islands like Eugene and Ashland, but otherwise farms, suburbs and mountains surround the archipelago. The inevitable conversation for a regional art scene like the one in the Pacific Northwest is “how can we convince everyone out there on the mainland that we are worth paying attention to?” The problem is exacerbated in the Northwest by the fact that the archipelago is only thinly connected. Each city tends to keep to itself. For an artist or critic working in a province, the arguments of the boosters–what can we do for our city– becomes an incessant buzz. Artists working in the cultural mainland have only to think of making their work and getting it into the right niche. The city just is. The answer to not having a strong infrastructure of collectors, institutions and media is to bring it to the island. Events like Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s TBA festival, which brings international dance and performance art to Portland for a ten day festival and The Affair at the Jupiter Hotel, organized by Stuart Horodner, the former visual arts curator for PICA and now curator at The Contemporary in Atlanta and Laurel Gitlen of Small A Projects create a buzz and momentum akin to the traveling circus. The performance festival and the hotel art fair provide a city like Portland the opportunity to travel without having to leave town. Aside from the economic incentives for presenters, galleries, performers and nearby businesses, these kinds of events allow the provincial artists to see what’s happening on the mainland. It allows the off islanders to meet the natives and consider moving to a place where the lifestyle is so relaxed and the culture so amenable.
At the Affair at the Jupiter Hotel, Horodner moderated the keynote panel that included Joanna Marsh from the Wadsworth Atheneum, Susan Hapgood director of the Independent Curators International, Michael Darling from the Seattle Art Museum and Jeffrey Grove from High Museum in Atlanta. The discussion inevitably turned to the problems facing regional art. The perennial tension for roving curators and regional art institutions is the balance between the known quantity of national and international artists paired with lesser known regional ones. The mission of many regional art institutions is to educate and validate their constituents. Is an art show a success if only the regional audience flocks to it, or like the proverbial lone tree, is it immaterial without some national reviews or publication to give the work longevity? If in fact the history of art is a long unwieldy conversation about discreet objects and actions, does the regional disappear in the face of the mainstream?
Another function the hotel art fair provides is access. Local artists not only get to see what is happening across the country in galleries, they get to rub elbows with and meet the gallerists and artists from other cities. Likewise, the visitors get to see the work of local artists in their natural habitat. It is an open exchange. A collector could pick up a Marcel Dzama without ever leaving home. On the opening night party Steve Malkmus and the Jicks played. Janet Weiss from Sleater-Kinney played drums. This may have been the perfect expression of the state of regional art. Music is probably Portland’s biggest export. Michael Brophy, Portland’s quintessential regional artist did the cover on Sleater-Kinney’s last album. The album, The Woods, is everything that is positive about art that is both regional and national.
The hotel fair is also an honest economic exchange. Galleries are there to sell art; collectors are there to buy. This directness is certainly refreshing–it lends an openness and conviviality, like an outdoor bazaar, to the proceedings. The Affair is diverse and approachable. However, if the local art market depended only on this exchange to give a glimpse into the larger art world that glimpse would be wan and thin. Most of what a gallery can bring is portable and there is no sense of installation. The real art is happening back home where the curators and gallerists can actually give the artwork space and consideration. The fair is a great place for introductions, but not necessarily for actually seeing art. It creates energy and excitement. I think the real value of such an event is the enervating affect it should have on artists, curators and collectors who then go off and produce the new work. The Affair functions like a temporary café society in which the participants can have cross-regional conversation to hopefully yield future projects. It is then the responsibility of the artists to continue that practice throughout the year. Competition is essential to survival.
The contemporary art world seems to be moving to a model that mirrors Broadway. A few brand name artists travel to biennials, museum group shows and university lectures. A monoculture ensues. Art world fashionistas travel from Miami to Kassel to New York in an endless global party–the same artists, the same curators, the same collectors all on one big circuit. The obscuring of the local and particular by the brand name creates the side affect of constant cool hunting. The truly local and regional becomes “authentic” because it evolved outside of this circuit. Think Royal Art Lodge way up there in Manitoba or even the painters from Leipzig becoming a global phenomenon. Can the dodo survive the attention? Like ancestral genetic stock, the notion of “the authentic” is necessary to the art world to occasionally reinvigorate itself after overbreeding. I think we are in a moment like that right now. Despite the flowering of collectives and DIY zine groups and relational aesthetics supposedly in opposition to the multi-billion dollar market of the art world, a sense of exhaustion pervades contemporary art. Perhaps the islands are also places that evolve species away from the fray in order to reintroduce them later. This would be a reverse of the normal biological order.
TBA is also part of the festivalism trend. Rather than sustaining an audience for an entire season, TBA does it all in a thrilling and comprehensive ten days. The advantage of this model, like the hotel art fair, is the energy that the festival generates. As an audience member, you begin to compare and contrast and build context for the various pieces. TBA generally has two to three performances a night in venues throughout town, late night cabaret, afternoon panels and satellite visual art exhibitions. Also like the hotel art fair, it is enervating to see so much all at once. This year saw the US premiere of Yubiwa Hotel’s CANDIES Girlish Hardcore, which was reviewed a week later in the New York Times. Portland was never mentioned. In the eyes of the world it premiered in New York. Other highlights included the Nature Theatre of Oklahoma and Bebe Miller. What became apparent over the ten day period was that much of the local performance was not up to par with the national performers. It was here that the divide between local and national was most apparent. The work from bigger cities was just tougher and tighter. This is work created with predators and niche competition.
It is worth mentioning here that in the thirties and forties, New York was the province and Europe the mainland. The artists who helped create the New York School toiled in poverty and obscurity similar to regional artists everywhere. The crucial difference is that money was in New York’s cultural soil– manufacturing money, banking money, old money. It took just the right conditions to make it bloom. Unlike writers or even musicians, most artists deal with objects. Even those that work against objects deal with presence. At the very least, the artist is the avatar for the work. Since words and recordings can be transmitted through other media and endlessly duplicated, a writer or musician needs the mainland for distribution, but can very easily work in remote areas. Visual artists depend upon the unwieldy distribution of objects and/or themselves. The art world is a giant network which anyone can access anywhere. To actually participate in that network and be more than an invisible spectator, one has to deal with the validation of the mainland. Even if an artist or group of artists creates their own network and turns their backs on the mainland, if they’re of interest, they will be absorbed. Which, let’s face it, is almost every artist’s goal in the first place.
I think a distinction should be drawn between provincialism and regionalism. Provincialism suggests a conservative narrow-mindedness. A provincial is not only incurious about the larger world, but is somewhat hostile toward it. Regionalism suggests a confident knowledge of the ground beneath. A regional artist may have the idiosyncratic ticks associated with the homeland, but understands the larger trends of the mainstream. Because of the fluidity of the internet, the world should theoretically become the mainland. This is both true and untrue. There is a lot of everything, and yet the content seems to get thinner and thinner. Perhaps like the castaways on Lost, the region is an inescapable construct. A weird, unsettling self-contained world that could only remember the past but can’t contact the present. On the other hand, perhaps these islands of culture should start evolving into something else, because the mainland itself is unraveling, and these may be the last repositories of authenticity. Landmasses are also fluid. One era’s island is the next era’s continent. To avoid the fate of the dodo, the islanders should make sure to preserve the predators.