Tag Archives: Political Art

“Circle” by Benny Andrews

The first time after September 11 that my friends and I met in Chelsea to see some exhibitions which had had the misfortune of having their opening scheduled for that day, we were ecstatic to see each other and to be out in our city. We were, however, repelled by much of the art that we saw. It had all been done before. It looked empty and now we needed not art world stuff, fluff, what my mother used to refer to contemptuously as “merchandise,” but substance, art that showed some awareness of the world we were now living in, one totally altered from the one we had thought we occupied September 10.

Now as I write we are on the eve of a calamity perhaps greater. But for some reason, in some cases with forethought or based on some quick planning, there have been some powerful artworks on view in New York during this election season, artworks that really address the political moment while providing models of how one can do it, that most difficult thing, make an artwork, particularly a two dimensional static one, drawing or painting, that has an acute political narrative and a powerful aesthetic presence. Notable among such shows have been Philip Guston’s “Laughter in the Dark, Drawings from 1971 & 1975”, including his “Poor Richard” and Phlebitis Series, Kerry James Marshal: Mastry at the Met Breuer, and Benny Andrews’ The Bicentennial Series at Michael Rosenfeld Gallery.

Benny Andrews (1930-2006), “Circle,” 1973. Oil on twelve linen canvases with painted fabric and mixed media collage, 120″ x 288″. Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY

I have wanted to write about one of these major paintings in Benny Andrews’ show, Circle, from 1972, since I first saw it earlier this fall. When I first saw it in November, even from far, from the narrow hall, I thought, oh, here is a masterpiece, a word I rarely use. I wanted to proclaim in writing, “there is a masterpiece on view in New York.” Circumstances intervened and now the painting is on view  for just a couple more days, extended through Saturday January 21.

Circle (1973) is one of a cycle of very large multiple canvas works Andrews completed the early 70s dealing with both racism and sexism done at an intersectional moment in American history when the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement and the Women’s Liberation movement reached a peak of visibility and even transformational effectiveness, as the nation approached its Bicentennial.  In 1969 Andrews, a New York based artist reared in rural Georgia, Korean War veteran, activist in the Civil Rights, anti-Vietnam War, and feminist movement, undertook a major cycle of works, creating one major work per year for six years building up to the Bicentennial in 1976, each work emerging from dozens of smaller paintings and drawing studies.

Benny Andrews (1930-2006). “Circle” Study #32, 1972. India ink on paper 12″ x 18″, signed and dated. Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY

Andrew’s project sprang from his concern that the African-American experience would not be included or addressed on its own terms, in its own voice, in the nation’s celebrations. Each work including Circle began with a few ideas, images, and memories, which Andrews worked through in dozens of drawings and smaller painting studies–a fact I note because often in recent years I encounter art students who think you can just do one thing, try an idea once, not realizing the kind of work that goes into working through ideas until you arrive at the most powerful form and thus also the most powerful metaphor.

Here was my first impression of the painting: Circle is a painting with collage elements of cloth, paper, and rope, on 12 linen canvases assembled to create one very large surface. At the center of the work a black man is crucified to a bed by real rope strung across the canvas. He is bound, naked except for underpants made of real stained rags, and his body is slit open with his bloody innards a split watermelon. The bed itself is a humble plain palette covered with blood stained mattress ticking. The crucified figure is held down by a circle of white women who hold the ropes tight, some scream, some are faceless, behind them their shadows are foreshortened into black silhouettes. The scene is framed by two older black women seated in rush chairs, impassively witnessing the lynching….Here is my second impression of the painting: A black man naked except for soiled underpants is tied to a bed at the center a large rectangular space, his body is slit open to reveal the inside of split watermelon, while a complex contraption above him is pulling three-dimensional watermelon like forms out of his gut. He is held down by real ropes held by a circle of mostly women and some men, encircled the figure, some very close to us the viewers, some farther back and above us in the picture plane. Each figure including the circle of torturers, the man, and even his bed cast black shadows, created by a light source that seems to come from our space in the gallery into the painting, implicating us in the circle. All the shadows fall away from us toward  the background, except for the man’s right hand which casts a claw like shadow in the reverse direction, reaching in effect towards us, the viewers.

When I first saw the work I interpreted some of what I saw in a manner that seemed narratively inconsistent: I read the two seated women in the foreground as black though that didn’t make sense, for what would two black women be doing seated impassively at a lynching? Yet it made some kind of sense to me, or I created sense: I saw them as tribal elders, archetypal matriarchs who had seen everything. One can build any interpretative narrative out of visual clues. Today the visual clues were the opposite: I felt that the circle of torturers including the two seated women all had to be white. I’m still not sure. In the gallery text on the exhibition, in the discussion on this particular work, it is noted that the images in this painting were interpreted in multiple ways, and that “in conversations with critics, Andrews stayed silent on the personal intent behind his symbolism.” Between common sense and instinct there is a range of possible interpretation. Either way these drawn, painted, and collaged, built up, seated female figures are powerful and eerie witnesses to a deeply disturbing event.

My description of the narrative does not really explain why I call this a masterpiece. Let me try to get at the core of it: the work is large and thus impressive because of that, but that would not be enough, there are lots of empty-headed large paintings around. So it is large and it depicts a powerful and disturbing event, it is in a line of history back to paintings depicting the martyrdom of Christian saints, the flaying of Peter, and of course scenes of the Stations of the Cross, the Crucifixion, Deposition, and Lamentation. But it takes place on a flat white ground, someplace that is very modernist in its flatness, and this place is a nowhere, bleached out of detail: only one exotic tree hints also at a biblical theme as a white woman hands some fruit to a white man who is clinging to the trunk of the tree. And it is not exactly a painting, as each figure and object that appears is composed from two dimensional and three dimensional elements. It is as sculptural as it is painterly.

The use of actual rope which we feel palpably as we look at the work–we see its texture and the shadows the rope casts on the surface–this binds up to the paintings as much as it binds the figure to his bed of suffering. Its reality enters our space and it implicates us.  The ropes do something else as well, they bind the painting, and they cross the lines created by the individual canvases that create the surface. The use of these 12 canvases to create one large work was in part the result of circumstance, the size of the artist’s studio could not accommodate one large work:

The idea of my new work is the expression of an individual, in this case, a black individual, in America, in the 70’s, using the Bicentennial as  focal point. throughout the work, I emphasize the history of this country over two hundred years. My new work forces me to position myself in that kind of arena. Though I don’t work on the idea of the spectacular, I did want to work on the challenge of bigness. I had to do the “big”work even though I had to do them small enough in sections, so they could get out of my door and down the staircase of the building.  So as I worked in my studio, I said I have to approach this honestly, and I made no attempt to hide or redesign the panels or the lines between them.

But that decision is part of what makes this such a brilliant addition to the grand tradition of painting: the lines of separation between the canvases undermine that tradition even as they build upon it and speak as an equal to it.

I think of this as a great American painting, because it depicts American history and emerges from the artist’s lived experience of Jim Crow in the South and institutional racism in the North. It should be as celebrated as Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, or James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, or any song by Mahalia Jackson. But I think of it also in relation to the great tradition of Western painting, culminating as it once did in an installation in the Louvre of Courbet’s A Burial at Ornans and The Painter’s Studio, Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus and Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa. It should have pride of place in a major American museum.

Now as ever there’s a lot of talk about the effectiveness of art in or as political activism, particular the old art of painting, which is seen as static, and also as compromised by its association with the history of both Christian and secular capitalist Western power. And it’s very rare that a work of “political” art has made a difference in a specific political situation. In fact often such a work is not even widely seen at the time.  Edouard Manet prudently didn’t exhibit his work, The Execution of Maximilian for several years because it would not have been safe to do, similarly James Ensor rolled up Christ’s Entry Into Brussels in 1889 and it wasn’t exhibited for thirty years and for all I know stowed it under his bed. Picasso’s Guernica is one of the rare works done in reaction to a current event that was known at the time it was done because of the fame of the artist.

And of course none of these works whether seen or not would have altered the course of history. Nevertheless when these works are seen at a later time, they hold within their visual and material decisions the power of the artist’s connection to the subject, which is power/powerlessness and injustice/justice. The works have a political effect: they give people courage, when they are seen, whether it is during the artist’s lifetime or a hundred years later. And speaking selfishly as an artist: the area where I feel the courage is not only the area of political activism, but as an artist That is, it is not only the subject, but the form, or it is the conjunction of the two, but if it were only the subject, it would most likely not have the effect of giving me courage, as an artist.

 

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M/E/A/N/I/N/G: The Final Issue on A Year of Positive Thinking-8

The first issue of M/E/A/N/I/N/G: A Journal of Contemporary Art Issues, was published in December 1986. M/E/A/N/I/N/G is a collaboration between two artists, Susan Bee and Mira Schor, both painters with expanded interests in writing and politics, and an extended community of artists, art critics, historians, theorists, and poets, whom we sought to engage in discourse and to give a voice to.

For our 30th anniversary and final issue, we have asked some long-time contributors and some new friends to create images and write about where they place meaning today. As ever, we have encouraged artists and writers to feel free to speak to the concerns that have the most meaning to them right now.

Every other day from December 5 until we are done, a grouping of contributions will appear on A Year of Positive Thinking. We invite you to live through this time with all of us in a spirit of impromptu improvisation and passionate care for our futures.

Susan Bee and Mira Schor

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Erica Hunt

For M/E/A/N/I/N/G

Was there ever more blinding noise set to panic?

Was there ever more thunder than thunder muted?

Is it lightning that strikes the public stare?
Is it lightning that sticks public fascination to calamity?
to siren’s sight-obliterating call?

Is it thunder or thirst that severs thirst from throat?
the sound disconnected from the picture?

Is thirst recollected by rain?

We wake up, waking, woke
to thunder outside
the house, inside, it was already
raining.

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Writing Life / November 2016

this labor is not silent

but requires collaboration between clamor and music

found in rustling. Not makeshift, you are its prototype

an advanced draft. Sense

applied to warm skin. Uncanned mannequin

against gun robot. Stand.

Tricks in a picture. Stand.

Name the ruse of normal in criminal bracket.

Stand. Duet with double optics, then

stand to its left. If the ground is too hot to tolerate long,

improvise and stand. But

stand.

Erica Hunt, poet, and essayist, once wrote “no shade to lie down in the lullaby banks” foreshadowing the November 2016 election. She is Parsons Family Professor of Creative Writing at Long Island University, Brooklyn campus.

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Noah Fischer: We Are Called to Fight

It turns out that the campaign advisors, though trafficking in next-level untruths, made one claim on America that isn’t exactly a lie. They dug something up that was long-rotting un­der the floorboards: an invention of race that split the white working class from black people (and people of color in general) in order to lay the economic cornerstone of the American Dream. This rotting thing proved extremely effective.

Wounds never healed and debt was never paid and meanwhile the monster kept eating. It began to gobble up the white middle class too, capturing hundreds of millions into odious debts securitized by mega-firms. It gobbled the Dream right up. And just when the 99% were about to wake up, it jumped into the middle of the political process and cast out a thick web of lies branching out from the invention of race and steeped in its pain. That is why we choke on language now bursting with harmful triggers, each concept certain to stab one group or the other. This is how Trump rises. We now need a deeper language and an art that includes new tunnels and pathways.

The last weeks have shown us that Trumpism is threatened by artists. It was no mistake that the last alt-right propaganda meme on the eve of the election accused performance artist Marina Abramović of devil worship (#spiritcooking). Then the cast of “Hamilton” stepped up to the moment from their stage. Brandon Victor Dixon is the actor who plays Aaron Burr who shot the father of the 1%, Alexander Hamilton. So it’s fitting that he challenged Pence. And in response The Predator-in-Chief himself tweeted that “the theater must always be a safe and special space…Apologize!” This meant: you will not be safe as long as you are free. The specialness of your industry is predicated on you shutting the fuck up.

Friends, this is a declaration of war. Because “shut the fuck up” is echoing around the globe from Russia to Israel to Poland to India. A webs of lies and a dredged corpse is poisoning our language and a “shut the fuck up” to those who try to rehabilitate it equals a war against meaning, and we are called to fight.

And there can only be one answer: preparations to join together and fight. Art practice will be our boot camp. Because if you watch Victor Dixon in his moment of protest, you will see the generously flowing movements and rich pronunciation of a trained actor-warrior. And if you go on the streets in protest, you will see that the empowered public voice and public body and paintings and songs are needed on this stage too. Even more, it’s by developing a personal relationship to intuitive beauty that one sustains the struggle. It’s by understanding the deeper logic of artistic time that we can speak truth to power even after the play had ended, after the exhibition is down, and the next day too. It’s by committing to artistic experiment that a certain risk be­comes possible.

The stakes are high. To normalize what’s coming may be the riskiest path. If we do not fight, we could lose every­thing. Or more specifically: We artists will have much to offer the 1% who will thrive under this and any regime, and nothing to offer our comrades whose survival depends on solidarity. We have come too far to calculate that “probably me and my friends will be fine.” We learned too much about the history of power accumulation and its reliance on the privilege of silence. We know too much about the common work of emancipation.

Noah Fischer works at the crossroads between economic and social inequity and art practice and its institutions. His sculpture, drawing, performance, writing, and organizing practice fluctuate between object making and direct action as well as an ongoing theatrical collaboration with Berlin-based andcompany&Co. He is the initiating member of Occupy Museums and a member of GULF/ Gulf Labor and his collaborative work has been seen both with and without invitation at MoMA, Guggenheim, Brooklyn Museum, ZKM, and Venice, Athens, and Berlin Biennales among other venues.

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Julie Harrison

Julie Harrison, “War (Series),” 2014. Archival pigment print, 17" x 42

Julie Harrison, “War (Series),” 2014. Archival pigment print, 17″ x 42

Julie Harrison, “War (Series),” 2014. Archival pigment print, 17" x 42"

Julie Harrison, “War (Series),” 2014. Archival pigment print, 17″ x 42″

On December 10, 1948, the General Assembly of the United Nations signed the UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS in Paris. This Declaration established 30 Articles that spell out what it means for the entire “human family” to be entitled to dignity, equality and inalienable rights. It is the foundation for freedom, justice and peace in the world, and has been translated into over 500 languages.

The United States has a history of violating human rights, and perhaps we can frame our work towards change as such (it doesn’t just begin with Trump, although he and his ilk will most certainly exacerbate it).

In reality (using the language written in the Declaration):

  • We are not all born free and equal in dignity and rights.
  • We are not without distinctions of race, color, sex, language, religion, opinion, origin, property, birth or other status.
  • We do not all have the right to life, liberty and security of person.
  • Some of us are held in slavery or servitude.
  • Some are subjected to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.
  • We do not all have equal protection of the law.
  • Some are subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.
  • We are all being subjected to arbitrary interference with our privacy.
  • Some are not allowed the right to seek our country’s asylum from persecution.
  • Everyone does not have the freedom to manifest their religion or belief.
  • Everyone does not have the right to peaceful assembly and association.
  • Everyone does not have the right to equal pay for equal work.
  • Everyone who works does not has the right to a just and favorable remuneration.
  • Everyone does not have the right to an adequate standard of living.
  • Everyone does not have the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, and old age.
  • Parenthood and childhood are not entitled to special care and assistance.
  • All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, do not enjoy the same social protection.
  • Education is not directed to the full development of the human person.
  • Education does not promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups.
  • Everyone does not have the right to freely participate in cultural life, arts and scientific advancement.

I recognize that we operate within degrees of this or that. But if we continue to believe that human rights abuses are THEIR problem (that OTHER country), not ours, then we have not fully understood what human rights are.

Happy 68th Anniversary to the UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS.

Julie Harrison is a visual artist, social justice advocate, avid adventurer, bohemian mother, and amateur political pundit from New York City.

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Roger Denson: The Individual Is No Longer Invisible In There

I can’t recall an election being more about identity. That is in terms of one’s personal identity, one’s view of what identity means, and how one’s identity is a vehicle for or a hindrance to social and cultural mobility. Ironically, I found myself coming full circle, back to the early 1990s. That this circling should intersect with the “last” M/E/A/N/I/N/G publication is doubly ironic, in that my first contribution to the May 1994 issue is a commentary I called, “The Indivisible Individual Invisible In There,” what then seemed a newly emergent anti-essentialist approach to identity.

In that work I began to integrate the writing of Anthony Appiah, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Judith Butler into my own positions on the debate of the new identity art being made in the late 1980s and early 1990s. This was an art made in the shadow of the neoconservative backlash to 1960s reforms and revolutions overseen by Reagan and Bush I. My targets were the mythologies of race, gender and sexuality, which had become ensnared in static and rigid ideological paradigms by even the most well-meaning activists leading our liberation movements. What had been fresh and vital to the defense of universal civil rights in the 1960s and 1970s came to seem stalled and stunted by the 1990s as artists and writers sought greater individuality and less ideological boundaries to move through in life and art.

Of course there had been earlier anti-essentialists who debunked the boundaries, if not the biological organs and makeup of difference. But Franz Boas and Margaret Mead in anthropology, W.E.B. DuBois in sociology, and Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir in philosophy and political theory spoke in bygone languages that a generation of Structuralists had deactivated — or so we thought. Appiah, Gates and Butler showed us these earlier modernists in fact held out the counterpoints to the notion of essence still relatively unknown within the sphere of radical identity liberation movements that deferred to traditional boundaries of racial, gender, sexual, class and ideological categories. Appiah, Gates and Butler brought just the right reframing to the anti-essentialist notions of the former Existentialist generation to make the individualism that the 1980s culture celebrated consistent with the new evidence from DNA studies that the world was not composed of static races that we had ‘arrived at’ and ‘occupy’, but rather that we ‘move through’ in ‘frequencies’ of identities and generations as we branch out and mutate with ceaseless migration and mixing of racial, ethnic, cultural and biological genetic types.

Even more than attempting to spread the diversity model paradigm, I was concerned with what such a model meant for the liberation movements that proliferated since the 1960s, yet were hardly finished with their work of securing parity for diverse populations in the 1990s. Black power, feminism and gay rights were still struggling movements, and the paradigms of classical fixed identities motivated millions. To now say that we weren’t biologically black, women and gay, that we were only culturally and consensually so, seemed at the time a dangerous deflation of those movements and even a denial of what they had achieved in the name of liberty. Yet it was because discrimination flagrantly continued despite the new empowerment movements that I wrote in M/E/A/N/I/N/G #15:

There is little doubt that identities like “man,” “woman,” “black,” “white,” “yellow,” “red,” “straight,” “gay,” “bourgeois,” and “proletariat,” are in crisis. Although these ancient identities have motivated and sustained the emancipation and empowerment movements of recent decades, we may at times find such traditional identities limiting our personal development. Nonetheless, for many the practice of shedding traditional identification with an assumed racial, ethnic, engendered, sexual, or economic class “jumps the gun,” particularly if an achievement of parity is still forthcoming. While some feel the time for a deconstruction of traditional identity along the lines of race, gender, ethnicity, economic status, and ideology has come, others, especially those who espouse an activist identity informed by feminism, black power, Native Americanism, or gay rights, the impetus to dissolve traditional identity and move beyond it poses a reactionary threat.

Fast-forward to 2016 and the end of what may be the most divisive US Presidential campaign since the 1960s. Divisive because the demographics of diverse populations made themselves heard throughout and in the outcome of the campaign. Despite that the liberation movements for women, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, native Americans and LGBT peoples have still to secure unquestionable social recognition in the institutions of the US, the once-identity-phobic public has become so keenly sensitive to the slights to one’s self-identification that all sides have become intent on silencing opposition in the media, and especially social media. And this silencing was wished from all sides, not just the reactionary far right or the intransigent far left.

If I come to focus now on my own identifications and misidentifications during the 2016 campaign, it is to ensure that the record maintains its individualist center amid all the swirling identity tropes that rely on general allegiances. For while it’s true that some of the accusations here about to be counted are merely rhetorical and inflamed — the illogic of the impoverished ploys of one-upping an opponent in a debate otherwise being lost for being devoid of principles, issues and causes — the disparagements are rooted in the reality of individuals attempting to silence one another. Still, I raise them to illustrate to what degree we have made a mockery of essentialist identities, cultures and their politics — even if we don’t realize we are expressing (self) mockery.

The point is not to focus on me and what I do and don’t believe, but to consider to what degree identity has evolved from being mythologized as a static essence to being rendered a contingency in constant evolution. The matter is more than one of identifying with or against the perceived identities that our antagonists pin on us. It is a matter of recognizing that the slippages that intervene between one’s own self-identification and the perceived identities being pinned on us are increasingly the effect of identity politics having become fully integrated into mainstream media, if not popular consciousness and expression. It is also instructive of the conceptual divide that exists between the essentialists (racists, misogynists, xenophobes, homophobes, and just plain folks identifying according to their conditioning) and the truly democratic anti-essentialists who understand that identity and identification are relative to innumerable and even unidentifiable differences between us.

It is also a matter that the rush to identify others, either habitually or intently, is too often motivated by the drive to gain personal and collective political leverage over perceived opponents. As witnessed below, a common attempt to acquire and maintain that leverage is by publicly recalling the fears of those who have been discriminated and persecuted and tagging their opponent with participating in that discrimination and persecution. Whether the accusations are true or false, the leverage is sought and maintained by resorting to the clichés of reverse racism and sexism, and that all too often render the formerly abused the newly emergent abuser. This is my point in the account below, for which I will leave to the reader the judgment whether or not this writer has been judiciously or injudiciously tagged by his critics below.

And so it is that in this year of fractious accounts of grievances, for largely rhetorical reasons, I have been called an Islamophobe and closet Zionist because I haven’t criticized Israel’s treatment of Arabs virulently enough. On the other side of the coin, I was called anti-Semitic because I condemned the Israeli eviction of Palestinians from centuries-old family land to make room for Jewish settlements. I’ve been called anti-Christian because I support a woman’s right to reproductive rights and because I denounced Christians who bombed abortion clinics. I’ve been called a religious fanatic because I consider atheists to make the same epistemologically unsound pronouncement about the unknown that religious make. I’ve been called misogynist because I believe that women too often undermine their own rights by conceding to, even supporting, patriarchal social and gender codes. I’ve been called a hater of heterosexual men because I was critical of a recently deceased famous straight male performer who was accused of raping a teenage girl. I was called a member of the oligarchical 1% because I didn’t support a Socialist-Independent presidential candidate. I was called a Communist because I didn’t support an oligarch for President. I was called a white racist because my candidate was deemed a conspirator to the commercial and lengthy imprisonment of blacks for nonviolent crimes. I was called a self-hating white because that same candidate was willing to promote the advancement of non-whites economically and politically at the (perceived) expense of whites. I was called a self-hating fag because that candidate was late to embrace gay marriage. I was called an imperialist colonizer because that candidate didn’t speak out on the Dakota Access Pipeline conflict. And I was called anti-American, because I support the Lakota and other tribes opposing the pipeline at the cost of jobs.

Again, this is not to dwell on my circumstance but to rather legitimize the emerging view that it can only be one’s own shifting circumstance in relation to all other shifting circumstances around us that we can trust, however humbly, to reframe defining ourselves and others according to an individual-centric model of identity. A model that is entirely relative to the individual-centric identities of others, yet no less self-defining. Is this or is this not the contingency-based relativist and anti-essentialist intersectional paradigm of identity and functionality that we sought since the 1960s? And can we use this paradigm as the building blocks, each different from the next, of use in rebuilding a democratic society with pragmatic capabilities to expand beyond prejudice and marginalization?

Roger Denson is a regular contributor of art and cultural criticism to Huffington Post since 2010. His feature articles and reviews have appeared in Parkett (Zurich); Artscribe International (London); Bijutsu Techo (Tokyo); Art in America; Artbyte; Arts Magazine; Art Experience; M/E/A/N/I/N/G; Acme Journal; and Journal of Contemporary Art (all New York);  Duke University’s Cultural Politics (Durham, NC and London); Flash Art; Contemporanea (Milan); Trans>Arts, Culture,  Media (Buenos Aires and New York); and Kunstlerhaus Bethanien (Berlin). He is the author of the forthcoming monograph, Vasudeo S. Gaitonde: The Sonata of Consciousness, 2017 (Bodhana Arts, Mumbai).

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Robert C. Morgan: The Presence of M/E/A/N/I/N/G

The future is a conundrum, a misguided erudition of how we think things should be, but never are. It is easier to know the past; and by knowing the past, to be rehearsed in memories of thoughts gone by, which were once believed to be true. The present is perhaps the most difficult, the high wire between Points A and B, the resounding tight rope on which we may find ourselves suspended, the still transition between past and future. This is what makes the present so ironic and so difficult to perceive, to grasp and to understand.

In the 90s, I recall writing book reviews for M/E/A/N/I/N/G. This was something I enjoyed as it kept me focused on the academic side of art. But in addition to the reviews, there were other occasions that proved deeply meaningful. At the time I was too involved with the mystique of conceptual art and was looking for a way to think and to write from another direction. This happened in a brief contribution I made in one of the forums organized by the editors. My statement raised questions about the marketing of art, which in those days, were not discussed. It would eventually lead to my book, “El Fin del Mundo del Arte,” initially published in Spanish and then later the same year in English.

Through this forum, I found a way to connect with my changing sensibilities at the time. I found the courage to reject the trends of academic art writing and begin questioning the assumptions on which I was making critical judgments.

Printed publications, like M/E/A/N/I/N/G, were more likely to be seen and read in the 90s than they are today. It was a different era in art where the approach to theory and feminism seem to follow a very different course. I suppose I would call it more “open-ended” to the extent that writers were given the permission to open their minds and pursue a line of thought that was both personal and theoretical, which, of course, was something artist-writers need to do. It was a magazine that opened doors and allowed fresh ideas to move from the margins into the mainstream. There was an internal presence in M/E/A/N/I/N/G, consciously put forth by the editors. The language of the podium was removed from the premises and given back to artists interested in changing sensibilities that would enrich not only the beleaguered past and future but would put us squarely within the present. M/E/A/N/I/N/G became a harbinger for artists concerned with political change and who needed a forum by which to engage with one another on issues of discrepancy, of discrimination, of civil and human rights that are, unfortunately, still with us today.

Robert C. Morgan holds a Master of Fine Arts degree and a Ph.D. in Art History. He divides his career between painting and writing.  He has lectured widely, curated numerous exhibitions (other than his own work), and has written literally hundreds of critical essays. He was awarded the first Arcale prize in International Art Criticism in Salamanca, and, in 2011, was inducted into the European Academy of Sciences and Arts, Salzburg.

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Jenny Perlin

Jenny Perlin, Still image from Inks, 16mm film loop, b/w, 5 seconds, 2014. Courtesy the artist and Simon Preston Gallery, New York

Jenny Perlin, Still image from “Inks,” 16mm film loop, b/w, 5 seconds, 2014. Courtesy the artist and Simon Preston Gallery, New York

“Silences and repetitions are rejected as a failure of language when they are experienced as oblivious holes or as the utterance of the same thing twice or more. WE SHOULD NOT STAMMER, so goes the reasoning, for we only make our way successfully in life when we speak in a continuous articulate flow. True. After many years of confusions, of suppressed voice and INARTICULATE SOUNDS, holes, blanks, black-outs, jump-cuts, out-of-focus visions, I FINALLY SAY NO: yes, sounds are sounds and should above all be released as sounds. Everything is in the releasing. There is no score to follow, no hidden dimension from the visuals to disclose, and endless thread to weave anew.” —Trinh T. Minh-Ha,“Holes in the Sound Wall,” from When the Moon Waxes Red: Representation, Gender, and Cultural Politics, Routledge, New York, 1991

“We must acknowledge that we began [in cinema] like literary people, that we’re not sufficiently literate in existing sounds and don’t distinguish among them. If […] you go to the Donbass, then all you’ll hear [at first] is one uninterrupted roar and noise—that’s the first impression. But this wasn’t my first time in the Donbass; I studied these sounds and saw that, yes, we really are domestic, and for us these sounds are “noise”—but for the worker in the Donbass every sound has a specific meaning; for him there are no “noises.” And if it seems to you, comrades, who know all the scales perfectly, that I am at this moment emitting pure noise, then I can assure you that I am [producing] no noise whatsoever.” —Dziga Vertov, spoken at the Kiev preview of “Enthusiasm,” RGALI f. 2091, op. 2, d 417, 1. 59, in John MacKay, “Disorganized Noise: Enthusiasm and the Ear of the Collective,” Kinokultura # 7, January 2005

“The optical thought the optical dance to the sound of the river of your soul The flowers of a mind The dance of handwriting and the song of flowers and the white of the clouds and the blue of the sky–Sometimes it is dark and you see in the darkness nothing but your own feeling your own movements your own pulse and the rapture of your heart your blood this is what you see–what goes with the music–The Stars the Heaven the Darkness and the Light of your own love your own heart The Light of your mind, The Dancing Light of your blood–and your feeling.” —Oskar Fischinger, on Motion Painting No. 1, from Center for Visual Music’s Fischinger Texts: Film Notes.

“CHINESE CURIOS”
‘These are days when no one should rely unduly on his “competence.” Strength lies in improvisation. All the decisive blows are struck left-handed.’”—Walter Benjamin, from One-Way Street and other Writings, NLB, London, 1979

Jenny Perlin is an artist working in Brooklyn. Her practice in 16mm film, video, and drawing works with and against the documentary tradition, incorporating innovative stylistic techniques to emphasize issues of truth, misunderstanding, and personal history. Her projects look closely at ways in which social machinations are reflected in the smallest fragments of daily life. Perlin’s films often combine handwritten text and drawn images and embrace the technical contingencies of analog technologies.

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Altoon Sultan

—“I am here to wonder.” Goethe

 It is difficult to understand how to respond to the political shock that descended on so many of us in early November. Where to turn, how to think, what to do? For me, it is necessary to go towards what I find essential, which is paying attention to the small moments that bring joy and beauty and surprise: winter sunlight reaching far into a room, highlighting the delicate serrated edge of a seed head; a tiny snail crossing an immensity of leaf; bright light illuminating a plastic tank; the taste of a garden tomato warmed by the sun; a tangle of tree roots pushing against city pavement; the emergence of a seedling, still a miracle to me. To slow down and notice everyday things provides sense and spirit and calm to emotional chaos.

 —“The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself.” Henry Miller

 I walk in the woods, taking the same path several times a week, and each time it is different in feeling and in light, each time there are things to see that I hadn’t noticed before: a bit of moss, a fluff of seeds, a leaf dangling from a spider’s thread, all marvels.

—“I think what one should do is write in an ordinary way and make the writing seem extraordinary. One should write, too, about what is ordinary and see the extraordinary behind it.”    Jean Rhys

 And there is art, my own and the sweep of art history. In my painting and sculpture I too attempt, like Jean Rhys, to transform the ordinary and overlooked; details of farm machinery––panels and bolts, light and shadow crossing metal and plastic surfaces––become complex formal compositions. When I was a younger artist I felt the need to make large dramatic paintings, but now I value intimacy and close looking. And I value being part of a very long tradition of picture making by Homo sapiens going back 40,000 years, when humans painted in caves, making images of remarkable sensitivity. We don’t know the purpose of these paintings, but to me they indicate a need to recreate the world, to make something beautiful from nothing. Across millennia peoples have made images and have decorated objects, not from necessity but from desire. One of my deepest pleasures is to wander the galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC for hours, crossing the globe, visiting favorite objects and discovering new ones. I’ve long felt that art-making was an essential part of being human but was nevertheless startled to read the following while writing this piece; it appears in the NY Review of Books, November 24th issue, in a review about brain science by the early pre-history professor Steven Mithen. He asks “what gave us ‘the Homo sapiens advantage’?”

It wasn’t brain size because the Neanderthals matched Homo sapiens. My guess is that it may have been another invention: perhaps symbolic art that could extend the power of those 86 billion neurons.…

I am part of a tradition of making; I am part of the world. In paying close attention to both, I find meaning.

altoon-dewdrops-on-hosta-with-snailnew

Altoon Sultan lives on an old hill farm in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, where she makes art and tends her garden.

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Two more installments of M/E/A/N/I/N/G: The Final Issue on A Year of Positive Thinking will appear here this week. Contributors will include Susan Bee, Mira Schor, and more.

M/E/A/N/I/N/G: A History
We published 20 print issues biannually over ten years from 1986-1996. In 2000, M/E/A/N/I/N/G: An Anthology of Artists’ Writings, Theory, and Criticism was published by Duke University Press. In 2002 we began to publish M/E/A/N/I/N/G Online and have published six online issues. Issue #6 is a link to the digital reissue of all of the original twenty hard copy issues of the journal. The M/E/A/N/I/N/G archive from 1986 to 2002 is in the collection of the Beinecke Library at Yale University.

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M/E/A/N/I/N/G: The Final Issue on A Year of Positive Thinking-3

The first issue of M/E/A/N/I/N/G: A Journal of Contemporary Art Issues, was published in December 1986. M/E/A/N/I/N/G is a collaboration between two artists, Susan Bee and Mira Schor, both painters with expanded interests in writing and politics, and an extended community of artists, art critics, historians, theorists, and poets, whom we sought to engage in discourse and to give a voice to.

For our 30th anniversary and final issue, we have asked some long-time contributors and some new friends to create images and write about where they place meaning today. As ever, we have encouraged artists and writers to feel free to speak to the concerns that have the most meaning to them right now.

Every other day from December 5 until we are done, a grouping of contributions will appear on A Year of Positive Thinking. We invite you to live through this time with all of us in a spirit of impromptu improvisation and passionate care for our futures.

Susan Bee and Mira Schor

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Note to email subscribers: the video in this post can only be viewed if you are online, it will not run in your email program.

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Sheila Pepe: The United States of Calvin

In 1856, one-time pastor and faculty of the Harvard Divinity School Ralph Waldo Emerson published English Traits. As an introduction to a text that exhaustively conveys all favorable traits of the Englishman, Emerson a champion anglophile, asserts the precision of race as not only historic, but also plainly scientific. “It is race, is it not?,” Emerson asks, “that puts the hundred millions of India under the dominion of a remote island in the north of Europe.” His answer is yes. No wonder he was late to the idea of abolition.

Less than seventy-five years later, in 1928, the Harvard Theological Review (Vol. 21, No.3, Jul., pp.163-195) publishes Kemper Fullerton’s “Calvinism and Capitalism.” Within these thirty-two pages many ends are achieved. Most important is, as the title conveys, building a finer point upon Max Weber’s ideas connecting “Protestantism and money making.” For Fullerton the Protestantism key to leadership in modern American Capitalism is specifically Calvinism. Lutheranism doesn’t quite make the grade. Catholicism would catapult us back into the Middle Ages, as Catholics cling to professions in the handicrafts, rather than that of financier, industrialist, or technical expert. Consider the year it was published. In 1928 New York Governor, Catholic and reformer Al Smith was running for president. Wall Street was riding high and Prohibition, which Smith ran against, was in full swing. The Republicans had failed to reapportion Congress and the Electoral College after the 1920 census (which had registered a 15 percent increase in the urban population). Smith lost to Herbert Hoover in a landslide. Many ascribed the loss to the three “P’s” – Prosperity, Prejudice, and Prohibition.

Both the Puritans of Boston Bay Colony and the Dutch Reformed traders of New Amsterdam were Calvinist-based communities. Both built secular societies that were completely religious by design. That is, they believed that man lay bare in the unmediated presence of God. That each individual had an obligation to that God to live a highly disciplined life persistently in pursuit of good works in a secular world. Good work was not social work, rather productive, profitable work. “The Calvinist practised (sic) self-discipline not even to secure assurance (that he was elected for salvation); he practised it for the glory of God, and in the practise of it assurance came.” As Fullerton argues, this is the perfect platform for modern capitalism. Tireless money making at the expense of others is not bad, but there were limits – flagrant avarice was not seen as appropriately ascetic.

As founding father and Boston-born Ben Franklin would say, “A penny saved is a penny earned.” This seems a benign enough aphorism for his young America, even while fueled by a mandate from heaven. What the good humor and simplicity belies is that this country wasn’t simply founded by oligarchs, but by a religious oligarchy that squarely placed duty to God in the secular commons. This is not new; it simply persists.

As we look to find ways to change the damage done in this last presidential election, let’s consider U.S. values as a set of religiously formulated dictates, not the least of which is, for example, the construction of race in the service of making money for the glory of God. No one is out of the loop on this one – whether or not there was or is a “God” in your life. We might wonder where exactly the separation of church and state is in this country, and if the toleration of difference in the service of commerce is adequate expression of civil rights.

It’s time to ask again, and hopefully for the last time: What is this secular church that calls itself America?

sheila-pepe_glassceilingfantasy

Sheila Pepe, “Glass Ceiling Fantasy,” 2006. Charcoal + chalk on grey paper

Sheila Pepe lives and works in Brooklyn. She is a resident of the Sharpe-Walentas Program. Pepe is working on an exhibition and book with Gilbert Vicario, Chief Curator of the Phoenix Museum, AZ.

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Joseph Nechvatal

Joseph Nechvatal, Portrait of the 45th President of the United States, 11/2016 (dimensions variable)

Joseph Nechvatal, Portrait of the 45th President of the United States, 11/2016 (dimensions variable)

For this digital painting entitled Portrait of the 45th President of the United States, I have taken an official Wikipedia photo portrait of Donald Trump and buried it in visual noise, denying his presence to a large degree. The idea is to visually refuse to acknowledge him clearly as president. To stop reproducing him and his brand as presidential. To resist and oppose him with noise.

Joseph Nechvatal’s computer-robotic assisted paintings and computer software animations are shown regularly in galleries and museums. Towards an Immersive Intelligence: Essays on the Work of Art in the Age of Computer Technology and Virtual Reality (1993-2006) was published by Edgewise Press in 2009. In 2011, Immersion Into Noise was published by the University of Michigan Library. His collected critical art reviews at Hyperallergic can be accessed here.

Martha Wilson as Donald Trump: Politics and Performance Art are One and the Same.

Grace Exhibition Space May 29; Smack Mellon, July 31, 2016; Creative Time Summit/Transformer party, October 13, 2016; P.P.O.W “Inauguration” exhibition, October 28; Tara benefit November 6, 2016.

Enter to Queen, “We are the Champions”

Hello America! People keep asking me how I’m going to make America great again. How I’m going to make America safe again. It’s you and me baby—we’re going to do this together.

It’s the coming of the solid state
When we’ll all be together again
Just like—I can’t remember when
We’ll have paradise on Earth at last

It’s the coming of the solid state
Instantaneous control’s what it takes
No more dropouts to spoil the view
Our society will be so cute!

It’s the coming of the solid state
When morality follows interest rates
Making money’s a right God-given
Here’s to Calvin—is it Coolidge or –ism?

(Put on glasses)

I don’t care if you record me talking about grabbing women’s pussies; however, I never let photos be taken of me wearing glasses. I don’t want to look like a 4-eyed egghead LOSER. But this performance is in the artworld, which does not count.

Hi! I am Martha Wilson, an artist and an arts administrator dressed up like Donald J. Trump. In all my previous performances, I have endeavored to go completely into Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush and Tipper Gore’s brains, so see what it’s like in there. But I had to turn off Donald’s speech to the Republican National Convention. I am here today wearing both personae to say a few words about how I have seen the relationship of art and politics evolve during the last 50 years.

In the 1960s, the Vietnam War was like a black curtain hanging behind everything. The cultural scene was one of protest, with marches, sit-ins, teach-ins, tax protests, non-violent and violent confrontations of ideas. Kent State was perhaps the nadir of this time, when the National Guard shot and killed students. People left America for Canada; I was one of those. It was a time when neither side would listen to the complaints of the other; our society was truly divided.

The 1970s saw Watergate go down. This is when Richard Nixon’s dirty tricks were exposed; he had to take responsibility and was impeached. The way this happened was that Robert Redford, a successful actor, paid Washington Post journalists Woodward and Bernstein to research and publish what the administration was up to.

In the artworld, artists of the 1970s were inventing postmodernism, becoming socially conscious, and invading the commercial gallery scene with temporary installations and video. Performance art, too, was entering the mainstream through the bar scene. There was recognition that the artworld was a white place: artists who were white were engendering dialogue through friendship with artists of color; Jenny Holzer’s friendship and collaboration with Lady Pink comes to mind.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected. Although as President of the Screen Actors Guild, he started out as a liberal, after he married Nancy, she persuaded him it was politically smarter to be conservative. He in turn chartered Frank Hodsoll with shutting down the National Endowment for the Arts, the agency put in place by Richard Nixon to fund the arts. In the beginning the NEA and the U.S. Information Agency were seen as a way to project America’s cultural hegemony (Abstract Expressionists had fled Europe as a result of World War II). We were better at art than anyone else, plus Abstract Expressionist art kept its mouth shut. However, when Franklin Furnace tried to send politically explicit artist book works to South America through the U.S. Information Agency, they were rejected. Later, the agency itself was killed off.

Back to Frank Hodsoll: the first thing he did was kill off the NEA’s Critics Fellowships. We, the arts organizations, did not see that the goal would be to kill off artists’ fellowships as well, and later to “professionalize” the art spaces.

The Culture Wars began in the late 1980s with the furor caused by Robert Mapplethorpe’s show, “The Perfect Moment,” as it traveled. Dennis Barrie, Director of the Cincinnati Center for Contemporary Art, lost his job as a result of his decision to take this show containing explicit images of S & M practice. The Culture Wars were fought over sexuality as a legitimate subject of contemporary art. After a lawsuit brought by “the NEA Four” Karen Finley, John Fleck, Holly Hughes and Tim Miller made it all the way to the Supreme Court, the arts community lost—the Court installed “community standards of decency” over artists’ First Amendment right to free expression.

This brings us to the 1990s, and the notion that no tax dollars should be paid for “obscene art.” This decade is when the Internet became widely accessible and artists started looking at surveillance instead of sexuality as the locus of threat. Meanwhile, the locus of the Culture Wars changed too, from art to a more granular and local series of battles over women’s reproductive choice; “balance” of equal numbers of radical and conservative views on university faculties; free speech granted to corporations; and Super Pac money allowed to influence public thought.

As Donald, I represent a beacon of hope for the white working class because I am so rich nobody can buy me. I represent their desire to shake up the binary political system–or just fuck things up. I let the barking dogs of racism, sexism and xenophobia run free. Meanwhile, Republican donors and party leaders are getting behind me because I WON… the nomination. They figure, as in the case of Bush vs. Gore, they can still control the political outcome of my presidency.

(Take off glasses)

Tit for tat and tat for tit
Politics is made of this
You give me this
I’ll give you that
And we’ll both smile

Publicity’s our strategy
And due to public memory
Which lapses so conveniently
In a few years

We can raise a family
No scandal’s bad enough to flee
The United States is still all milk and honey
Toooo meeeeee!

I will make America great again. I will make America hate again. I will make America white again. I have already made politics and performance art one and the same.

Good luck!

year_final-issue-martha-wilson-thump_wilson-final

Martha Wilson is a pioneering feminist artist and art space director, who over the past four decades created innovative photographic and video works that explore her female subjectivity. She has been described by New York Times critic Holland Cotter as one of “the half-dozen most important people for art in downtown Manhattan in the 1970s.” In 1976 she founded Franklin Furnace, an artist-run space that champions the exploration, promotion and preservation of artist books, temporary installation, performance art, as well as online works. She is represented by P.P.O.W Gallery in New York.

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Deborah Kass

year-final-issue-deb-kass-vote-hillary_42x42_2-copy

Destroyed by the election and have nothing to say about anything yet. Too hard to process the current reality. Other than experiencing sheer terror, incredible sadness, and grief.

Deborah Kass is an artist whose paintings examine the intersection of art history, popular culture and the self. Kass’s work has been shown nationally and internationally. The Andy Warhol Museum presented “Deborah Kass, Before and Happily Ever After, Mid- Career Retrospective” in 2012, accompanied by a catalogue published by Rizzoli. Her monumental sculpture OY/YO located in Brooklyn Bridge Park became an instant icon, appearing on the front page of the New York Times and was a beloved destination in NYC. In 2014, Kass was inducted into the New York Foundation for the Arts Hall of Fame. Kass’s work is represented by the Paul Kasmin Gallery.

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Bradley Rubenstein: It’s Not Blood, It’s Red

11/22/2016

Dear Susan and Mira,

Thank you so much for inviting me to contribute a thought or two for this, your final issue, of M/E/A/N/I/N/G.

As artists, we come into our practice largely by finding, and in some ways imitating, figures from whom we imagine we might model ourselves. Barnett Newman’s concept of the “citizen artist” has always loomed large for me, and, I believe, his example might have been in your minds when you started M/E/A/N/I/N/G. His writings, letters to editors, and sometimes even his work (Lace Curtain for Mayor Daley, 1968) reflected a mind attuned to both aesthetics and the delicate fabric of society. Of course there are other examples, both historical and contemporary, who saw their work as part of a larger practice. Jacques-Louis David, Eugène Delacroix, Alexander Rodchenko and Varvara Stepanova, and Ana Mendieta come to mind.

Does the artist occupy a large role in the body politic? It is somewhat paradoxical that, in the age of Twitter and Instagram, media that privilege the image over the printed word, fewer works of art transcend the ocean of random images. Deborah Kass’s Vote Trump (2016) print edition, despite its complex appropriational historical context, remains one of the few iconic visual works from this election cycle to capture the attention of the public; iconic because it combined a complex historically informed sensibility with graphic effect. To be honest there are no other images that come to mind because, I fear, our current academic culture is not developing a student body willing to engage in public discourse, perhaps due to our trigger-warning, microaggression-fearing culture of safe spaces that has begun to privilege isolation and the cult of victimization over political action and social participation. It might be cautionary to remind younger artists that there is a difference between censorship and persecution (like having your press destroyed, or being imprisoned) and merely being actively ignored. There are artists in other countries who could remind us of this difference if only they weren’t busy being tortured at the moment; Iran, for example, doesn’t have many judgement-free zones.

This is not to say that we should just throw up our hands and admit creative failure. Rather, we might take stock of our time and be attentive, and when necessary, active in our role. When you asked me to contribute to your final issue I was unsure of what I might write, draw, or print that would encapsulate the many disparate thoughts that I have regarding art and culture at the moment. A truckload of ideas were sketched out, discarded. I went back to Newman’s letters hoping for some inspiration, direction. In the end I came to realize that sometimes just being present, and supporting one’s fellow artist-citizens when called upon, might be the most important form of resistance there is. If there is one message that we might take away from 30 years of M/E/A/N/I/N/G, it is that “if you can still read this there is hope.”

With best regards,

Bradley Rubenstein

Bradley Rubenstein is a painter and writer who lives and works in Brooklyn, NY.

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Lenore Malen: What Now?

It was a summer of total anxiety and compulsive poll watching and now shock, despair, fear, along with remorse for what I’ve failed to see and failed to do.

A couple of years ago when politics were as usual I wrote a short essay for the Brooklyn Rail on the subject: “What is Art?” Quoting Leon Golub, I said: “If you are extremely worried about the state of the world and believe that art with its myriad of contradictions can’t stand up to it, think of Golub’s book Do Paintings Bite? in which he writes: “Art retains a residual optimism in the very freedom to tell.”  “Last week one of my students said to me: “Now we have a real reason for making art.”  Yes, but in truth, it is only art.

A hope and a plea: Take action immediately in whatever ways we can, each of us, so that the very worst doesn’t happen here, can’t be normalized, doesn’t last.  At the same time be worried about climate, race relations and other grave divisions here, the tinderbox of the Middle East, North Korea, Britain, France, Turkey, and everywhere — everything at once.  Stay in touch.

I’m very sad to think of this as the last issue of M/E/A/N/I/NG, which, when it began, was the only journal especially devoted to contemporary artists in their studios, and has continued to function as such for so many years. It’s a totally unique publication, not academic, not literary, but rather a voice for practicing visual artists — unedited, uncensored in any way.

Reversal from Lenore Malen on Vimeo. Reversal: The central scene of a 3-channel installation. A United Nations address to the human species by a horse character declaring a list of atrocities exacted on non-human animals by humans.

Lenore Malen uses the lens of history and humor to explore utopian longings, dystopic aftermaths, and the sciences and technologies that inform them. Recently her explorations have focused on ecology, on cultural myths, and on the unstable boundaries between humans and animals. She teaches in the MFA Fine Arts Program at Parsons The New School. Her show Scenes From Paradise will be on view at Studio 10, 56 Bogart St., Bushwick, NY, January 6, 2017–February 5, 2017.

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Peter Rostovsky 

peter-rostovsky-green-curtain-painting-small

Peter Rostovsky, Green Curtain, 2013, 78 x 50 in., oil on linen.

The curtain is a barrier. It demarcates time: the closing of a chapter, the beginning of another. For ancient painters and modern philosophers, it has served as a metaphor for representation—a surface that always promises a depth that is not there. For others, like me, it is perhaps an adequate symbol of this dark moment, that feels like the end, but could be—if we make it so—a new beginning, too. Like many, I lurk on the boundary, stretched over its threshold and balanced on this uncertainty, constantly reviewing the program notes, and guessing the next act.

Peter Rostovsky is a Russian-born artist who works in painting, sculpture, installation, and digital art. His work has been shown in the United States and abroad and has been exhibited at The Walker Art Center, MCA Santa Barbara, PS1/MOMA, Artpace, The Santa Monica Museum of Art, The ICA Philadelphia, the Blanton Museum of Art, S.M.A.K., and private galleries. Rostovsky also writes art criticism under the pen name David Geers. Focusing on the convergence of art, politics and technology, his writing has appeared in October, Fillip, Bomb, The Third Rail Quarterly, The Brooklyn Rail and Frieze.

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Further installments of M/E/A/N/I/N/G: The Final Issue on A Year of Positive Thinking will appear here every other day. Contributors will include Alexandria Smith, Altoon Sultan, Ann McCoy, Aziz+Cucher, Aviva Rahmani, Bailey Doogan, Erica Hunt, Faith Wilding, Hermine Ford, Jennifer Bartlett, Jenny Perlin, Joy Garnett and Bill Jones, Joyce Kozloff, Judith Linhares, Julie Harrison, Kat Griefen, Kate Gilmore, Legacy Russell, LigoranoReeese, Mary Garrard, Maureen Connor, Michelle Jaffé, Mimi Gross, Myrel Chernick, Noah Dillon, Noah Fischer,  LigoranoReese, Rachel Owens, Robert C. Morgan, Robin Mitchell, Roger Denson, Susanna Heller, Suzy Spence, Tamara Gonzalez and Chris Martin, Susan Bee, Mira Schor, and more. If you are interested in this series and don’t want to miss any of it, please subscribe to A Year of Positive Thinking during this period, by clicking on subscribe at the upper right of the blog online, making sure to verify your email when prompted.

M/E/A/N/I/N/G: A History
We published 20 print issues biannually over ten years from 1986-1996. In 2000, M/E/A/N/I/N/G: An Anthology of Artists’ Writings, Theory, and Criticism was published by Duke University Press. In 2002 we began to publish M/E/A/N/I/N/G Online and have published six online issues. Issue #6 is a link to the digital reissue of all of the original twenty hard copy issues of the journal. The M/E/A/N/I/N/G archive from 1986 to 2002 is in the collection of the Beinecke Library at Yale University.

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M/E/A/N/I/N/G: The Final Issue on A Year of Positive Thinking-2

The first issue of M/E/A/N/I/N/G: A Journal of Contemporary Art Issues, was published in December 1986. M/E/A/N/I/N/G is a collaboration between two artists, Susan Bee and Mira Schor, both painters with expanded interests in writing and politics, and an extended community of artists, art critics, historians, theorists, and poets, whom we sought to engage in discourse and to give a voice to.

For our 30th anniversary and final issue, we have asked some long-time contributors and some new friends to create images and write about where they place meaning today. As ever, we have encouraged artists and writers to feel free to speak to the concerns that have the most meaning to them right now.

Every other day from December 5 until we are done, a grouping of contributions will appear on A Year of Positive Thinking. We invite you to live through this time with all of us in a spirit of impromptu improvisation and passionate care for our futures.

Susan Bee and Mira Schor

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Rit Premnath: The Day After

Dear 72% of non-college educated white men
Thank you for your overwhelming enthusiasm
I was following the polls
trace a mirrored line
dipping and rising
in anticipation
But when you filled your circle
the statistician’s needle shivered

You were the butt of our jokes
and we’d all but forgotten you
Now the clown has returned
shouting his white rage
With the tongue of a troll

Dear 62% of non-college educated white women
Thank you for tossing a grenade in our basement
My ears are still ringing from the aftershock
and I’m empty and sad
Like there’s been a death in the family

Dear 37% of white people
and 74% of non-whites
This morning the city was silent
and in the subway
we couldn’t bear to look at each other

I met a friend for breakfast
and we talked about this agnosia
How everything is exactly the same
but unrecognizable
cheaply built on closer inspection
like Mar-a-Lago

Dear overeducated friends
Thank you for your persistent paranoia
As you know well, the present is always Kali Yuga
The last phase of the crumbling cosmic order
The bull of dharma has lost three legs
and teeters precariously
hopping one-legged from calamity to calamity
Our angel of history zigzags

For you nothing is good enough
Until something is much worse
And even then you blame the foreclosed possibility
of that which will have been

Dear friends of various demographic categories
Thank you for being here tonight
I can’t speak for you,
but my emptiness is like a vacuum
that sucks all things into its gloom
I think we were silent because we recognized it
It has always been there
A hole at the center

We were talking yesterday
About how the art world is not for us
That we have always sensed an emptiness at its core
But we play along and service its white walls
fighting one another for its fleeting attention
Afraid that we have already invested too much
Afraid that we will disappear if we withdraw
Afraid that withdrawal is shameful
Ashamed that our politics rarely extends to action
Confused about who the objects of our politics should be
But as the ground cracks beneath our feet
we suddenly feel an orientation
A sense of possibility in this quickly widening trench

Dear teachers
Yesterday we realized that we knew nothing
Or at least that we must actively unlearn the knowledge
that has stopped us from knowing

We were silent because we were ashamed
that we didn’t even know each other
We said we must work together
But knew right away that the “we” we were talking about
is an idea that cannot be learnt
But must be made
And that none of us has the time to make it

I feel a sense of urgency
that this is a call to action
That we must try to capture and hold that feeling
of the moment before we fall when our knees have begun to buckle
Or the moment right after
When the force of gravity orients us
but we have not yet fallen
That feeling we felt the first night and the morning after
The soundlessness of that night
and the hum in our ears searching
A silence enveloped in a distant ringing
Every sound in its inverse, a listening
An ear for the mouthless

A being-with that is a listening and looking
Unlearning as directed possibility
A sensory orientation that stops the shuddering needle
We must make a new time of being-with
A time of learning through unlearning
And reorient this era post truth
Towards its looking-for
Towards its becoming by being-with

*

A Lapche near Dharapuri, Humla District, Nepal. Photo courtesy Sreshta Rit Premnath, 2016

A Lapche near Dharapuri, Humla District, Nepal. Photo courtesy Sreshta Rit Premnath, 2016

“Chorten, Mani and Lapche are three kinds of sacred structures built with rocks that are found throughout the region of Humla in Northwestern Nepal and Southern Tibet. …Lapche, the third and simplest category are cairns–simple rock mounds that any passerby may add to. … Lapche are an accretion of nows that are each embodied in the intentional selection and placement of a rock….Unlike villages or monasteries that serve as destinations for a traveler, Lapche are always in between or at the threshold of such places. They are polychronic nodes that mark non-sites en-route to somewhere.”

“Rocks map scales of geological time that vastly exceed human time and indeed precede the very existence of humans and our conception of time. We are fascinated with things that exceed our ability to grasp, and so we literally grasp them, hold and touch them, to fill them with meaning and make them ours.”

(Photo and text excerpts from Premnath, “The Chronotopography of Mountains” courtesy Sreshta Rit Premnath, 2016)

Sreshta Rit Premnath is an Indian-born artist who works across multiple media, investigating systems of representation and reflecting on the process by which images become icons and events become history. Premnath is the editor of Shifter and teaches at Parsons.

*
Beverly Naidus: Holding On

I’m out of breath, running down the sidewalk in a foul-smelling, factory town in Maine. My dad works at the plastics factory, as a research chemist, putting dead leaves, textiles and flowers in between sheets of acrylic to create new decorative plastics for home design – very 1950s. He’s grateful to have a job. He’s been blacklisted.

At that moment, I don’t know any of this. I only know that the air stinks, neighborhood kids are chasing me and I don’t know why. I am four years old, with dark, curly hair and olive skin. I look quite different from the locals. I am being pelted with grapes. They shout and then chant an unfamiliar expression at me, “DIRTY LITTLE KIKE.” It fills my ears like intractable glue that no anti-adhesive can remove.

Is that when I awoke? Perhaps. It was certainly one of the first seeds of awakening. I was being raised to assimilate, and the lesson that day was this: It’s not the difference that marks you. It’s the response of others to that difference.

I have learned that lesson repeatedly over the years. As the McCarthy Era drew to a close, my New Yorker parents, both children of immigrants, moved us closer to NYC, thinking we would all be more at home there; it did not help. Our new town had been the center of the New Jersey Nazi party during the 1930s. I don’t think my parents knew this. They were assimilating, and chose to live in a non-Jewish part of town deliberately. Trouble was, a few of the neighbors were unhappy with this choice and made their displeasure known.

I felt the pressure to fit in. I sang solos in the Christmas choir at school, read the Bible secretly in bed, joined the Brownies and attempted to straighten my hair. Somehow all these attempts to be accepted fell short, and this failure came with a sticky residue of shame. That I couldn’t pass was my fault. I grew wary. I began to identify with outsiders and oddballs. I began to write poetry and draw weird surreal images searching for a way out.

Thankfully there was an exit door with a neon sign that said “LIBERATION THIS WAY.” I came of age in the late 60s. Although the complex counterculture was not necessarily a place to find easy comfort, it offered an alternative to suffocating and destructive conformity. I found safety and acceptance among feminists, queer friends, activists, artists, mystics and communities of color. All residues of dissonance between the dominant culture and my new havens of solidarity went into my creative work. Years later, as I expanded into teaching what I had learned as an artist, I began to offer similar refuge for my students to tell their stories of shame, otherness, trauma and alienation. That, combined with some media literacy and anti-oppression training, became a standard recipe for shifting or strengthening values. I saw and still see the trajectory of my work as something expansive; eventually subverting the dominant culture and replacing it with a world where difference will be celebrated and where equity and fairness will be the norm.

But I am not a Pollyanna who thought the bullies had gone away. The daily brutality of ongoing white supremacy, homophobia, patriarchy, and corporate capitalism has been ever present and the manipulations of fear & economics have created an ongoing apocalypse for many.

Two nights ago, in response to the latest assault (our recent election), we attended a community meeting in a local church in our new hometown of Tacoma, WA. that was advertised with the appropriate name, “What Now?” Organized by the facilitators of the local Anarchist Discount Center (an online “buy nothing” group), they packed the room with eager, depressed, passionate, enraged, mostly younger, seemingly white folks. We made extensive lists of what concerns us the most; the panic almost bubbled over as each new item was added to the list. Small groups discussed strategies for resistance, solidarity, educating those who are feeling lost and vulnerable. It was a beginning.

Some people describe this bizarre post-election moment like a waking nightmare, like we are in suspended animation waiting for fascism to start. But those of us who have identified as activists for decades, once we have shaken off the disgust and frustration, have noticed an expanding cohort of awakening folks. It’s essential that we share our tools for processing the daily trauma and insanity, and get grounded for the long haul. Our work will likely be much harder now, but with more imaginations and muscles joining the cause, who knows what will happen. We’ll have to hold on to each other lovingly during this bumpy ride.

Beverly Naidus, Cognitive Dissonance #8, from the series “Wrestling with the Uneasy Present.” Digital photo-collage, dimensions variable, 2016.

Beverly Naidus, Cognitive Dissonance #8, from the series “Wrestling with the Uneasy Present.” Digital photo-collage, dimensions variable, 2016.

Beverly Naidus has been subverting within academia, museums and public space for most of her adult life. She likes to stir things up via art, writing, face-to-face improvisations, online interventions and within contexts where difficult questions can be raised, vulnerable stories can be shared and connections can be made. For more about her work and pedagogy go to her website.

*

Christen Clifford: Instagram posts from @cd_clifford November 11 & 14

christen-clifford-image1-saved-for-web

Nov11
So grateful that our Jackson Heights and Flushing city councilman #DannyDromm voiced his resistance and his commitment to holding our legislature and government accountable. This was #queensrally for unity and diversity in #diversityplaza . Those “Let’s wait and see what he does” opinions—um, NO. He told us who he is. I have been thinking about the argument that “Some took him literally but not seriously, others took him seriously but not literally”  in relation to the capitulation of places like HuffPo and People magazine—taking off the warning about DT and the lavish photo spread of Ivanka’s family, respectively. This is not normal. I refuse to normalize this. I have been thinking about the connections between rape and war, about the very real #ptsd and #retraumatization happening for many people. I have been rereading Trauma and Recovery by Judith Herman. I numbed out with Ativan for a few days. I understood why after picking up T&R and reading about “CONSTRICTION—a state of surrender where….the system of self-defense shuts down entirely.” Thinking about how Tuesday night was such a shock it was like an ambush. I didn’t see it coming. The surprise attack makes me remember “Oh, it’s Veteran’s Day” and my dad fought in WWII and he was at The Battle of the Bulge which was a famous surprise attack. Sortie. Invasion. Thinking how grabbing a woman by the pussy or groping someone on the subway is the new lying in the long grasses with a rifle all night long. Thinking about invasions of personal space, even the forced laugh and endurance of a hand that lingers a little too long, though no one else might notice it. And rape, forced intimacy, as a weapon of war. I felt crazy on Tuesday night <x-apple-data-detectors://11> . I thought the #silverlining of DT was exposing #rapeculture and I was completely ready to have our American society finally take #sexualassault survivors seriously- to listen and believe women. I was ready for a woman to be in charge so I wouldn’t feel like it was all in my head. We need more women in office. And then the rapist is elected. As if he’s my rapist. “Trauma isolates, the group recreates.” #strongertogether Some of my students fear for their safety. This is not normal. #TheResistance

Nov 14
#supermoon tonight. #lenorachampagne and I walked to see the super of our building who is in the hospital. He had a stroke. The nurse said his left side needed massage to get the blood flowing so I massaged his legs. I never thought I’d be that intimate with him but I know the healing power of touch and I grew up massaging my mom’s legs and feet so it felt normal to me. It was the first time I’ve been in a hospital for someone other than myself and I walked out thinking that I am doing really well right now and #fuckcancer like just fuck it and I just have to be in the present and enjoy my anger and take care of my anxiety. I have repeated to myself “Two steps forward, one step back.” But I know that doesn’t help the brown boys I know. Later we went on the roof and I tried to bathe in the magical power of the moon being so close #tommurrin s #lunamacaroona In my mind I am naked swimming in a lake bathing in the moon’s reflection drinking in some form of pureness that would protect those brown boys and girls. I talked to the kids about being an #upstander then obsessed over the NY Times weird letter to readers- are they capitulating or doubling down? Feel deep in my heart I can’t normalize this fascist elect but small good deeds helped. Walking, cooking, neighboring. Still thinking about feelings—how good it felt to think that HRC saw my issues and how good it feels to “other” someone else. Like middle school. Most of us grow out of it, right? We are all together under this big fucking moon, whether we like it or not.

chrsiten-clifford-image2

*These texts were originally published to Instagram @cd_clifford and then automatically posted to Facebook and Twitter.

Christen Clifford is a feminist performance artist, writer, curator at Dixon Place, mother and teaches at The New School. She is a core member of The No Wave Performance Task Force and the creator of The Pussy Bow, a feminist action disguised as a fashion accessory. She lives in Queens and online @cd_clifford

*

Shirley Kaneda

Sadly, not only did we not see the first woman to be the President of the most powerful country in the free world, but we are also now faced with grave concerns of civil liberty brought on by the ultra conservative agenda of Trump and his coterie of advisors who blatantly support white male supremacy. Their reactionary views on everything from free trade which greatly aids the world’s poorest people, advancement of minorities, women’s reproductive rights, gun control, and least of all economic disparity can now be set back decades.

53% of white women voted for Trump. Even if traditional feminism may not be attractive to some women, it would seem to be a no-brainer to elect an eminently qualified woman candidate to a hate inspiring incompetent racist and sexist buffoon in 2016. Evidently, these white women put race over advancing the status of women at the expense of domination over liberation. At least, being white gives them the perception that they have power over everyone who is not.

I recently saw a video of a debate between James Baldwin and William F. Buckley that was held at Cambridge Union Society, Cambridge University in 1965. The topic was “The American Dream at the Expense of the American Negro.” Almost the entire audience except for a few blacks here and there was white. Baldwin was already a well-established writer and civil rights activist and Buckley was a young editor and founder of the conservative National Review. Baldwin was riveting. The exchange could not have been better made as a movie. Baldwin’s passionate, articulate oppression of American blacks was so intelligent, deft and moving that he received a standing ovation by the young audience when he finished. Buckley on the other hand resorted to attempting to strip Baldwin of respect by commenting that it was curious that Baldwin all of sudden spoke with a British accent. He did no such thing of course, but it is the white’s position to paint blacks as the barbaric “other” and incapable of becoming civilized. In the end the Society took a vote on the proposition and Baldwin won by 540-160 on the issue of “The American Dream at the Expense of the American Negro.”

Evidently the mostly white audience of this debate in 1965 was far more progressive than the 51% of Americans who elected Trump in 2016. The issue of the economy and the diminishing middle class were certainly factors in this election, but they are inextricably tied to the not so latent issue of race easily promoted by Trump’s embrace of xenophobia.

How do we break this cycle of bigotry and oppression? First we must divest ourselves from the notion of “other.” From my perspective, the mutual respect for difference must extend to oneself. The other must not be an extension of the notion of tolerance and non-judgment. It may be confusing to think of the dominant – subordinate relationship and the notion of other which were possibly and probably progressive at one time, but now must be disposed for no other reason than the fact that it is archaic and counter-productive. The concept of the other has to be abandoned and absorbed so it can produce independence. The other is now revealed as a myth that signifies anything that is not “I” and which does nothing to alter the dynamic of power.

Shirley Kaneda, Untitled, 2016, 30” x 34”, acrylic on linen.

Shirley Kaneda, Untitled, 2016, 30” x 34”, acrylic on linen.

Shirley Kaneda is an abstract painter, contributing editor to Bomb Magazine and a Professor at Pratt Institute.

The video that Kaneda refers to of the 1965 debate between James Baldwin v. William F. Buckley Jr. at Cambridge University on the question: “Is the American Dream at the expense of the American Negro?” can be viewed here.

*

William Villalongo

My figures toil between various histories and an endless natural world conscious of painting as their condition of being. These new works meditate on the Black male presence in society as a figure shifting in out of visibility. It is a post-human existence in which the form disperses and recollects in various form like fallen autumn leaves, more subject to the conditions of nature than individual will. Yet, like nature it has the power of regeneration held within the substance of its decay. “Hands up” and “hoodies” become symbols of resistance as well as the figurative elements associated with body language.

William Villalongo, Seed, 2016. Acrylic, cut velour paper and collage 79" X 40"

William Villalongo, Seed, 2016. Acrylic, cut velour paper and collage, 79″ X 40″

William Villalongo, Speak No Evil, 2016. Acrylic, cut velour paper and collage, 40" X 39"

William Villalongo, Speak No Evil, 2016. Acrylic, cut velour paper and collage, 40″ X 39″

William Villalongo lives and works in Brooklyn, NY. Villalongo is the recipient of the Louis Comfort Tiffany Award and the Joan Mitchell Foundation Painters & Sculptor’s Grant. Villalongo is currently represented by Susan Inglett Gallery.

***

Further installments of M/E/A/N/I/N/G: The Final Issue on A Year of Positive Thinking will appear here every other day. Contributors will include Alexandria Smith, Altoon Sultan, Ann McCoy, Aziz+Cucher, Aviva Rahmani, Bailey Doogan, Bradley Rubenstein, Deborah Kass, Erica Hunt, Faith Wilding, Hermine Ford, Jennifer Bartlett, Jenny Perlin, Johanna Drucker, Joseph Nechvatal, Joy Garnett and Bill Jones, Joyce Kozloff, Judith Linhares, Kat Griefen, Kate Gilmore, Legacy Russell, Lenore Malen, LigoranoReeese, Mary Garrard, Martha Wilson, Maureen Connor, Michelle Jaffé, Mimi Gross, Myrel Chernick, Noah Dillon, Noah Fischer, Peter Rostovsky, LigoranoReese, Rachel Owens, Robert C. Morgan, Robin Mitchell, Roger Denson,  Sheila Pepe, Susanna Heller, Suzy Spence, Tamara Gonzalez and Chris Martin, Susan Bee, Mira Schor, and more. If you are interested in this series and don’t want to miss any of it, please subscribe to A Year of Positive Thinking during this period, by clicking on subscribe at the upper right of the blog online, making sure to verify your email when prompted.

M/E/A/N/I/N/G: A History
We published 20 print issues biannually over ten years from 1986-1996. In 2000, M/E/A/N/I/N/G: An Anthology of Artists’ Writings, Theory, and Criticism was published by Duke University Press. In 2002 we began to publish M/E/A/N/I/N/G Online and have published six online issues. Issue #6 is a link to the digital reissue of all of the original twenty hard copy issues of the journal. The M/E/A/N/I/N/G archive from 1986 to 2002 is in the collection of the Beinecke Library at Yale University.

 

 

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Quick Responses, then and now

Hello again. A Year of Positive Thinking continues but the facts of everyday life are such that it has been impossible to find time to see much art or sit down for a day to address for this site any issues of concern to me. That is a condition of everyday life which I suspect is shared by many in one way or another. But here are a couple of image/text pieces, one from 1994, the other a drawing done this week after the most recent school massacre and the public reactions to it on the part of some politicians.

Hyperallergic included the following text and image in its Sunday October 4 Required Reading section . They picked it up from a October 3 post of this statement and image on Facebook:

With regards to there being bad boy, bad-ass women artists, I created this image in 1994 for How many ‘bad’ feminists does it take to change a lightbulb? a publication by Laura Cottingham (the back of the magazine has text in a small triangle: “It’s not funny”). I continue to be interested in the category of excellent women.

EXCELLENT WOMEN 1994-2015

Then yesterday, struggling with the first cold of the season, directly caused by my work schedule’s interaction with the Achilles heel of my immune system (evidently I can’t get up early two days in a row much less also tromp around the city in a freezing cold rain storm without getting sick), I nevertheless had to do some drawings to express my rage at Jeb Bush’s response to the most recent mass shooting–“stuff happens.” Indeed his family has inflicted a lot of …”stuff”… on this country and the world.

I started with this sketch, held down for the picture with my middle finger for emphasis:

YEAR-STUFF-HAPPENS-IMG_1405

But it wasn’t quite “stuffy” enough if you know what I mean.

Luckily I have a “stuff” colored sketchbook I got in Berlin last spring:

YEAR-STUFF-HAPPENS-IMG_1407

I loved the response of a friend to this second notebook drawing: “like you pulled it out of your guts – told a friend it looks like the walking dead jeb vomited up his own shit for the world to see.”

That’s about right, but did the world see it?

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