EXIT INTERVIEW: MANYA SCHEPS
I met Manya Scheps shortly after the St.Claire launched in June 2011. It only took a cursory survey of the Philadelphia art journalism scene to know that this was a person I should contact and maybe invite to an awkward coffee. Whether writing and editing at Title Magazine, co-founding the art theory reading group Talking Pictures, or working on her own projects (My favorite: www.newasshole.com/ad.html ) Scheps is an unrelenting and invocative voice. It is a presence that will be greatly missed as she sets out across the mainland to become a west coast transplant. (I mean what does San Francisco have that we don’t? Don’t answer that.) But before she left I asked Scheps to give one last look at her time in Philadelphia and offer some parting insights. As always, Scheps responds, with clarity, wit, moxy, and direction. I could add about a billion more adjectives, but her words below speak fine on their own.
You have been involved in a lot of ground-up projects and have an expressed focus in DIY models. If I was looking to start an arts project in Philadelphia (a gallery, a zine, a crit group, etc.) what are three points of advice you might give me?
1. Make friends. Philadelphia is small. None of these endeavors can exist very well in a vacuum. It's important to have a support structure in place with other projects before launch — blogs who will write about your gallery, galleries who will sell your zine, salty artists who will bring friends to your crit group.
2. Have a focus. I wish projects in Philadelphia sometimes ran the risk of being too highly specialized, but that's a problem the city's art scene doesn't seem to have. Rather, it's the opposite ("we're a gallery that shows work that's, you know, interesting to us.") There's nothing wrong with experimentation, but one creator's "freeing breadth" usually ends up bobbing in an ocean of post-industrial photography and performance art about families.
3. Be difficult. I don't mean difficult in an abrasive sense — rather, as rigor. Maybe this seems contradictory to #1, with this pervasive idea that rigor is inversely proportional to accessibility. That's a silly, anti-intellectual notion. I wish I saw more projects challenging audiences, being pursuits that not everyone will care to climb.
Whether running the zine New Asshole or writing as an editor of Title Magazine it seems a majority of your output in Philadelphia was an engagement with art journalism. In your mind, who reads about art in Philadelphia? How could the journalism community better serve this readership? And vice versa how could the readership better serve the journalism community?
This question reminds me of one of my favorite quotes about art writing, from the beginning of Dave Hickey's essay Air Guitar: "Colleagues of mine will tell you that people despise critics because they fear our power. But I know better. People despise critics because people despise weakness, and criticism is the weakest thing you can do in writing...It produces no knowledge, states no facts, and never stands alone."
I think that art writers in Philadelphia bite their nails around questions of audience and their own efficacy; similarly, Philadelphia DIY artists wax dramatically over the necessity of more criticism, and more discussion, and more thought around their pieces. This is a very symbiotic and gratifying relationship of hand-wringing and complaining. Of course, there's a massive audience for art journalism in Philadelphia. Tens of thousands of us read certain blogs and hundreds of thousands read established newspaper art columns and magazines. The anxiety stems from the fact that Edith Newhall isn't writing about warehouses (though Randy Kennedy did!), or the majority of people reading about art in this city are reading Edith Newhall. So the DIY scene sets up its own cottage industry of art criticism, employing its own to write about its own. A funny thing happens, though, in that attempt to create an affirming alternative. The writing becomes both more futile and more important. There are a lot of essays and reviews I wrote of shows, articles that took days or weeks to make, where the art pieces referenced in the essay no longer exist. Not because it was an ephemeral time-sensitive piece, but because it got stored in a moldy basement and disintegrated, or was chucked out when it was time to move apartments again. And in those instances, art journalism does stand alone — in part, because it is no longer art journalism. It is art. The written archive around a work moves from being this pathetic leech and becomes closer to actual artwork itself. The writing embodies an artistic practice; it no longer replicates experience, it is the experience.
As your last will and testament, what is one gift you would bequeath to the Philadelphia arts scene?
Wait, like a thing I left in Philadelphia that I am now giving to people there? Like a secret that I kept for many years but now I release? Bartram's Garden sometimes has secret raves in the winter. They include bonfires and are a good spot to watch Christmas trees burn. Also, Fisher Fine Arts Library. I won't tell you how, but I will tell you there is a way to get into (into, not onto, like inside) the roof.
If you could burn one bridge what would it be?
The Market Street Bridge. Such an awful piece of infrastructure.
Is there a point/argument/issue that you wanted to make in Philadelphia but never got the chance to? (e.g. something that you wrote that never got out there? This could be a spot for that.)
The internet has been busy with essays and comments concerning a notion of ironic racism, prompted, I suppose, by a series on premium cable. I’ve been a little surprised by the ire directed at the medium — the idea that one should expect something advanced from television.
But we do expect more from art. Art, even at its most uncomfortable, at its most confrontational and disturbing, is only uncomfortable for the sake of exposing the collective limits of an audience's propriety. It is disturbing because it needs to be — that shock of sex or dung or self-gratification seeks to serve a conceptual purpose.
Take, for the sake of example, Robert Mapplethorpe’s X images. The oeuvre wasn’t transgressive for the sake of transgression. It sought to change the game, to rip the world out of the closet. The portfolio embodies the semiotic axiom that the meaning of a sign is the response to it. The outrage the followed in the wake of its exhibition was part of the photos (as some have argued it was the only thing that mattered). The images were effective because of their power to insist upon an antagonistic response.
. . . .
I have been going back and forth for a while on whether I should write a response to Kara Crombie’s video installation at Vox Populi. To discuss something, even the very worst of things, gives it cultural capital. Passing along absurdly misguided clips from Fox News in horror only gives Fox News more traffic and, subsequently, more money from advertisers. So I will not link to her video, or website, or the gallery’s page — if you want to watch it, I’m sure you can find it yourself.
The video that was on view is part of a larger series of works which chronicle the feisty and libidinous inclinations of a plantation and slave-owning family. Weaving in appropriated footage and grungy music, the animations feature wealthy characters in neon colors who flaunt their despicable power by having sex with slaves and abusing them. But it’s funny, because they have problems too! We can laugh at the things the white people do – oh, it’s irreverently awful! The family is an MTV kind of broken, filled with teenage pregnancy, charming alcoholism, and a relaxed acceptance of sadism and chauvinism.
The video disguises its actual racism as parody — the white characters are so despicable and idiotic that one cannot possibly endorse their actions. Except, unfortunately, that doesn't quite work out. They are horrible in a way that is utterly mundane. There isn’t anything satirical about it, and so the video just becomes a hip animated comedy about slavery, which is never hip. It is apparently successful in that: when I watched it at its Vox opening, it inspired giggles and guffaws from a packed audience of enlightened art viewers. I mention the audience’s reaction merely to return to semiotics: the message is not one of self-loathing or critical inquiry. It is jest. It is ribald. It demands nothing of the audience, save for a stoned aesthetic and a penchant for offensive renditions of ebonics.
The animation, the bland attempt at humor – it is a juvenile go for shock at its most pathetic, its most banal. And here’s the thing about banality: it is evil. By fuzzing everything down into a cartoon universe of outlandish comedy capers, Crombie actually invites us not to think about anything. There isn’t anything in her video that is inherently different from an episode of television: it’s another mind-numbing universe where jokes at the expense of historical trauma and powerlessness are comfortably accepted. The meager satire is so utterly normalized that it fails. It fails to have any style, it fails to have any modicum of a message, it fails to be the vulgar joke that Crombie wants it to be.
We all cling to the fantasy that art spaces, particularly those of an alternative, DIY, non-institutional ilk, can transcend politics, class, and art-world pretension to present work that is honest and unaffected, work that “gets it” and “tells it like it really is”.
Our galleries, like our minds, are meant to be open, liberated, inviting. But neither art nor galleries are inherently progressive. It's a very modernist notion to believe that each piece of art, each exhibition, each new artist moves the trajectory forward. Art is political, yes, but to assume what those politics are based on the presumed radicalism of its host institution is lazy and dangerous. The exhibition at Vox Populi is nothing but regressive, sedating the audience into jovially acceptable crypto-racism.
I spent a long time thinking about this show, a long time writing a reaction, and an even longer time soliciting the opinions of friends over whether or not I should publish it. I hemmed and hawed because I kept engaging myself in circuitous thought — any criticism I wrote over how mindless and distasteful the work was might be countered with the idea that I simply didn't understand it. Or worse, that my opinion was automatically homogenized, as valid as any other. Maybe the video was only "pretend dumb" and "pretend racist" in order to make a sardonic comment about the inanity and dull pain of pop culture. But this is an impenetrable logic, one that deflects critiques of offensiveness with an alleged higher level of enlightenment. I realized that this nonsense was the ultimate failure of the piece. Art is not here to cloak itself in ironic logic. Work that is intended to point out a social injustice doesn't commit the social injustice itself. It doesn't cloyingly ingratiate itself to an audience of the past — it dedicates itself to one of the future.⊗