The Best of 2012 (better late than never)

***I wrote this in December of 2012 and for some reason it just never got its legs.  I’m putting it out there now because these projects still deserve recognition even if it is only in retrospect.  Here is to Christmas in July.***

You Didn’t Build That
Dustin Cambell

“If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business – you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.”

Barack Obama
July 13, 2012

What Campaign Obama and Elizabeth Warren were advocating for was a mindfulness of the publicly funded infrastructures (schools, roads, police, etc.) that make all business in America possible. It is the broadest invocation of the social contract that we understand as government. It is a contract that is often eclipsed by the pervasive myth of the American bootstrap.

“You didn’t build that” was plucked from the president’s lips and became almost an instant conservative attack point. It branded Obama’s words as a revelatory gaffe exposing the candidates true obedience to big government and a disrespect of the most infallible Americans of all: Small Business Owners. Inevitably a meme emerged. Obama is shown scolding children with LEGO towers, the Wright Brothers, and Thomas Edison. Obama: You didn’t build that. America: Oh, yes they did!

In his October 2012 show at Napoleon Gallery, Dustin Cambell, reposes this meme in one of the best works I saw that year. A small greeting card is displayed low on the wall. Inside is the loving script of a mother. To paraphrase, she is telling her son that he is wonderful and that good things will come his way, she just knows. Open the heavy stock and a tiny speaker sings the E.T. theme song. If you missed the message the song will tell you: Anything is possible if you just believe. The recipient of the card was Cambell and the doting mom his own.

Entitled You Didn’t Build That Cambell turns a meme into a ready-made or a ready-made into a meme, effectively highlighting the non-difference between the two. Both are pre-existing entities taken out of context to project an authorial intention. Inviting a sort of double negative the out-of-context quote is taken out-of-context to put the emphasis back where it started. He did indeed NOT build that.

It is unclear however exactly what Cambell shouldn’t take credit for. One position is that he didn’t build that art piece just as Duchamp did not build his urinal. For my money though, Cambell is invoking something similar to the phrases’ original intention. Just like corporations and small business are indirect products of elementary schools and asphalt roads, artists and art are similarly indebted to familial and social fondations . In this case, maternal affection and support. In a year of memes and campaigns (and campaign memes) Cambell’s piece was a much needed gesture of mindfulness and sincerity. No one, I mean NO ONE, gets to where they are alone or by accident. Let us hear it for the M-O-M-S

“Script for an Audio Tour: Ryan McCartney: Breaks to Make”
By Gabriela Vainsencher
Title Magazine

Art journalism is really difficult. It’s not easy to write about good art good. That’s why we should be thankful for smart art journalism just as much as art. Good in the sense that it’s writing that does more than tell me what we would see if you would go to the show. Metaphorically speaking, like a National Geographic or a seeing eye dog. What makes excellent art writing you might ask? I will tell you! I want to read something that stabs deep into the work and pulls out something that I wouldn’t have found or seen and maybe even the artist wouldn’t have found or see. If the work is good I want to know why it’s important in a culture like today. If it’s bad I’d like to read why the piece ignores what’s important in contemporary society. Either juxtaposition, good or bad, I want to read it and say, “Hey, I want to see that show.” And it calibur is even higher if the article is easy, casual, and short to read. Gabriela Vainsencher’s survey of Ryan McCartney’s show at Tiger Strikes Asteroid was really good and you should read it.

Refuse Reuse: Language for the Common Landfill
Crane Arts Building

In 2010 the The Philadelphia Streets Department’s launched its “Unlitter Us” initiative. Through community programing and PSAs “Unlitter Us” set out to, “rid our city of litter once and for all.” Which would be nice considering on most days the streets appear as if a million person Insane Clown Posse gathering has just left town. In case you have missed them the TV, print, and radio spots feature local “street” poets letting you know that your aesthetic disregard for the city just isn’t cool. The rationale being that everyone listens to poets. Since its inception the campaign has garnished more than a few eye-rolls and has by most accounts been ineffective in its attempt to turn cultural capital into social groundswell. “Unlitter Us” is no Shepard Fairey.

“Unlitter Us” did however find unexpected sister in Refuse Reuse: Language for the Common Landfill a group project exhibition held at the Crane Arts building this November. In Refuse Reuse 38 local artists used the text detritus from presorted and sterilized mystery bags of rubbish to create works of poetic collage. One imagined possibility:

Keep away from Children Baby Ruth Expires 11/12/13

What struck me most about Refuse Reuse was a dramaturgy of archeology or perhaps criminal forensics. In the cavernous Ice Box space the sourced trash was arranged neatly on plastic tarps lying sedate; evidence from a fresh dig site or perhaps a crime scene. The poems coalesced into vignettes of memory like the labels of a museum diorama or police report. I imagine reading: “We are the remains of long departed humans. These things will tell our deeds.”

Whether it is Refuse Reuse or “Unlitter Us” it is impossible to separate the trash from its producers. However in one endeavor this connection is something to be examined; a process that can tell us more about who we are/were/will become. In the other litter and litterers (a guilt we all can share) are stigmatized and presented as a disease that is to be purged from the body. In one poem:

“The city has a heartbeat
with broken glass plastic wrappers
clogging its arteries
The city has a heartbeat
and its waiting for you to provide hope
to become change
To become litter free
The city has a heartbeat
and its waiting for you to come clean”

If “Unlitter Us” is the shame through which we understand our trash endemic, Refuse Reuse is the diagnosis and acceptance through which the healing process might actually begin.

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