Monday, October 1, 2018

Regular Exercise, Therapy, Meds, and Suzy Halajian

Suzy Halajian is one of the people I think of when I describe to someone that LA feels like the place to be1. Despite being in a personal art crisis that in part is exacerbated by LA2, there are a lot of brilliant people3 who have just decided to be in California. A lot of them happen to be writers. After living here for 4 years, it’s beginning to look manageable, like I live here or something. Little by little it becomes a less intimidating place. I am finding people that do this hard to describe thing… perhaps it’s some kind of intuitive way of working where intellect meets feeling meets being an adult. If the person is also humble, it’s like the LA version of Ikigai.

Names are a thing too though, so the first time Rachel4 mentioned Suzy it was in the context that this was the curator that was doing something different, much less parochial (I'm pretty sure this was in relation to who she curated at a show at LACE "I Can Call This Progress to a Halt”), and there was some kind of connection to being Syrian5... film is involved... and something about also having a sister in the same field. (Rachel and her sister Julia have been seriously collaborating for the first time, this year, to co-write a book6).

My initial reaction was that the context could only setup for an intimidating encounter; in that, all of the stakes of meeting/befriending this person would be totalizing. You can recognize in someone else so much of a world you would want to be in, and what if upon meeting this person for the first time, there wasn't a connection, no mutual interest? Or worse, what if they're kind of a dick? Unfortunately, my strategy, like others immobilized by general fear, is to avoid this possibility at all costs. When I finally cut that shit out, for me, sometimes the art that people set into motion, feels like a call to action, but a collective one. Like how I found myself at LACE because of the allure of some kind of artist writing workshop (as part of a series of events Suzy also curated to take place at LACE, this one led by Dylan Mira) that embraced amateurism as an access point through a creative block (similar to the Best Friends Learning Gang) and to also connect with others who may see themselves the same way and so not feel as isolated.

Or it could all be simpler than that, something about giving in to impulsivity or obsession, or to be more generous:  my curiosity was peaked. And it sounded like an opportunity to start and finish a piece all in one go, to selfishly make an artwork within another person’s artwork. At the end of the workshop, I gave Dylan all of the notes as the closing gesture. It’s only now that I realize that I have no idea where I put my copies of those notes. The only thing I have are some photos of carved fruit. I think the word was “sensitive”.

What is so astonishing to me about trying to find other writings about Suzy or trying to figure out what writing a piece about her would really be about, there are ebbs and flows of her influence on what I end up thinking about for months or content that overlaps between Rachel’s and my own practice, which is rare, because we do not make similar work at all. 

Coming into the LACE show, I played that name game recognizing: Rosalind Nashashibi, Lucy Skaer, (who both have connections to Glasgow), and Phil Collins who I know is one of Rachel's art heroes. 

While in the space we got to watch Rosalind's 18-minute part docu-fiction-animation, part rhythm-as-meditation film "Electrical Gaza” about three times. I wondered aloud how does anyone get to catch good art films if you can't make it to the exhibition in such and such a country. I’m convinced this is a thing because we caught Rosalind’s work again in Kassel for Documenta 14, and Rosalind's contribution, a film titled Vivian’s Garden turned out to be one of my favorite parts of the exhibition. In the film, she captures long shots following a woman and her mother in seclusion where their whiteness seems to color "the rainforest" and "the help" and "the drama of time". I was magically convinced that the entire setup was fictional. So Rosalind Nashashibi presents a film depicting two artists that are also concurrently showing in the Documenta exhibition. But it’s unclear on whose terms people’s work and their identities are being laid out.  I mean, who puts in the art of an artist which is also the subject of a different work by another artist, which are actually two completely separate entities that don't share a context outside of the event itself? As it turns out, that was probably the main theme of Documenta 14. And to its credit, we fell in love with all of the peculiar dimensional collages made by Elisabeth Wild (the mother in the documentary), and we could feel the proof that there is at all times a plurality of art worlds.

A rant: To me, there is a sea of art films where it's a 50/50 crapshoot whether or not watching the actual 16mm film is not too far off from seeing a screenshot representation of it online, the film moves that slow. Sometimes it’s even worse, some film is represented only as a thumbnail image, dwarfed on a stark white webpage by the name of some kind of European Art prize. Does anyone else think that there's an absurd disparity in the proliferation of an emerging moving image maker’s name and the rare number of opportunities to catch a glimpse of their work? I know that this is mostly likely in part because I cannot illegally download such niche items, and Rach just got out of art school so she’s armed with new references, but I just want to point out that this is a large portion of what it means to stumble upon art nowadays.

rant #2: Also, how ironic is it that pets are often used to give a film a sense of humanity? What would you filmmakers do without all that golden B-roll footage of animals that is oh so necessary to set the pace?

Sorry, this is what happens when I haven’t written anything for a while. It’s not such a direct thing you see to simply be reminded of one artist or set of ideas and recognize it again somewhere else. What is profound isn’t so cut and dry, you find yourself just recognizing good work and seeking it out a little bit, like when you see the same kind stranger enough times at interesting events that you decide to ask their name, so that next time you can properly say hello.

Let me try to get back into the headspace of that LACE space… there was a 2x4 structure that took up a large central space, framing and offering seating for a series of film screenings. Modular structures like these always remind me of Alice K├Ânitz' practical DIY museum, even though I’ve never actually seen it. To recognize similar structure strategies appearing across various unrelated exhibitions felt like some pattern or rhyme was emerging that had something to do with a space for and with people, perhaps something about Fred Moten and “the Undercommons”, something about how people in LA bring the idea of “radical” to the level of the everyday. 
Another pattern to when I come across something Suzy has curated is that it commonly coincides with a personal moment of newfound adventurousness. For example, on that day it was special because we started our morning with Yoga at the Hollywood YMCA that was literally just around the corner. Then we hit the Hollywood farmers market before spontaneously deciding to get into Dylan Mira's workshop at LACE. Synergy kept flowing and we didn’t get back home to Boyle Heights until the end of the day. Rachel describes Hollywood as one of her favorite places in all of LA. I think it’s because it’s actually walkable.

The first exhibition I saw curated by Suzy was Harry Dodge’s FIRST EVER solo show in LA at the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena. 

And by the way, shame on you LA that Harry Dodge had been here for 10 years before someone found a way to spotlight just his work. Let me guess, you were real busy.

I can't say if I was intrigued by that particular show, in part because I have this idea of the Armory as somehow being somewhat lackluster betraying whatever I think an Armory is supposed to look like. It’s more of a community arts center where you can run into a celebrity (like Carrie Brownstein) than being conducive to say, an open white cube space with enough room to build out enough spaces to host a retrospective, or a raw artist-run space conducive to super experimental tests. But it was followed up with another event with Harry, this time a talk and a series of screenings at the Pieter Performance Space where I’d previously caught AfterGlow put on by Aimee Goguen and Harry. 

I was so enamored by the talk because it was raw Harry, a mixture of watching him spend the time answering questions being fielded to him by one of their kids, and also having this Gung-ho affect with words, turns of phrases... Maybe it's like someone using language and theorists and ideas the way that a Dom would use leather for S&M, I don’t know. 

I somehow asked Harry if I could have the notes to his talk and for some reason thought it necessary to do some kind of Psychomagic act (to be fearless in making art) by finding an opportunity to emulate his cadence in public. I had found the perfect occasion, as I was taking part in Sara Roberts & Jordan Biren’s Readers Chorus that for weeks had been working with material from the Museum of Jurassic Technology and was set to perform various pieces throughout the MJT. It was all too easy to seamlessly replace snippets from when I was supposed to be reading a Borges inspired text with the speculative futuristic statements a la Dodge. No one noticed.

On another night, when I was enjoying a week of running into lovely people that I used to only see once a year, I attended an outdoor screening that Suzy curated. It seemed like many of us hermits decided that it would be most appropriate to come out and celebrate a big public screening of Aimee Goguen’s work. There was a swirl of names and confusing relations, something about Rachel Mason’s parents running an erotic bookstore even though they’re religious, a baker’s dozen curators all under the heading Dirty Looks, and another famous Bradford

In the numerous performances and series that Suzy puts on, there is always the possibility of witnessing a totally relatable vulnerable presence in the very same space as death-defying art making. In this case, there's nothing more joyful than watching Aimee turning beet red, attempting to hide in plain sight while being introduced by Suzy to a crowd of possibly 100 people all gathered on a backyard hill to watch porn-ish short films. 

 Seriously, what a night. At some point a cop car rolled through the connected alley in dead silence, almost unable to get through and somehow not during a suspiciously cropped scene. My view of the seedy shorts was through a bush of some kind watching a lo-fi video of two art-school aged boys forcefully tonguing each other while we all nervously giggled, enjoying each others company outside on a warm enough night. The films also seamlessly transitioned from some kind of looping video transition pulsing upward, as if an error in tracking was forcing the image to literally penetrate itself over and over. The music had been building up for a good three minutes and I was digging the very unlikely soundtrack before it dawned on me that I was now experiencing someone elses' performance (a rhythmic musical interlude by M. Cay Castagnetto, was Johanna Swan part of this particular performance? I can’t find any info7)

The most recent project of Suzy’s that I’ve made it to, where I’ve finally managed to say more than “hello” to her was primed by Neha Choksi's Performance/Research/Workshop. A bunch of like-minded artists were crammed into Actual Size, a display case of an exhibition space at the edge of Chinatown. Again Suzy’s show was the reason I was at a venue I’d never been to before, but also this was to be related to Neha’s foray attending school with kindergartners. Neha titled the event "Elementary Sympathy" and surrounded this meeting of the minds with large posters of photoshopped worksheets that she referred to as studio sketches. I'm pretty sure we all knew what we were getting ourselves into where you have an intimate space and someone is commanding attention under the guise of "a performance". It means that participation will be happening, regardless if you want it to happen or not, and the worst thing that could very likely happen is that someone just talks about themselves or gets hung up on a very minute detail for what will feel like an eternity. 

I both obsess over and am also very critical of work that addresses pedagogy, philosophies of teaching and learning. I don’t know if anyone would find my art education conspiracies very compelling, like how Discipline-Based Art Education (DBAE) was a ploy by the Getty to give teachers free teaching materials in order to influence generations of art consumers to see their particular collection as the defacto canon. I think the everyday relationship most artists have to art education is where it overlaps with something they do outside of a classroom: art therapy, social practice, activism or academia. Rather than seeing the position as a two-way street, it’s considered a rite of passage for savvy intellectuals, either in the honorable suffering of low-paid adjunct positions or as the cushy job given to those who reach the top 5% in their field. So often what is not talked about is the substance of art education itself in a way where we are complicit in the stakes that are involved, but often it’s a self righteous contention. Just another opportunity to boast what they know, which is annoying in an era where people are obsessed with data (where Moneyball meets McDonalds meets standardized testing meets state-sponsored propaganda) instead of... something about feelings... where vulnerable people, aka children, need assistance to find their place in the world, make friends, find pleasurable or meaningful work, hold themselves up to constantly update their moral compass. At some point when anything concerns us, we then blame the teacher. Again, for a country that is constantly privatizing public services that struggle to address systematic inequality, how fucking dare you.

I made myself comfortably uncomfortable and decided to stick to my current M.O.8: Shut up. The very first thing she asked us all to do was to pick a word off of a post-it note that would stir up their earliest memory of school, undoubtedly a formative moment.9 As she puts it, there are moments in our art education that shouldn’t correlate, such as being able to render and replicate imagery and what it means in terms of developing as an artist or learning empathy. I recall reading somewhere that practice in mastery, can be the basis for intrinsic motivation, to see challenges as worthwhile. Supposedly once someone discovers how mastery is achievable and has the perspective to see what it demands, the plastic brain transfers confidence to the next set of related skills. Realism is probably some kind of easy way to detect if one is mastering something or not. How do I know when a conceptual artwork of mine is more critical than it was two years ago? I have to rely on external feedback from people whose opinions I trust.

The contributions of Neuroscientists seemed to be missing in the conversation replaced by philosophers, but at least there was some talk about etymology and glimpses of a history of art education. I was intrigued that the entire approach was new to me. Neha described what it really meant for people to become self-aware in cave drawings, and performing awareness for each other. I thought about something my therapist said about how “personality" is the very thing we create in order to protect ourselves from painful feelings, so instead, I said something about Prisons. Many times these kinds of events can turn into group therapy sessions, and there’s a reason they have a negative connotation, they’re efficient for an organization to dole out worksheets, but often they just a bunch of people who know they have problems outnumbering the amount of people who are objectively stating that they are not the ones with the problems. The conversation was lively enough, generous yet guarded, not being sure what to make of the propositions stacking up on each other, but trusting and liking Neha to handle the debates with aplomb.

At some point, Anu Vikram from 18th Street Art Center popped in and had a lot to say about what kids do and don’t notice (in regards to a question fielded to Neha about whether or not the Kindergartners are aware that she’s not quite one of them). But I couldn’t help but notice the stark contrast between the way that Anu was claiming something about Neha’s project and could communicate her engagement, and the way that Suzy hadn’t said a single word during the event. She contained a demeanor I associate with teachers, or people who have a really good “gallery face” as to not let their opinions affect people who may take any little reaction far too seriously. 
It felt strategic, like when exhibitions have deliberately left out the usual didactic signage, and me as the viewer is trusted to go beyond passive consumption into something demanding an active imagination, to meet the meaning halfway. I actually still geek out about this thing in Art Education called Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) when talking with kids about contemporary art. To me it’s all about starting off feeling empowered to own one's own experience of art, not to have it mitigated/dictated by an authoritative museum voice.

So was Suzy not participating? If anything, her political beliefs and actions are understated. Maybe she thought that the  accompanying writing
said everything that she would want to say, maybe she genuinely was taking in the experimental process that she had laid out and therefore all that there was left to do was it unfold. (I was first intrigued to write something based on the experimental format of the individual screenings alluded to in the writing she provided.)

(Image redacted10)

At the end of the evening when most visitors had left, I congratulated Suzy on this show and the others that she curated. She mentioned something about not being sure if the pedagogy links were clear, but I thought that Neha was meta-performing the voice and role of a hyper-facilitator where pretty much anything spoken is a useful segue.  It turns out she was collecting reflections and compounding them with her own as she reworked over the large printed posters, listening to the recording of the performance/conversation back again as if it was a Malcolm Gladwell audiobook. 

I just found out today from Aimee and from looking something up online that Suzy is going to be a little farther away doing a PhD (on writing about film?) at UC Santa Cruz11. Immediately I recalled when I took work off to catch a lecture by Helen Molesworth up at CalArts. I was so excited to hear her speak, but when she asked the students if they’d prefer just to field her questions (which I missed when Mark Bradford did this the year that Rachel was doing her MFA) or hear her read her latest essay on Manny Farber, a lone voice claimed “ESSAY!” and somehow irreversibly, a great opportunity was lost. Even at the very end, somehow it wasn’t made apparent that there wasn’t enough time, so some guy asked two questions (it’s always a guy) and then everyone had to abruptly leave the Bijou theater at CalArts to make way for another class. This was also only a few months before she was fired from MOCA. How close were we all that day to uncovering the kinds of everyday thoughts of someone who isn’t just some famous art writer, but is someone who really got under the skin of upper management in the Art World with a capitol “A”? 

It would seem that none of what I had to write was really a reflection on what I think Suzy is or isn’t doing that is particular to her as a curator, but I have these questions (not literal ones) about what it means that she curates often in queer circles which seems like an important political decision. I don’t mean to assume, but if like myself, she identifies as queer from the standpoint that it is a fundamentally important and probably radical basis for engaging in life, then there is something more to be sussed out  about why and what she programs holds so much weight to me. 

I think I’m done with the premise that a good art career/trajectory is one in which I get to be fully engaged in “interesting conversations” which is just a matter of privilege, not quality. 

But I want to believe that what Suzy and others12 are doing is to create a space of mutual respect in the in-between, the mundane, the complex, hard-to-describe layers. This creates a kind of faith in an expansive version of ‘normal’ where things happen regardless of hard categories (where we’d be expected to have to constantly re-perform), a real space is made for trying things out, or to highlight those who constantly take that chance. As Tam MacGarvey of GalGael said to our Detroit crew in Glasgow, (paraphrasing) “These ignorant developers, they try to sell us something sexy, but it’s not based on anything real. What we’re trying to do here is real, like Real Sexy.” I like this ridiculous idea of sexy hope. The kind that constitutes real work in building a replacement Art World (sure, one of many) in a MeToo era, where people’s actions (and energies) matter, the one that has actually made space for me and Rachel to embrace what we have to offer and to not have to work so hard13 to see our place in it all.

measuring with a bent ruler suggests having a different relationship to precision and accuracy, that there’s always apparent meandering, as it is a series of experimentally sequential exhibitions. The next one is this coming Wednesday with Kandis Williams.14


I tell people all the time that I’ve been doing a lot of self-sabotaging to my art practice since coming to LA, which then is always followed up with the question, “So are you going to stay in Los Angeles? Move back to Detroit? Would you have stayed in Glasgow after grad school?” and without missing a beat, I confidently reply that right now LA feels like the place to be. And this is one diaristic journey into trying to figure out what about LA does enable my practice.

Here’s the link to “I can’t tell if I like LA… but I think I don’t like it?"

I see this through a line of powerhouse writers, really defining entire genres or causes: 
  • Joan Didion
  • Octavia E. Butler
  • Kathy Acker
  • Judith Butler
  • Simone Forti
  • Fred Moten
  • Maggie Nelson
Rachel Yezbick is my partner. We are in LA because she got into an expensive cult for professional reasons. It's based in Santa Clarita and is referred to as CalArts. Lovely People

Rachel is a quarter Lebanese, so like... geographically that's similar right?


Rachel and Julia’s book, so far untitled, will look at the politics of immersive experience from sensory ethnography to contemporary media in art (VR/AR). 

Alan Poma was there as well! That futurist Peruvian! Another one of those wonderful, hey-I-think-I-know-that-guy moments that makes a big city seem smaller. Fun story he told me when we first met: His girlfriend's cat once went missing and he had the idea that he should just used his trained ear to walk around some alleys just listening to the meows. He FOUND THE CAT!

My current Modus Operandi: Hold my ADHD thoughts to myself until at least two women have participated, definetely don't be the first person to speak, and I try not to be the last, and even then, unless I'm able to have a clear question (fuck trying to be concise, that's impossible) I only really have one job, let the feelings come as they are. Don’t forget to feel sad.

My word to trigger a story was “Self-Conscious” which doesn’t seem that far off from the word “sensitive” that I carved into an orange at Dylan Mira’s writing workshop.

Here is an undoctored image of Suzy. She said that the other photo was too embarrasing and that she looked too serious. So I asked her if she either had a silly photo of herself that I could use instead, or a childhood picture of herself being just as serious. See below:


My friend wrote this comment in the margins when helping me edit this text, and I loved it so I'm putting it in verbatim:
“Why is this important? Because she will be far and you fear that means she won't curate more shows? Might be worth expanding since it also fits within the whole diary of a queer art crush thing”

In this vein I include 
Working Hard: That thing we do to avoid dealing with residual pain that comes from trying to impress our parents to give us more of the love we needed.
So I finished this writing back on August 26th, but I thought I'd wait in case someone might want to publish it, I'm going to assume... no. I may try to revisit this again if I can catch what Kandis ended up doing, but unfortunately I missed that final event. But maybe you caught it? How was it?