Sticks and Stones: Language and Emotion (published 2012)

Online exhibition of the work of Tucker Neel , Nicholas Hamilton , Joy Drury Cox , and Andrew Graham on

In the Transparency of Things, Vladimir Nabokov asserts that to remain in the present moment, one must not be distracted with the embedded history of objects — for example a stone on a field that has been trampled by animals for countless years. Instead, one must focus on only the surface of such objects so that they become transparent, and the present can be fully occupied. Similar to the stone, the phrases in the works collected here contain infinite historical associations, and their future meaning is impossible to know, but personally and communally engaging with these works and their language offers a way of remaining present in the moment, and the present is the only time when true emotion is possible.

The artists who made these word-works experiment deeply and widely with text and image in relation to emotion — they use clues and context to create deep resonances between the words, their surroundings, and potential interpretations. By incorporating emotionally charged, often ambiguous, and sometimes appropriated phrases into various media — photography, sculpture, painting, and interactive performance — they invite a subjective reaction from the viewer. These artists deny the notion of singularity of meaning, and instead play with the fluidity of language — its shifting contextual potential. They make images, objects, and activities that occupy the layered dimensions of language, and they question and reveal how meaning is generated.

Tucker Neel’s interactive telephone project, I Will Always Love You Project, invites people to call in and perform a version of the afore-mentioned song, most recently made famous by Whitney Houston in the movie The Bodyguard, and originally written and recorded by Dolly Parton. The participant’s task is to cover a cover, to imitate and enact an excessively emotional song, and in the process, to make it their own. The inevitable comparison of their version to previous versions of the song creates an audible and historical resonance / dissonance, and the participant’s identity is subject to becoming entangled with iconic characterizations of Whitney Houston, or her character in the film, or perhaps the performer may connect with how the narrative of the song intersects his or her personal experience. A relation between speech and action is set into motion, and the participant is asked to feel love by saying “I love.”

Nicholas Hamilton’s Remember 1690 is a photographic record of an ephemeral intervention he made in the Northern Irish countryside. He placed letters spelling a militaristic slogan, usually painted on sectarian murals in urban centers in Northern Ireland, in a quiet and rural landscape. The letters are made of silk flowers, commonly used at funerals to spell out the name of the deceased or a term of affection associated with them. By altering the substance, location, aesthetic, and ritual associations of this inflammatory command, he sets forth a dissonant space between the idyllic and seemingly peaceful landscape and an underlying sense of past and potential future violence. The words in the landscape function both as subject and caption, making visible layers of emotional history that are otherwise quietly embedded deep in the land and in its inhabitants’ personal histories.

Joy Drury Cox’s One Liner is an edition of 250 six-inch rulers printed with the words, “Nothing measures up to you.” The rulers are industrially produced, identical and functional but because they are ½ the expected length, they seem to be intentionally limited in their function. This limitation is mirrored in the ambiguous phrase printed on the ruler, which suggests an absence and a presence with a sense longing and devotion. The viewer is invited to fill the phrase with personal meaning — thus granting the ruler an ability generate and measure subjectivity, while also providing standardized units of measurement derived from the scale of the human body. Various and infinite associations can be made in regards to this mystery, and this openness of meaning is precisely this tool’s function.

The individual images that make up Andrew Graham’s array of paintings, Organized Religion, are appropriated from Christian fundamentalist signs used during public demonstrations. By removing the signs from their users, indexing and standardizing them, Graham points to what Boris Groys in Religion in the Age of Digital Reproduction refers to as a system of ritual statements that are not subject to rational proof but that gain their power primarily through repetition and blind faith of the speaker. These statements are designed to impose and make judgment upon the lives of others — to limit freedom and personal choice. By carefully hand-painting each sign Graham infuses them with his own intention and lays bare the irrationality of the original meanings of these hateful messages. With his heightened scrutiny, these messages begin to unravel and become re-configured. For example, No Special Laws for Fags, can be easily interpreted as “provide homosexuals with the same liberties as the rest of society.”

Transformation of meaning through language is a common theme of the work of these four artists. Beneath the surfaces of these works, meanings ebb and flow, and the experience of engaging with them is never the same twice. Existing language is re-configured to new purposes, and the emotion left with the viewer is one of positivity and possibility — empowering the viewer to create his or herself and make change in the world.

$ – An Online Exhibition about Money featured on

Feature Issue #91 –

$ is a social contract – an abstraction of exchange. There is no limit to its use or value. However, seemingly natural models of exchange ingrained in culture seamlessly pave the way for relationships that serve few and exploit many. $ has a way of protecting its own value — by marginalizing and discrediting those that do not have much of it, or who question its absolute value.

But fortunately, in many places, ideas, and actions are still free. The piggy bank that holds and shapes stories of collective financial meaning has been dealt significant blows and a stream of alternatives is gushing through the cracks. Enacting more human and humane models for exchanging and using $ will help free us from inequality and inequity – enhancing cooperation, co-productivity, creativity, and culture.

As with $, social interaction is an exchange. Through art referred to as Social Practice (formalized and historicized social interaction), ideas are proposed, imposed, traded, and braided together to form living philosophy – ways of thinking and doing. Some people and projects working in this vein help me think differently about $, influencing what I accept as natural and valuable, and inspire me to write this and share their work with you.

Abigail Satinsky is hard to pinpoint – engendering experimental art practices on the fringes, under the radar, and for the future of art. Living in Chicago and working at the cultural nexus Three Walls, she makes art, helps others make art, and then examines, organizes, and disseminates the results. In 2007, as a member of inCUBATE, a Chicago-based research organization dedicated to innovating arts funding structures, she helped develop and found Sunday Soup, a community supported micro-granting program. Their amazingly successful model, which has spurred programs in over 60 cities, such as FEAST in Brooklyn, revolves around a community meal. Each diner contributes a small amount of $, receives food and partakes in a collective decision about which proposed art project to support. Sunday Soup’s model helps communities define and support work that is meaningful and necessary to them, opening a forum of cultural exchange and creation, and efficiently sustaining an ever-strengthening loop between community and culture.

Abigail introduced me to an artist-run, Chicago-based residency program in Ohio called Harold Arts. While I was there this summer, I met the individually mind-blowing artists April Childers and Carmen Tiffany, or as they’re know collectively, Destineez Child. They spent much of their time in the breezy Amish-built studio, sipping Coors Light and cheerfully making brightly colored paintings on found rocks and sticks, knitting unusual garments, and creating mysterious sculptures. I was curious what they were up to, but they wouldn’t reveal their plans until one day they invited everyone to their Kuntry Store. Their version of an art fair seemed to be missing the hyper-pretentious cosmopolitan vibe that occupies typical art fair paradigms. They displayed lovingly-made trinkets and attractions such as illustrated tabs of drugs, collectible souvenir rocks with inscriptions such as fuckin’ fishin’ or A$$, a contemporary art table, and a set of opposing lawn chairs on a picnic table entitled, Make fun of Marina Abramovic with a Friend – $1, an invitation to re-stage her work, The Artist is Present. Their art was approachable, usefully, desirable, funny, and touching — and best of all, the prices ranged between $1 and $5 on average. With the $65 and change they made, they went to the gas station and bought 3 cases of beer to share with everyone. Their generous hard work and creativity punched a hole in the tire of the ubiquitous beige minivan of corporate consumption, mass entertainment, and conventional support for the arts.

While attending Open Engagement this summer, Portland State University’s conference on art and social practice, I was introduced to Sal Randolph and her project, The Emancipation of Money, in a loud crowded bar. She handed me some $ she made to distribute at the conference. I admired the variously-colored hand stamped patterns and text on a clean, white, rubberized paper with clear text reading “FREE DOLLAR.” There was also text that requested the user to inform her how the note was used. It was an imperfect and unique abstraction of an abstraction with strings attached — a promissory note, promising nothing except that it was free, and hence the object’s transfer to me was ambiguous and full of potential and responsibility. This note was somewhere between art object, conceptual game, and financial asset, and led me to meditate on the meaning of value. In her writing on the anthropological theorist David Graeber, Randolph explains how value comes into being: in objects – through history and imbedded stories, and in currency – through the unknown potential of future exchange. I’m not sure if the object she handed me is $ of the past, present, or future, or of another reality, and have since held onto it, as it has become most valuable to me as evidence of the shifting nature of value and my own freedom to determine it.

xxxxxxx is something that Cassie Thornton doesn’t want me or anyone to speak about; but how do you examine something which refuses to come out in the open? To that end, Cassie recently invited me and others to attend a group construction of xxxxxxx (previously known as debt boulder, and now as Unspeakable Thing) — a physical and metaphorical weight that represents the psychic and emotional consequences resulting from the deep black hole in consciousnesses where debt often lodges itself. Participants were invited to bring contracts and documents related to their debt to add to ATM receipts stolen from bank vestibules by Cassie and her friends. Once assembled, they collectively papier machéd them into aesthetically alluring, but weighty and unruly masses. xxxxxxx contains and embodies records of $ owed — and are positive forms representing a lack of resources. These meta-pyscho-physical masses rattle around the subconscious and murky spaces of the mind — flashing into consciousness from time to time triggering paralyzing thoughts. Through humor and a desire to create a space free of guilt and imbalance, Thornton holds a financial séance, which brings debt demons into the open to be seen for what they really are and to drain them of their power through realization of collective emotional experiences. Her work concerns the most serious topics of poverty, inequality, fear, and repression; but it is also seriously funny, as she playfully explodes the scaffolding that gives $ its psychological power, watching it topple and laughing as new possibilities emerge from the rubble.

David B. Smith is a conceptual multidisciplinary artist living in Brooklyn, NY, who seeks to expand perceptions of reality, articulate the creative process, and to challenge traditional art-making practices. To this end he makes immersive architectural installations, is in the one man band, Doom Trumpet, curates conceptual exhibitions, and teaches art at SUNY Old Westbury. He has shown at spaces such as PS1, Exit Art, NADA Miami, The International Center of Photography, and John Connelly Presents. He has also built large scale sculptural installations at BOFFO, Bring to Light, Harold Arts, and the (e)merge fair of contemporary art.


Notes from Open Engagement, a conference on socially engaged art

Open Engagement, May, 2012, Portland, OR

Report presented to the Visual Arts Department, SUNY Old Westbury by David B. Smith

Listen to some presentations here (download by right clicking): Audio.html

In May, I spent 3 days in Portland, OR attending Open Engagement (OE), an annual conference on the subject of socially engaged art organized by the art and social practice department of Portland State University.  I will outline some of the presentations that made impressions, explain key ideas I encountered, and offer my thoughts on how they might be implemented into our arts education curricula and teaching philosophies.


OE states in their mission,


“Through conversations, presentations, workshops, interviews, open reflections, and related projects … we will be investigating, questioning, celebrating, and challenging the current state of art and social practice.”


Of the numerous presentations I saw, some of the most informative and challenging were the keynote addresses by Shannon Jackson and Tania Brugera, a panel on art and service to the community, and one on education programs for socially engaged art.


Shannon Jackson is an art and social practice historian with a concentration in public performance, as she comes from a background in theater and dance.  Her academic talk outlined several artists who have worked in this vein from the 60s until today.  She described Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ work with the public and New York Department of Sanitation – an example of feminist art that created socially and politically engaged dynamics prior to Borriaud’s notion of relational aesthetics.  She described Paul Chan’s project, Waiting for Godot, in New Orleans, which worked both within the realm of the commercial art world, while engaging with and attempting to serve the community. 


She was particularly interested in examining the meanings and effectiveness of publicly engaged works.  To this end, she discussed social theory – such as the introduction of the Grundisse, where Marx argues that wage labor leads to the repression of the individual as social practitioner, and Raymond Williams leap from the social to the aesthetic practice, which he believes serve as indexes and propellers of social crisis, and that the crises of technique, form, and medium, etc, are related to social relations.


Tania Brugera, a well known contemporary social practice artist, also looked at the role of art in social change.  Her key points were, that “art is not a permanent condition – a good artwork asks the right question at the right moment … social art is done in social time – it leaves the representational world and enters the world of power – Social art is political art”


She also described her criteria for whether a work was successful – she thinks social work must be useful (arte util) – it must have a sustainable impact and not be purely conceptual.  In order for her work to sustain itself, she sees herself as an initiator and does not feel the need to control the outcome of her projects.  She believes art shouldn’t be cool because it then loses its agency and she vehemently believes we must remove the “Greenberg Prism”. Useful art does not have a planned obsolescence. It is about making something happen, not consuming something.


The panel on Art and Service had a number of presenters whose projects could be seen as helping the communities in which they were engaged. Laura Moulton, built and ran a mobile (bike-based) library for the homeless, Sadie Harmon helps senior citizens make meaningful artworks, and Beverly Naidus teaches political and environmental art to working class college students.  One of the reasons I attended this conference was my interest in Beverly’s work in arts education.  She believes that art is for everyone, and that it should serve each individual’s needs and engage with his or her deepest feelings and beliefs in a non-judgmental environment.  Her classes hinge on the notion that when she shares her stories, some will feel safe to share theirs, and then many others will feel safe to do the same.


The panel on Education and Socially Engaged Art was a series of presentations on the curricula and philosophies of schools such as Portland State University, California College of the Arts, Maryland Institute of Contemporary Art, Otis, the Queens Museum / CUNY partnership, and more.  Each institution has its own way defining and teaching socially engaged art.  This is a relatively new field in arts education and experimentation in curricula is the norm.  Many of the programs seem to be fledgling and/or strapped for money and space – although socially engaged art is being increasingly supported by museums, the mainstream art world, and educational institutions. 


One option I would suggest for existing general arts departments such as ours is to incorporate upper-level classes on social practice.  These would cover the history, theory, and technique of socially engaged art.  They would be a combination of lecture, reading and independent studio time, and should be offered after students take some foundation courses in art history, as socially engaged art is art after all.  This type of class requires advanced communication, social, organization, and writing skills.


Another way of introducing these ideas is to require introduction courses to include a module that covers social practice.  Students that moved forward in the art field would have some skills in this area should they decide to pursue it, and non-art majors could do projects that connect with the public in ways that they find exciting and meaningful.  Also, all arts faculty would be required to learn about social practice more thoroughly.


Thirdly and most importantly, a spirit of social engagement should be embraced by the department as a whole, and by every one of its classes.  Since teaching and learning are inherently socially engaged practices, the community should be more aware of their ability to shape this relationship and this space, both in and out of class.  The space itself should be enhanced and utilized more effectively to allow students and teachers to inhabit common spaces and create projects informally and formally throughout.  Also, I would suggest that a safe-space, such as the one that Beverly Naidus creates in her class, become the goal – so that open-ness and expression are encouraged more effectively.


Social engagement should be practiced amongst the faculty as well, for their benefit, and because it will trickle into the classes.  Teachers should create an environment of sharing of ideas and resources, approaches to art-making and teaching, and an environment whose members are encouraged to explore their roles as social practicioners, cooperators, and social engineers. In addition, students and teacher’s work should be shown regularly in the community and artist talks and conversations held more regularly.


Community-based tools for teachers and students should be utilized more, such as workshops, meals, trips, screenings, parties and visiting artist talks.  In addition, web-based sharing mechanisms such as facebook, bulletin boards, pools of assignments / activities, skype sessions with other schools / teachers / artists / community members can be used to increase inter-connection, as well as connection to the community and the world.  This might seem like a lot of work to get these things into place, but it will make teaching and learning at OW more appealing and attractive in the long run. 


We have the opportunity to set ourselves apart from more individualistic / ego-based arts education programs that have become the norm.  Instead of expecting our students to become artists, why not expect them to enhance their worlds, to make something useful, to challenge the status quo, and to challenge us and to tell us what art is, and what kind of art is next.


Please feel free to contact me with questions, for further information / resources, or to discuss further.

Eleven Hands Clapping – Saturday, June 30th, 2012 from 3 – 7 PM at Vaudeville Park



Excerpts taken from emails with artists about the show:

“It’s a sound ‘festival’ called Eleven Hands Clapping at an arts space in East Williamsburg, Vaudeville Park (26 Bushwick Ave.), on Saturday, June 30th.

It’s going to be a program of 11 solo artists using sound in a variety ways, from (un?) pop to (anti?) folk, to experimental electronics, meditative looping, video, spoken words (poetry?), and a surround sound installation. I think it should be really fun and chill thing to do on a Saturday afternoon / early evening.

It’ll be 4 hours, starting at 3PM and going til 7PM

The general theme is 11 autonomous artists getting together to create a heteronymous sonic community – to share their work with each other and their overlapping communities.

I know it seems like a lot of acts, but if we are organized ahead of time and stick to the schedule it will be no problem…especially because some of them are very short!”

Curated by David B. Smith




Status Updates opening at Vaudeville Park

Here are some photos from the opening of Status Updates at Vaudeville Park on February 9th, 2012.

I will post the video the screening with improvised soundtrack by Doom Trumpet soon.

Below are the prints of the artists’ work that were presented in the space along with the screening.

With a bit of luck and work, Status Updates 2 will take form and be coming to space near you!

Thanks to Vaudeville Park, all the artists, and everyone who attended or is interested..

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Status Updates

February 9th, 7-9PM (with performance / video screening at 8pm)

Vaudeville Park, 26 Bushwick Ave. Brooklyn, NY 11211

Status Updates features photographic projects taken from the Facebook pages of artists: Adam Eckstrom, Bonnie Pipkin, Jen Rodewald, Brina Thurston, and Ian Umlauf.

The show consists of a slide show / screening of images by each artist with live sound accompaniment by Doom Trumpet. Photographic prints from the series’ will also be displayed in the gallery space.

The projects in the show blur the line between the artists’ art practices and their daily life and jobs.  These artists use photography to tell diverse stories about their lives, interests and creative spheres.   When removed from their original context the images stand on their own as autonomous works of art with strong narrative and emotional content. The arrays of images document their way of thinking and moving through the real world, while playing with the mechanisms of the social media platform.

Curated by David B. Smith

End of Days in May

On May 25th, 2011, a convincingly anti-apocalyptic gathering of musical acts (who all happen to have visual art practices) from Philadelphia and New York City, performed to a full room of very attentive and vivacious observers.  Mark Golamco sang sweet, quiet, aching songs, while strumming an acoustic guitar, Thank You Rosekind danced it out while playing songs from their new record, Attention / Intention, 2011, Little Band of Sailors charmed the neighbors with their haunting and piercing melodies, and Doom Trumpet layered melodies and mash-ups with electric guitar, vocals, and his trusty Line 6 DL4 looping pedal.

Hope to post a video of highlights here soon!


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