Left to right: Brian Kuan Wood, Joshua Decter, Clémentine Deliss, Ute Meta Bauer, Nicolas Bourriaud, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, and Defne Ayas at the SVA MA Curatorial Practice international summit on “Curatorial Activism and the Politics of Shock,” November 18, 2017. Photo: Birdie Piccininni.

A FEW WEEKS BACK, in the Great Awokening of the post-Weinstein news cycle, I noticed a question bobbing along the surface of my social-media streams: If “Abuse of Power Comes as No Surprise,” why do we all still want power? What would it look like to wield power ethically? Is that even possible?

The Saturday before Thanksgiving, the School of Visual Arts’ Steven Henry Madoff convened a weekend-long summit to address these issues. Titled “Curatorial Activism and the Politics of Shock,” the conference featured twenty-one international powerhouses, from Serpentine Gallery codirector Hans Ulrich Obrist and Tensta Konsthall director Maria Lind to the curator of next year’s Tenth Berlin Biennale, Gabi Ngcobo. The glitzy gathering—to be documented in its own publication, from Sternberg Press—was tied to SVA’s Master of Arts degree in Curatorial Practice, which schools its students to the tune of some $17,000 a semester (that’s just tuition). If this doesn’t foreground art’s conflicted claim on an ethical imperative, I don’t know what does. (Full disclaimer: I have spent the past decade paying off debts from a MA degree overseen by one of the summit’s invited curators, who used the opportunity to publicly debunk the concept of curatorial degrees as an educational farce.)

Financial imbroglios aside, the summit was a masterful display of conference choreography, with each of the speakers limited to eight-minute presentations over the course of three sessions, followed by a Q&A orchestrated via submitted cards. Small cards. “Not even enough room for a ‘It’s more of a comment than a question really,’” joked Antonia Majaca, curator at the IZK Institute for Contemporary Art in Graz.

Madoff’s prompt circled loosely around Nikolay Chernyshevsky’s famous charge, “What is to be done?” Madoff specifically asked that speakers address the global situation through the lens of their local experience. This meant that topics spanned censorship, sexual harassment, restitution, the public lives of indigenous artifacts, and practical applications of Chantal Mouffe’s “spaces of antagonism.” “We have to be able to sit in a room with people we don’t like,” urged Ute Meta Bauer, director of the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art in Singapore. “Otherwise, what we have is dogmatism, not democracy.”

To better evince antihierarchical structures, participants were organized alphabetically. (Yes, but whose alphabet? Sorry, knee-jerk . . .) First up, Defne Ayas touched on her recent tenure as director at Witte de With and the institutional name change she endorsed. (Turns out, seventeenth-century Dutch naval officer Witte Corneliszoon de With’s legacy did not exactly align with the institution’s values.) “We all move and operate in our fifty shades of complicity,” Ayas acknowledged before declaring that, “if we frame our inquiries only within the Guerilla Girls’ metrics of inclusion, we will remain surprised, blinded.”

Curator Nicolas Bourriaud followed with a defense of art for art’s sake, even in the era of the Anthropocene. He warned of the dangers in assuming that “to be useful, art has to operate only at the political level of citizenship”—a misconception that only “integrates the logic of power and duplicates the logics of profit.” If, as Bourriaud claimed, an artwork “only exists through the human gaze,” then the million hoarded objects locked up in international free ports can only be thought of as reified “things,” not “art.”

Clémentine Deliss, the former director of Frankfurt’s Weltkulturen Museum, or museum of non-Western art, picked up from here, venturing deaccessioning as a means to circulate the souvenirs of colonialism, thus freeing the “impounded population in European vaults” long sequestered by the “necropolitics of conservation and provenance.” Name-checking the “institutional discontents” of the Volksbühne and Documenta 14, Deliss honed in with blistering precision on Berlin’s forthcoming museum complex, the Humboldt Forum. When it opens in 2019, “the fake castle with its proxy intellectual generalism” is intended to showcase “masterpieces of non-European origin, yet German provenance and ownership”—Property being the handmaid of Power. Conjuring a post-Brexit future where a person might not be able to get the visas required to visit their own cultural heritage (which, let’s face it, is a dilemma far predating Brexit), Deliss laid out her “Manifesto for the Rights of Access,” concluding that in these conditions, the only responsible course was to empty storerooms back onto the market. “I’d rather have been fired for deaccessioning 2 percent of the seventy-thousand objects under my control then rest easy in this embargo that allows us to say, ‘It’s not my problem.’”

“You have a naive opinion of the market,” Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev fired off in the Q&A. “Restitution is one thing, but if we’re just deaccessioning, then all these goods will leave circulation and end up on walls of some apartment in Dubai or Moscow.”

C.C.B.’s own contribution kicked off with a four-minute tally of the things she wanted to talk about but couldn’t—all liberally peppered with Nietzsche references—before plugging her new Twitter account. (A sample from July: “Are elsewhere people hobo people? on smartphones outdoors, where the rich live and the poor die. Giotto and Saint Francis. It was Assisi.”) In the ambling preface to the nine-point manifesto she kept assuring us she intended to deliver, the curator divided the art world into two camps: the “A” people, “who would have been politicians in the 1970s,” and the “B” people, more tied up in the mechanisms of the market.

“Of course, there can be activism in both segments,” Christov-Bakargiev qualified. Take Damien Hirst, whom the curator lauded as a kind of Robin Hood for short-circuiting his own market from within, creating objects whose production costs far exceed their market value, then auctioning off his life’s work on the precipice of a global economic meltdown. Significantly, these objects were sold to “the B people—but not the B keepers.” The delight this pun brought her was genuine.

“Come on now, Carolyn, you know Damien Hirst is not an activist!” Sofía Hernández Chong Cuy protested, from the other side of the stage.

“In my Nietzschean way, I was being paradoxical,” Christov-Bakargiev huffed.

Pushing on, Hernández Chong Cuy seized the moment to distinguish between “protest” and “activism.” Her copanelist, Joshua Decter, tested another term, introducing himself as “a skeptivist”—that is, an activist with reservations. His presentation reflected this ambivalence. Slightly undercut by the accompanying slideshow of the author’s little-liked (Assisi-free) Tweets, his message still resonated: “If politics is failing, why do we think art-as-politics—or curating-as-politics—can do any better?”

Antonia Majaca offered a brilliant but bleak survey on the general shitshow: “We shouldn’t be asking ‘What is to be done?’ but rather ‘What is to be done about what?’” Drawing on philosopher Isabelle Stengers’s ecological approach, Majaca reckoned, “We seem to think if we work locally then somehow things will work out globally. But to quote Jodi Dean, I personally don’t think Goldman Sachs cares if you raise chickens.”

Left to right: Gabi Ngcobo, Antonia Majaca, and Irmgard Emmelhainz. Photo: Birdie Piccininni.

Before Majaca’s talk, the formidable Irmgard Emmelhainz kicked off the second session with a tirade against modernity, whose legacy she proclaimed was no less than “a war against life.” Declaring modernism inextricable from colonialism, she concluded, “We have to destroy the standpoint from which modernity makes sense.” Such a move would require not only “radical imagination” but “an orientalism of the Anthropocene”—a concept certainly worth rolling around a bit more.

Kunsthalle Basel director Elena Filipovic took the stage under an image of Jenny Holzer’s Truism—“Abuse of Power Comes as No Surprise”—projected in Times Square in 1982. The phrase was recently resurrected as the rallying cry for #NotSurprised, a group chat that mobilized into an international movement aimed at several choice plums from the art world’s myriad inequities (allegations against one of this magazine’s former publishers, among them.) With unflinching composure, Filipovic recounted a fundraising dinner this summer in Basel, when a boorish German museum director arrived unannounced, sans donations, only to wriggle his finger “playfully” between the buttons of her blouse: “This man came to my dinner, on my night, took a seat he hadn’t earned at my table. This wasn’t about seduction, this was about power.”

“I still think she needed to name that director,” a fellow panelist told me that evening over martinis. “I know we risk the hysteria of name-and-shame culture, of trial by social media, but for there to be conversations of real impact, we have to know who we’re talking to.”

Throughout Filipovic’s talk, I kept an eye on her seatmate, Boris Groys. He was propped up in the front row, sporting the thin grin of a man anticipating his own surprise birthday at the office. After Filipovic’s mighty testimony to virtual modes of organization, Groys’s denunciation of the internet as nothing more than a fleeting, narcissistic reaffirmation of one’s projected self—basically, the radio single from his latest book, In the Flow (2016)—felt far from edgy. “He looks nervous,” my companion whispered. Maybe he should be. The thing about power, after all, is that it tends to shift.

Switching gears to censorship, both Pi Li and Hou Hanru spoke to the recent uproar over the Solomon R. Guggenheim’s “Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World,” which had run afoul of animal-rights activists. Pi attempted to recontextualize political correctness within the Chinese contemporary art scene, while Hou lashed out against the tyranny of moralism: “When a lovely goldfish cannot be shown in an exhibition because of ‘good morals,’ I don’t have to say any more,” he fumed. “Democracy means fundamentally allowing ‘good morals’ and ‘bad morals’ to coexist.”

If his point about moral absolutism was well taken, Hou waded into trouble during the Q&A, when he brought up Agnès Varda’s recent acceptance speech for her honorary Oscar, referring to her refusal to sign a petition against her fellow director Roman Polanski “for his presumed, um, sexual, um . . .”

“Actually, it was rape.” Filipovic corrected

“Yeah, well, whatever,” Hou continued. “Agnès Varda said she only signed a petition once in her life, and it was for the right to abortion. She said she would not sign a petition so easily. The question then is where do you put your limit?”

“There’s a lot to say about that,” moderator Adrienne Edwards interjected, her voice spreading smoothly like butter across toast—except instead of warm, melty butter, think cold, compressed rage.

Earlier in the panel, Berlin Biennale artistic director Gabi Ngcobo had rephrased the theme question as “What is to be undone?” Introducing the Q&A, Edwards proposed amending the slogan to “We Are Not Shocked.” Part of the problem, she argued, is the insidious ubiquity and freighted inheritance of Western terminology. She cited an artist in Performa who insisted on couching his work in terms of Dada, even though his work had nothing to do with Dada. “Why do we still feel the need to link to the West, instead of finding new terms?”

“Can I say something nice about the West?” Groys sputtered. “The Enlightenment had its blind spots, of course, but at the same time it gave women and oppressed people a chance to establish themselves using the same rhetoric.”

“I don’t even know where to begin with that,” Edwards sighed. “We can’t hold onto something fundamentally flawed and say the only alternative is fascism. We need to ask how to build another system, rather than demand equality only for those who speak the same language.”

The third and final session featured presentations by Obrist, María Belén Sáez de Ibarra, Jack Persekian, and Mick Wilson, the last of whom wasted no time in dropping the C-word. “I know it is an old-fashioned term, but I still find ‘class’ useful if you want to understand the world.” Wilson bypassed concepts such as decolonialism or even “demodern” (Charles Esche’s recent coinage) to advocate for desegregation, “not in the register of the ethical, the epistemological, the rhetorical, or the aesthetic, but rather the pragmatics of infrastructure that condition these other registers.” Wilson concluded, “It comes down to who is in the room. If the people in the room remain the same all along, then the discourse will remain impoverished.”

With such scorching Q&As, it was clear that no one was going to leave that room before day’s end. “Twenty down, one to go,” KW Institute for Contemporary Art’s Tirdad Zolghadr quipped as he took the stage for the final solo presentation. The curator spared no punches: “At least half the speakers have to leave for their flights for their next eight-minute talk somewhere halfway around the world.” Zolghadr called for a wholesale demystification and deglamourization of the art world, as well as for professionalization and a commitment to ethical compensation, following W.A.G.E.’s creed, “Do less with more, not more with less.”

“Maybe we can remind ourselves that accountability is an option,” he continued. “As curators, most of us need to kiss the ring, and we say, ‘Well, that’s the price you pay for art,’ as if art had some kind of critical virtue.” He paused. “I’m not saying we should stop shaking hands with schmucks. I just think we need better reasons to do so.”

Kate Sutton

Lotus Position

New Orleans

Left: Dealer Karen Jenkins-Johnson with artist Hank Willis Thomas and dealer Alexandra Giniger of the Rachel Uffner Gallery. Right: Art advisor Teka Selman with Prospect 4 artistic director Trevor Schoonmaker. (All photos: Kaelen Wilson-Goldie)

ASK ALMOST ANYONE IN NEW ORLEANS about Charles “Buddy” Bolden and they’ll tell you he was the king and, loosely speaking, the father of jazz. A cornet player who was active at the turn of the twentieth century, Bolden drank too much, lived too hard, played too loud. He was known for a syncopated squawk, weaving in and out of crowds gathered in the French Quarter on parade days and bursting onto the street at irregular intervals to blast his horn. Since he died, in 1931, at the Louisiana State Insane Asylum—twenty-five years after he suffered a psychotic break and disappeared from public life—he has been remembered for creating an intuitive combination of church hymns and blues music, gospel spirituals and ragtime. Some say it was precisely that unsanctioned intermingling of the sacred and profane that broke him. Others say his music was so lacking in wisdom you’d want to clean every note that he played.

The known facts of Bolden’s life are few, and a century’s worth of conjecture has filled the gaps between them. It is said that he worked as a barber, that for several years he published a newspaper called The Cricket, that he bashed his mother-in-law in the face with a water pitcher. He is the subject of least five biographies, a handful of films, and two daring novels, the most famous of which is Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter, published in 1976. The New York Times critic Anatole Broyard, who was born in New Orleans, hated Coming Through Slaughter: “Too many sentences float between cliché and bombast,” Broyard wrote. But his most damning conclusion sounds today, in the context of contemporary art, like challenging praise: “The author gives us all the broken pieces and leaves it to us to infer the final form.” Whatever the form, Bolden was a huge influence. On his album Live at the Village Vanguard, from 1999, Wynton Marsalis said: “Buddy Bolden could play so loud that when he opened up his horn in New Orleans, Louisiana, people way across the river in Algiers could hear it and it made them feel good, because they knew it was time to swing, and that’s where everybody likes to be.”

A fortnight ago, where everybody wanted to be during the preview days of Prospect 4, it seemed, was in the fifth-floor gallery of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, on Camp Street, where John Akomfrah’s three-screen video installation about Buddy Bolden was showing for the first time. Prospect 4 is the latest edition of New Orleans’s biennial turned triennial––which was founded by curator Dan Cameron in the calamitous wake of Hurricane Katrina––and has stumbled since 2008 through lesser storms of budgetary, staffing, and organizational distress. Commissioned for Prospect 4 and titled Precarity, Akomfrah’s film coaxes Bolden’s story into a capacious rumination on the experience of double consciousness, W. E. B. Du Bois’s term, in The Souls of Black Folk (1903), for the psychic burden on black Americans made to see themselves through the eyes of a hostile other. (In one of those great, lightning-quick exchanges that make endeavors like these worth it, curator Thomas Lax pointed this out to me, and also the few lines in Akomfrah’s work—“two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body”—that come directly from Du Bois’s text.)

Left: Pérez Art Museum Miami director Franklin Sirmans with Tate Modern curator Zoe Whitley. Right: MoMA curators Thomas Lax and Stuart Comer.

Akomfrah interprets double consciousness in relation to ever-finer terms such as “enjambment” and “immanence,” and he uses it to echo Bolden’s possible schizophrenia. As a narrative, Precarity is elliptical, repetitive, and at times frustratingly unforthcoming. Some of the professionals milling around Prospect 4’s main venues argued that the new film was too similar in structure to The Unfinished Conversation, Akomfrah’s wondrous 2013 portrait of the cultural theorist Stuart Hall, but not nearly as satisfying.

That seems true enough, though Buddy Bolden is a very different subject from Stuart Hall, and what is remarkable about Precarity is the way in which Akomfrah withholds the very thing you want most from Bolden—his music, loud and clear. There is a practical reason for that. Only a few photographs of Bolden survive, but there are no known recordings. The rare evocations of Bolden’s playing in Precarity come muffled and distorted through the sounds of running water. At the same time, the film says more about the horrific, unhealed legacies of slavery, segregation, and institutional racism in the United States—finding a form for all those broken pieces—than anything Akomfrah has done before. It demands viewers connect the dots of Bolden’s story to the context of his silencing. Akomfrah’s take on Bolden practically embodies, in its audiovisual mesh, how freedom, experimentation, and the risky mixing of unlike things have been as stifled by the cruelty of American politics as the brash cornet player’s music was muted by the wardens of his insane asylum. More prosaically, Akomfrah’s work, with its constant footage of moving currents, is a reminder of the extent to which New Orleans is tormented by water—by the last unspeakable storm and the next one coming.

That Precarity was the most talked-about piece ahead of Prospect 4’s public opening on Saturday, November 18, was perhaps expected but also something of a consolation prize. It was meant to be another work, reversing Bolden’s sound and drawing people way across the river to Algiers to hear a butane-powered, thirty-two-note calliope steam organ built by the artist Kara Walker and played by the musician Jason Moran.

Left: Artists Zineb Sedira and Sonia Boyce. Right: Baltimore Museum of Art curator Katy Siegel with collector Pamela Joyner and artist Leonardo Drew.

Walker visited Algiers Point last summer and was stunned to discover not only that it was the site of a former slaves’ quarantine but also that it bore a plaque wholly inadequate to this brutal history. Her piece, titled Katastwóf Karavan after the Haitian Creole word for “catastrophe,” was conceived as a retort to the Natchez, a steamboat with its own calliope bringing tourists up and down the Mississippi River while listening to antiseptic Dixieland. The idea was that the Natchez would play, and the Katastwóf would answer—with songs, chants, and shouts taken from the long history of African American protest music. Just six days before the preview, however, Prospect 4 announced that the work had been postponed until February, when the triennial closes. For a city that celebrates life as much as death, that’s a passable proposition. But it left more than a few observers, chiefly journalists coming from the more cynical regions of Los Angeles, New York, and London, smelling the blood of disorganization.

I, for one, arrived on the Wednesday before the two-day preview expecting no less than total disaster. But beyond the inevitable fraying of last-minute details, Prospect 4 gave me little material in that regard. The most egregious error on the part of the triennial seemed to be the damaging of an artwork by the London-based French Algerian artist Zineb Sedira, who was meant to be exhibiting a diptych of large-scale photographs showing a warehouse in Marseille full of sugar, on the left, and empty, on the right. Only the right-hand image was hung in the CAC, which effectively rendered her contribution moot. Otherwise, given how much had been yoked to Walker’s project in terms of hype, a few of the artists were justifiably upset to learn of its postponement.

On Friday afternoon, sitting under an old tree in front of the New Orleans Jazz Museum, across from a bronze sculpture by Hank Willis Thomas of a black cherub posed warrior-like on top of a snail, Prospect’s affable interim director, Ylva Rouse, told me Walker’s visit to Algiers Point had been intense for everyone. It was her first major project in the South—Walker was born in California but grew up in Georgia, and much of her work is rooted, with great ambivalence, in the Antebellum era—which had grown over time into “an incredibly ambitious piece, technically and conceptually.”

Left: Curator and critic Joseph Wolin with artist Dawit Petros. Right: Prospect New Orleans board chair Susan Brennan with curator Dan Cameron.

Later that day, taking a breather on a bench outside the New Orleans Museum of Art, Prospect 4’s equally genial artistic director, Trevor Schoonmaker, echoed the point, saying Walker’s calliope was complex, weighed more than a ton, and was highly sensitive to temperature and weather conditions. It simply needed more time for testing. What no one seemed willing to say was that while the artist had brought some $200,000 in funding for the project, the triennial needed more to get the thing shipped down to New Orleans. (For perspective, Prospect 4’s total budget, including seventy-three artists and collectives—thirty-two of them contributing specially commissioned work—was $3.8 million.)

That aside, it speaks to the atmosphere Rouse and Schoonmaker have achieved that I was basically won over—by everyone and everything associated with Prospect 4—by 11 AM the next day, when Carol Bebelle, of the Ashé Cultural Center, opened the morning’s press conference with what amounted to a Thanksgiving sermon. She expressed gratitude “not for the narrative that’s been given to us” but rather to the American Indians who welcomed the first settlers of New Orleans and paid for it with their lives, and for the African slaves who were brought to the city against their will but made it what it is today. Sounding a common refrain, she called attention to the fact that New Orleans was nearly lost in (and after) Katrina. “We’re the prophetic city of America,” Bebelle said. “We’re the do-over capital. Now I ask you,” she added, casting her gaze around the room, “to carry your excitement [into the city] but also your hankering and yearning to be better.”

From there on out, I was pleasantly surprised by a triennial that seemed, at almost every turn, relevant, thoughtful, and politically sound. Schoonmaker included very little work that felt like filler and almost nothing that was truly awful (rare for perennials anywhere). He has an obvious ear for music—Dan Cameron gave him his first break in New York, at the New Museum, where his exhibition “Black President: The Art and Legacy of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti” ran in 2003—and this edition of Prospect honors the rich musical heritage that has emerged from the great historical confluence of New Orleans, “the most African city in the United States, the most deeply Southern city in America, the most European city in the US, and the northernmost city of the Caribbean,” as Schoonmaker put it during the press conference. Originally from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and now based in Durham, where he’s the curator of contemporary art at Duke University’s Nasher Museum, Schoonmaker, boyish and southern, is a perfect curatorial fit for Prospect.

Left: Artist Jeff Whetstone. Right: Artist Charles Gaines with collector Alfred Giuffrida.

And yet, it became increasingly clear that on the local level, Prospect was struggling for attention. On the same days, and in some of the same spaces (the CAC, the Ace Hotel), as the triennial’s preview, the tennis star Serena Williams was getting married, which had traffic going berserk and everyone abuzz about “celebrities” in town. Then, on Saturday, when Prospect 4 was opening to the public, a mural by Banksy, showing soldiers looting after a lesser storm, was being unveiled after renovation. The Times-Picayune critic Doug MacCash went so far as to call Banksy “perhaps the world’s most famous artist, period.” Also on Saturday, the city of New Orleans elected its first-ever female mayor, LaToya Cantrell. (Prospect’s board might want to take note of that ahead of announcing the curator for Prospect 5, in February; so far, it’s been an exclusively male engagement.) In January, Cantrell will succeed the career politician Mitch Landrieu, who was on hand for Prospect’s Swamp Galaxy Gala on Friday, shaking hands and cracking jokes about the Duke contingent in the house (southern rivalries die hard, apparently).

John Akomfrah’s new film may be this Prospect’s blockbuster, but at least two dozen other artworks are as provocative and compelling, including Dawit Petros’s installation of photographs from the 2016 series The Stranger’s Notebook; Sonia Boyce’s split-screen video Crop Over, 2007, about the explosive incongruities between lingering colonialism and festival culture in Barbados; Radcliffe Bailey’s lovely new sound piece in Crescent Park; Daryl Montana’s incredible Mardi Gras costumes; and Jeff Whetstone’s recent photographs and video of the batture, a liminal stretch of land along the river that is only exposed when the tide goes down.

I loved getting an impromptu tour of the triennial’s public sculptures from John D’Addario, who writes for The Advocate and moved to the city reluctantly (he’s originally from the Bronx) but stayed (for twenty years now) to become one of New Orleans’s most loyal critics. Ditto learning from the painter Wayne Gonzales, a New Yorker who was born and raised in New Orleans, about the history of NOMA, where he used to study as a boy, writing papers on the collection’s one small Monet. The museum is an encyclopedic institution in miniature, and the concurrent exhibition at the Ogden, “Solidary & Solitary,” on black abstraction (among other themes), curated by Katy Siegel and Christopher Bedford, is a knockout. As an astute young man on the largely white press junket remarked that it’s one of several shows of modern and contemporary black artists currently making the rounds—it’s touring seven US cities—but there isn’t a single New York institution on its itinerary.

Schoonmaker named his triennial “The Lotus in Spite of the Swamp” after a (slightly altered) quotation by the saxophonist Archie Shepp, who in 1970 described jazz as “a lily in spite of the swamp,” a beautiful thing growing in, but weirdly dependent upon, the muck. In that sense, Prospect counters but also draws strength and material from all the chaos, corruption, and violent history that has made New Orleans so fascinating and tenacious. Wynton Marsalis said that Buddy Bolden’s music made people dance because it was syncopated, made them dance with feeling because it was the blues, and made them dance with accuracy because it was jazz. Prospect 4, for all its hitches and hiccups, does all that—and more.

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie

Left: Artist Odili Donald Odita. Right: Artists Alfredo Jaar and Wayne Gonzales.

Still from video of Hastune Miku Expo 2016 Japan Tour concert at Zepp Tokyo, April 10, 2016.

“THERE WERE SIGNS.” A small Totoro charm hanging off a mini Fjallraven just so, spotted on the Q train; the Shoto Aizawa from My Hero Academia button on a backpack moving along Thirty-Fourth Street. Clearly something was afoot.

’Twas an anime convention, dear reader, the inaugural edition of a gathering of weebs in New York: AnimeNYC. Held for three days last weekend at Hillary Clinton’s Waterloo (though most around these parts just call it the Javits Center), it marked a terrific opportunity for Midtown councilman Ben Kallos (D) to hail the money and tax dollars that this fan base would bring to the city. It was also the first anime convention I’d attended since I was thirteen. Time to reexamine my foundational narrative at the intersection of high and low.

“Anime is trash and so am I.” Now that we got that out of the way, here are some con thoughts. Anime, even if you haven’t heard of it or seen any of it, has at this point probably its greatest global visibility ever. In the past decade, we’ve gone from faceless usernames on the internet swapping DIY-subtitled .avi files and fan-translated scans of manga pages to an impressive—if not always consistent or comprehensive—array of legal, US-based streaming services (Netflix, Amazon, Crunchyroll) vying for the loyalty of the English-speaking audience dedicated to this . . . I hesitate to say genre—how about behemoth? Or, a cultural expression that has for some time now not even been made exclusively by Japanese people or for Japanese audiences. The demand for content is high, live-action adaptations are picking up speed but not necessarily enthusiasm, the wages for animators are generally acknowledged to be minuscule, and some people are perhaps dying of overwork.

But I do go on. What did the weekend have to offer? An alley for artists, the immersive runway that is cosplay, an exhibitor hall of well over a hundred booths featuring Blu-rays, books, nail art, massages, snapback hats, plushies, sailor-style school uniforms, exclusive Sailor Moon merchandise (got one), the New York Public Library, kigurumi suits, T-Mobile, and porn—something for everyone in the fam.

Left: Animator and director LeSean Thomas. Right: Councilman Ben Kallos (second from right).

And the panels! Anime cons have come a long way from handing the keys to nondescript meeting rooms over to future election influencers so they could have free rein to troll each other IRL. Here were convocations of major companies in the field, such as Sunrise—purveyors of the Mobile Suit Gundam franchise, which has been running since the 1970s and is now an enterprise unto itself—VIZ Media, Kodansha Comics, and the title sponsor of the event, Crunchyroll (full disclosure, I’m a subscriber, as if you couldn’t guess).

Unlike the panel discussions endemic to contemporary art, these affairs are pretty upfront about the fact that they’re there to sell you something: Primarily, release dates for boxed sets were announced. The smell of pretzels and the distinctive sweet scent of NYC roasted nut carts came in from the street, there were gender-inclusive restrooms, and the diversity of the crowding swells was not in itself remarkable considering the demographics of this town, but after spending some time in the ranks of the culture industry it does slow your roll a bit when you realize that across all these rows of folding chairs at the J-pop concert in a cavernous hall, in Midtown, on a Friday night, is a more diverse set of engaged cultural consumers than you might have seen in the past six years together in one place in this borough. Headlining the show were Yoko Ishida, Chihiro Yonekura, and TRUE—veritable celebrities in Japan, brought here to sing what were mostly anime theme songs both recent and vintage. The audience had prepared: Neon glow sticks were held aloft, like a wave of dutiful air traffic controllers bringing bombastic tunes (including this banger from Gundam Wing) in for a smooth landing.

Animator LeSean Thomas hails from the Bronx and is the first American to become a full-time in-house animator at a South Korean animation studio––the places that are actually making many of the parts move for both American and Japanese animation. In an inspiring talk on Saturday afternoon, Thomas quickly dispensed with the speechifying and hustled straight to the Q&A, so that the many people gathered could step up to a mic to ask him about the industry and the future of animation itself, and to seek advice regarding the barriers that kids of color face in achieving their dreams. He invoked the notion of “transgenre” to describe how stories and animation are now made and distributed, and how this is engendered by the turn to subscriptions rather than advertising-based models to generate profit. Realness was served, and the people were schooled. Didn’t hurt that his first sign-language interpreter was a silver fox either.

Left: My Hero Academia cosplayers at AnimeNYC. Right: Sunrise's Toshiro Fujiwara, Gundam executive producer Shin Sasaki, translator Mari Morimoto, and producer Masakazu Ogawa.

Hatsune Miku. Have you heard? It’s her tenth anniversary this year. How are you celebrating? Note, it’s not her birthday, and she’s not married, because she’s not a person but a simulation, a voice bank that Saki Fujita lends her talents to and which goes on tour with a live band sequestered at the sides of the stage, the better to spotlight the forever-blue, forever-star, eternally young and fake Miku. Forget the waffling and proselytizing about VR, here’s Panel Room 3 last Saturday, where a video of her April 10, 2016, live concert at Zepp Tokyo was screened to citizens and aliens of Earth in folding chairs for what felt like both a revival and an annihilation. Revived was my faith, by the fans rushing from their seats and breaking out the glow sticks to mimic the very same hailing gestures of the Tokyo crowd occupying approximately half the screen; annihilated was any remaining shreds of loyalty to the artifice of authenticity. Mic check: This is what democracy looks like. Not unlike the atomic bomb, a digital pop idol is a weapon so effective it is quite beyond humanity. It is better than us—superior to women and too good for men, even the ones left helplessly screaming “MIKUUU!!!” at the end of her live show. A superior technology if ever there was one. Pop stardom is, frankly, inhumane and should undoubtedly be automated and outsourced to the machines.

This is the way forward; we need to detach the image of Woman from women. We can shove an image into performance and track her every move, weigh her every word, and measure her volumes, but we simply can’t do this to humans anymore. The anime girls have come for our jobs, and we must let them have at it, they are so strong. Let human performativity go back to its village-storyteller function. It is imperative that we leave Britney alone, and every other Britney to come. In a detour via a detour, “[Miku] disrupts the entire hierarchy of creatures that is supposed to culminate in mankind.” Hatsune Miku is the future, the one true way, and I’m ready to glow up. Are you?


P.S. Here is what I’d recommend:

Revolutionary Girl Utena
My Hero Academia
March Comes in Like a Lion
Fruits Basket
Haibane Renmei
Serial Experiments Lain
Mob Psycho 100
Yuri!!! On ICE

You’re welcome!

Paige K. Bradley

This Is Not a Test

Joshua Tree, California

Artist Andrea Zittel (third from left). (All photos: Trinie Dalton)

THE FIFTEENTH ANNIVERSARY of High Desert Test Sites in Joshua Tree, California, brought a rare mix of nostalgia and joy. The peripatetic events and venues organized annually in and around our small, sunny town, nestled in a Seussian forest of Yucca brevifolia at a median three-thousand-foot elevation, brings locals and travelers together to challenge, per the HDTS mission statement, “all to expand their definition of art to take on new areas of relevancy.”

Here, we reset by escaping our urban feedback loops, and redefine and revise Land art that once primarily destroyed wilderness areas in mock-heroic man versus nature narratives. Thanks to Andrea Zittel and a handful of others who have dedicated themselves to revising utopian ethics by establishing, as Zittel says, “testing grounds for experimental designs in living,” HDTS has become the event to enjoy high-quality desert performances and installations that invite experience before they vanish like beautiful, perfect mirages.

When Zittel launched HDTS in 2002, these cartographic weekends consisted of annotated temporary artworks lodged in the outer edges of neighboring off-the-grid areas like Pioneertown and Wonder Valley. People would rough-ride around, avoiding sand traps en route to the art, building their own adventures by getting lost enough to maintain fun. Often we hardly saw one another, carloads of people passing on dusty routes. Artworks were homespun, the stoner after parties were wild and wooly, and some events recurred for years, like Ooga Booga’s takeover of Sky Village Swap Meet in Yucca Valley.

Left: High Desert Test Site HQ. Right: Curators Sohrab Mohebbi and Aram Moshayedi.

But in the past decade, HDTS has evolved into a sophisticated apparatus with somewhat larger budgets for commissions and small luxuries, garnering impressive rosters of participants. Instead of a Pokemon-esque treasure hunt across hundreds of miles, this year, esteemed curators Sohrab Mohebbi and Aram Moshayedi joined Zittel and her studio team—Tatiana Vahan, Elena Yu, and Vanesa Zendejas—to focus on a mellow weekend of fewer, looser events and activities so people could linger and visit. At first I was skeptical of this new, more civilized method, given my love of hectic DIY stuff. But the ineffable spirit remains: Disorientation still ushered us into uncertainty, the key component that introduces our best, marvelous Mojave vortex, as some New Agers call it, situated dynamically on several fault lines, including the mighty, notorious San Andreas.

This year’s escapade launched with a packed pizza party at Zittel’s gorgeous indoor/outdoor studio at AZ West. I stopped by for hellos and a slice, then hightailed it to Pappy and Harriet’s, our beloved saloon, to see Cass McCombs and Farmer Dave’s the Skiffle Players, because a weekend of art needs a blast of live music. Saturday was full, starting at Sky Village Swap Meet for an Ooga Booga–inspired booth by Glenn Murray & Co.’s Lydia Glenn, who ran the Highland Park “mercantile” (aka artist-run) Chin’s Push for some years as an “experiment in valuation” (aka a shop), where she sold art objects by artists alongside those by “kids, moms, and anyone,” as she put it.

Next was a stop at Ry Rocklen’s Trophy Modern house for a Rite of Fall performance by his partner, Carolyn Pennypacker Riggs. The house, filled with furnishings built from trophies, was conceived in 2012, when Rocklen adopted a crop of “lost and abandoned trophies” from a thrift store and began constructing furniture like “shish kabobs,” he explained as we waited on the porch for the event to begin in our eighty-five-degree paradise. Fifty people crammed into the living room to witness Pennypacker Riggs and her cast of women. They were dressed as caryatids and singing atonally, and she launched into songs while wearing a suburban-lady housecoat and a mud-mask doubling as death mask, then stripped to a “nude” leotard, then to a skeleton-painted bodysuit. I felt threaded onto a human shish kebab, roasting in a rapt, steamy room. At the end they distributed pomegranates: a total ritual success. From there, some headed east to the Glasshouse Art Gallery with Edie Fake, which was followed by Oliver Payne’s chill-out session. I went home for a snack, then repaired to the Palms, a remote bar in Wonder Valley, for a nightcap of music and readings on the topic of “non-community.” Linda Sibio’s performance, for which she wore a dress adorned with painted portraits of her friends, was standout. Outside, the Orionids meteor shower was in full swing.

The next day began with a bustling breakfast at Copper Mountain Mesa Community Center hosted by local chefs Sarah Witt and Bob Dornberger. They struggled to keep up with our appetites, but given their love of food experimentation—the previous day, their Hole Foods Pit Stop saw roasted pineapples and meats skewered on dangling chains and spikes, on what looked like an s/m swing set—we grazed and made conversation, as any Sunday morning community center breakfast out here goes. The fire station next door was newly remodeled by community center members, including Stephanie Smith and Jay Babcock, for the exhibition “An Ephemeral History of High Desert Test Sites: 2002–2015.”

This wonderful new space, available for rent and future fun, housed cubby-like displays highlighting artworks from past years, underscoring HDTS’s impact. Wade Guyton’s big black X leaning against the fire station wall missed its mark, but David Shrigley’s flag waving “Please Don’t Kill Us” seemed timelier than ever. The Test Sites wrapped up on the most beautiful parcel of land, a one-hundred-acre chunk that HDTS has been using for years, thanks to its generous landowner, outside Pipes Canyon Preserve and way up God’s Way Love, a dirt road.

Forty of us nestled amid the boulders and juniper with sweeping vistas of Black Butte and Flattop Mesa for architect Neil Doshi’s table reading of his autobiographical play about building a house from scratch on a neighboring land patch inhabited by an “intentional community.” Six actor-artists told a humorous tale that chronicled DIY-building’s snafus and learning curves, something we’re all too familiar with out here.

“A lot of people say they build with their hands, but they just told an architect where to put rooms,” longtime HDTS participant Dan Anderson declared, in his role as the “naive builder,” opting for the slow, hard slab-by-slab to achieve a house “with no straight lines.” It was the perfect send-off, capturing the essence of life on the mesas. But let’s face it: As we also acknowledged, we’re not too tough. In this wilderness theater, we loved our mimosas and popcorn passed around in the shade, and we may not have survived without our wide-brimmed straw sunhats.

Trinie Dalton

Carolyn Pennypacker Riggs's Rite of Fall performance.