Some Thoughts on RISD's WUNDERGROUND from someone who was here and there.
When I first started living here 10 years ago- and I mean really living here, we used to spend as much time breaking into abandoned buildings as we did making anything. I have probably explored more buildings that are now knocked down then I have been in the new ones put up in their place. I was a survivalist then. Wandering around paint peeled rooms peering through at a blue sky gave me the feeling of looking into a dark but exciting future. The world for me was divided into those that I felt could relate to what I saw there, and those that couldn't.
And that's one thought, among many
I am also thinking about the writers who call up two hours before a deadline looking for quotes on a subject they clearly only started thinking a week or so ago. The journalists who think "Eagle Square" is a real name for a real place and not a name I pulled off a map no one had looked at for 100 years to describe an area everyone called " The Dunkin Donuts Parking Lot at the Base of Federal Hill." Which is for the record- not even in Olneyville.
I don't bother to tell them either.
Do they see the blue sky I see?
I wonder about the paradox of a self described "underground" art show that's going up in a very above ground museum. But it's not a criticism. I remind myself that it is the artist that gives the museum legitimacy- and not the other way around. And after all- isn’t there something incredible about seeing this all at once in the light while we can?
Who cares who pays for the tacks and the light bulbs.
In a world of peeling paint and scavenging among ruins, museums are sort of a joke- but culture and relationships aren't. They are everything in a world where the New York Times isn't relevant.
I don’t know if this is a terribly coherent line of thought, but it is what I am left with after scratching my head. If I can't come up with something coherent to describe my feelings, perhaps it's not my fault. Coherence is an unfortunate criteria when life is in fact very messy, and the New York Times doesn’t look like it's going to go away any time soon. In this small town we bump into each hating and loving, jealous and inspired- like molecules in a sealed glass- going our own way but still somehow exerting an atmosphere. This much I am sure of. What that atmosphere is - is hard to say specifically.
But I do care about who will do the writing about this atmosphere- this story- our little local identity- our mini subculture. Will it be the people who have been involved, who have loved and lost and fought and risked everything to hold on here, who have walked their flat-tired bicycle across town with a guitar amp teetering on it? Or will it be them- the outsider, the consumer, the coming late and leaving early- the journalist who can't even spell the name of the band he is writing about, much less go to their show. I worry even more about the historian-collector, and galleries who as professionals turn the raw materials of our lives into "value added" art.
The problem lies in the fact that institutions devoted to preserving and promoting documents tend to think in terms of a legacy of objects. They see their work as part of a long chain of objects, and what counts to them is things with faces attached- not events or experiences. Their world is the world of paintings, and books; manifestos and letters of intent; things to be hung up, shelved, counted, sorted and named. They draw a circle around some, and not others- giving labels where perhaps none belong- and in doing so eliminate everything contradictory, ephemeral, and fragile.
Their imposed coherence can never do justice to something that is in fact unlimited, wild and unpredictable- something indefinitely growing and changing.
Something dangerous. This is a thing called culture- moments and shared experiences for the "us" who are watching, listening and making.
It is the mandate of art institutions to manufacture art out of this culture- like taking corn and making corn syrup, or "discovering" indigenous medicinal plants and turning them into expensive pharmaceuticals. Institutions must make art objects out of culture, because art persists over time- and culture cannot. Art can be stored, it can be shelved, it can therefore be sold. Culture cannot.
Culture is alive- it can no more survive a mass exodus due to rising rents then it can be bottled up in a flat file with penciled-in toe tags .
If you pursue anonymity, if your act is in the production of moments to be experienced in real-time and not again- if you charge donations at the door rather than apply for grants- and if you never ask permission from anyone for anything- you must write your own history or expect this strange forced coherence and commodification to follow you from behind. Expect it to pass you on the highway going 90. It will reach the future before you do.
It will become the future if you let it.
So are we lucky someone "up there" has come along to sweep up a pile of our leftovers, the artifacts of the events, or played spin the bottle and picked out handful of us to make objects for them?
It is a beautiful and lucky moment of celebration of something that is in fact real and living here in town- difficult to see at times, but maybe for one month- brought out in the light by people who can afford, as I said, to pay for the light bulbs. But I try not to confuse these fireworks for a change in value- or for a change in the location of value. These posters are shadows of a thing that does not reproduce well. Nothing has changed since many of them were glued to alley walls- they remain important because the are effective signposts to the worlds we would like to live in- the worlds we are living in- very personal places that I feel lucky to even visit.
The value behind these things that we see congealed for a moment in a white room is not in the things themselves. It is in the infrastructure of relationships they have built- it is in the trust they have engendered, and the lives they have changed. It is in the punk rock behind every wheat past recipe, behind the simple belief that you can do it for yourself or for each other, without worrying about the "them" or asking their permission.
We should not mistake the skeleton for the person it describes.
Even at museums.