The politics of cool

ASTRIA SUPARAK is a young curator originally from Los Angeles, who started curating during her undergrad years at The Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, when she was in her late teens. She was a contemporary of Miranda July’s, and collaborated with July on the Joanie 4 Jackie film and video chain-letter project. In April, 2006, she was hired as director of The Warehouse, a gallery affiliated with Syracuse University under the auspices of something called the Coalition of Museums and Art Centers. In September of this year, she was unjustly fired from her position there. It’s a long, rather baroque story, and if you are curious you can find more information at Syracuse Loses Again.

This firing has been much on my mind while I try to write about this astonishingly bold, smart curator. Suddenly, the stakes are different and I’ve had to make some decisions about how I can best use this platform to both support and critically discuss Suparak’s practice. But again and again I return to the central question I’ve always had about her sensibility, and that has to do with the way she deploys the aesthetics of cool. In my mind, this has worked both to reinforce and to undermine her work.

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Suparak’s curatorial ideology (and I use that word without negative connotation–without guiding ideologies we are vague and dull) is built around a politics of inclusion and empowerment. Miranda July put it this way when writing about Suparak’s early work: “At age 24 Astria has curated all over the US and Europe, testing out new programs at NY’s best venues and then touring with them like a kid with a band. She comes to you: museums and galleries, universities, independent/underground film festivals and micro-cinemas, as well as public places like bars, community centres, and living rooms. Just imagine what the young girls who watch her shows think–hunger, desire and the power to choose are suddenly instruments like guitars and video cameras.”

Suparak comes from the DIY culture of Riot Grrrls and zines, and she carried this through to her work at The Warehouse, both conceptually and aesthetically. Her use of cool aesthetics is perhaps the most consistent thing about her practice, rivalled only by an unrelenting (and, for me, very satisfying) focus on ethics. These are her lodestars: moral utility and coolness.

Some examples: in her time at The Warehouse Gallery, she curated a total of five exhibitions. For my purposes here, I will discuss only the last three.

In February, 2007, Suparak mounted an exhibition called Embracing Winter, which addressed environmental degradation. She doesn’t describe the way the show deploys the aesthetics of cool. I think it’s a forest-for-the-trees situation: she is so immersed in a particular species of cool that she isn’t aware of the stamp it impresses on the stuff she makes. On the other hand, she is keenly aware of her responsibility to curate shows that are “about” morality and how to apply it. She writes: “As technology advances, our concept of physical comfort becomes increasingly narrow and artificially mediated. We can program thermostats to the degree, swim in heated pools in the winter, and ice skate in tropical regions. We prefer to encounter the seasons as an aesthetic experience, when convenient, within the self-created myth of a weatherless society … Embracing Winter is the third exhibition in a series at The Warehouse Gallery referencing the natural world and encouraging environmental consciousness.”

Cool aesthetics emerged in this show in two ways. First, Suparak selected works by two artists whose work circulates through the coolest of all cool art scenes. Rudy Shepherd is an artist whose work shows at galleries like P.S.I, Mixed Greens and The Studio Museum in Harlem, and is written about in publications like Artforum and The Village Voice. Takeshi Murata is a digital artist with a similar profile, working with Eyebeam, featured in Artforum and hanging out with Paper Rad, who for me epitomize the irony-laced hipsterism of the contemporary art world.

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Despite the fact that I’m merely listing the impressive accomplishments of these artists, somehow, it sounds like I am trivializing their work. I want to make it clear that that is not my goal: these artists are serious and skilled; they just happen to have also been marked as cool.

Second, Suparak intervened in the show in a way that flies in the face of conventional curatorial practice. Referencing Duchamp, she mounted several snow shovels, which could be borrowed, on the wall of the gallery, and she made two large piles of non-toxic de-icer (a salt alternative) reminiscent of Gonzales-Torrez’s candy spills. Visitors were invited to take small bags home with them. This speaks in the vernacular of cool, in that it flouts convention of the artist/curatorial divide with elan.

The next show Suparak mounted was Networked Nature, curated by the famously cool new-media outfit Rhizome, and first shown at the equally famous and cool Foxy Production in New York. This show deals again with ideas of nature and technology. One of the artists from the Networked Nature show was chosen to represent Taiwan at this summer’s Venice Biennale.

Suparak final exhibition at The Warehouse Gallery was titled Come On: Desire Under the Female Gaze. Interestingly, this show took cool as part of its core. It evolved in part out of discussions Suparak had with her assistant director, Frank Olive, about the ways they had negotiated sexual-identity construction as adolescents. For both of them, this had to do with ideas of cool and glamour–specifically those around glam-rock, punk and heavy-metal music.

The show includes a video by Rachel Rampleman called Poison: My Sister Fucked Bret (2006), which I loved. In the piece, Rampleman’s sister, Sarah, tells the story of her obsession with Poison frontman Bret Michaels and the circumstances that took her to his house to have passionless, limp-dicked intercourse. Also notable are a series of exquisite, large-scale graphite drawings by Juliet Jacobson depicting nude men with erections, and two works by Montreal artist Jo-Anne Balcaen. In the first, entitled Blow (2001), Balcaen affixed about 20 long, penisy-looking balloons to the wall in the shape of a heart. Over the course of the exhibition, the balloons gradually deflated, coming to resemble more and more closely Bret Michaels’ penis in his encounter with Sarah Rampleman. The second piece is the words, Aw, C’mon (2005), cut from mirrored plexiglass, presented in the familiar typeface and curved form of the Metallica logo. This was for me the most poignant work in a show about feminist responses to phallocentric heteronormativity. In the context of the exhibition, I saw it as both a girl’s plea for relief from said conditions and, painfully, a boy’s whining bid for sex.

I’d better do a bit of unpacking. Both the concept of moral utility and the concept of cool (Suparak’s aforementioned lodestars) tend to be contested and overdetermined, so I’ll try to explain how I’m using them here. Art that is morally useful, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, is art that reduces suffering. In the case of Suparak’s practice, the kind of suffering that’s reduced is generally identity-related: the pain of feeling outside and alone.

There’s been some interesting scholarship on the subject of cool in the past 20-odd years. Dick Hebdige’s book Subculture: The Meanings of Style (1979) is an excellent example. More recently, Dick Pountain and David Robins’ Cool Rules: Anatomy of a Style (2000), while problematic in terms of its discussion of cool and gender relations, has some useful insights; more satisfying is Susan Fraiman’s collection of essays Cool Men and t-he Second Sex (2003). But the place I found the most lucid discussion of cool was, perhaps not surprisingly, Wikipedia. The online encyclopedia represented cool as a clear and fascinating plumb line running through historical eras and geographical locations with the democratic elegance that makes it so awesome. It’s worth a Google.

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But what stood out for me–both from the research I did and from my personal history of trying to understand how to be cool–is the incredibly flexible nature of the relationship between cool and politics or ethics. True, cool has always been countercultural and disruptive to the status quo, but its edges have stretched to include socio-political groups as diverse as Valerie Solanas’ Society for Cutting Up Men and the child soldiers of Western Africa (if you’re skeptical about the latter, take a look at some images of these boys, posing with their Kalashnikovs and marijuana cigarettes, their names borrowed from the idiom of American hip-hop and their classically cool contrapposto stance).

So, yes, I am suspicious when cool is used to stand for political radicalism or moral utility. But what Suparak has done for me is to restore my sense that cool can work as a powerful rhetorical device. Because, as Miranda July pointed out almost 10 years ago, Suparak curates to empower those who feel less than powerful. Her practice is remarkable partly because, although she speaks in the vernacular of the my culture on which she cut her teeth, the exhibitions and programs she puts together speak about a range of issues, and her sense of social justice is comprehensive and critical. She uses her personal voice and her institutional power to give permission to speak to those who might not have believed they had it.

Posted in Art

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