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Real life vs. intervention art–Manybody at Temple Gallery

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June 19, 2007   ·   4 Comments

Post by Emily Regier

You are Beautiful project
You are Beautiful project intervention along Second Street

First, it was my roommate’s ironing board, which buckled under the strain of the vigorous pressing I exacted upon my first-day-of-work-suit. Next, one of my underwires mysteriously loosed itself in our washer, arresting the machine at mid-cycle for days. And then there was the curiously shaped behemoth of a sculpture I collided with in our living room, which, as it turns out, was welded by her mother… As I troll Craigslist for a new place to live, I’m thinking the sculpture was the breaking point, so to speak.

West PHiladelphia Re-signage Committee
Photo of collage documenting work of the West Philadelphia Re-Signage Committee, at Temple Gallery

Of course, beyond the sculpture et al, an array of lifestyle discrepancies contributed to our split. But still, I couldn’t help but think of us and that sculpture as I sat in the crowded back room of the Temple Gallery’s “Manybody” exhibit, listening to Erik Reuland and Josh MacPhee present on their latest book, Realizing the Impossible: Art Against Authority. This is because Reuland and MacPhee espoused such a remarkably different experience of the interface of art and shared living, referring to communities of activists around the world who have come together to create radical, interventionist artwork aimed at transforming daily life and creating a more just society. Discussing a rich sampling of the bold, life-changing art covered in their book, they laid out examples from an Indonesian printmaking collective who caught and released a whole city’s supply of matchbooks, emblazoning them with anti-globalization messages, to the performance art of an army of Danish Santa Clauses who swarmed the department stores in downtown Copenhagen at Christmastime, handing out wares right off the shelves as if they were free gifts.

Tit Pins
Pins display at the Tit Pin project at the Manybody show at Temple Gallery

Other art activist teams the authors featured, such as the group who rolled a gigantic ball of trash down the prime real estate of Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, were more directly concerned with rupturing popular consciousness and subverting societal expectations than overturning economic systems. In this vein, radical filmmaker Dara Greenwald screened a set of her short films after the book presentation. Probably most of the audience will remember her hilarious Pornomentary of Uncle Sam, which culminates in a priceless parody of the confluence of patriotism and patriarchy in American culture: Two women, who both dress as and fantasize about Uncle Sam, fellate each others’ Uncle Sam candlestick phalluses before igniting them. However, while this image has certainly stuck in my mind, it is a scene from one of Greenwald’s drier pieces that has sustained my attention.

tourist_season 2
A banner in Barcelona reading “WHY CALL IT TOURIST SEASON IF WE CANT SHOOT THEM?” (click on picture for larger image; you have to look hard to read the banner.)

The film is a sympathetic documentary on the autonomous compounds of squatters who occupy Barcelona’s abandoned buildings, and the scene is an infamous squatting stronghold in the heart of the tourist district, proudly displaying a banner imploring “WHY CALL IT TOURIST SEASON IF WE CANT SHOOT THEM?” Beyond the fact that this message disparages the tourists who support Barcelona’s plethora of cultural attractions, many of which cultural critics such as Greenwald, not to mention the Barcelona natives who painted this sign, doubtlessly value, I was miffed by the valorization of this message as radical, interventionist art. Thinking about the “Manybody” exhibit after the show, I began to formulate my qualms with Reuland and MacPhee’s “radical, interventionist” art in general, although I’m not all too convinced that much of the genre is either of those. While full of shock value, it seems a little too caught up in itself to make a significant difference in our shared daily existence.

Celebrate People's History project
From the Celebrate People’s History project at the Manybody exhibit at Temple Gallery.

Content related complaints aside, “WHY CALL IT TOURIST SEASON IF WE CANT SHOOT THEM?” may sound somewhat “radical,” but it is probably about as “interventionist” as the “YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL” Project, a massive assemblage of these words along the side of the road at 2nd and Spring Garden, which the “Manybody” exhibit is billing as a groundbreaking interventionist installation. But just as being confronted with this message on a bad hair day on the way home from the doctor’s office, where it has been confirmed you’ve gained 12 pounds, is not likely to make your typical Philadelphian feel beautiful, the squatters’ anti-tourist message likely stands out to Barcelona’s ever-growing tourist population as little more than a curiosity.

And speaking of large-scale curiosities, and interventionist art, if I might use the term in this way, I finally got my roommate’s sculpture fixed – to make a long story short, transporting a jagged and imposing steel fixture across town without a car is not easy. At any rate, I suppose no one will be too shocked to hear that as far as our shared living arrangement is concerned, it didn’t make much difference.

–Emily Regier is an editor living in Philadelphia.

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4 Responses to “Real life vs. intervention art–Manybody at Temple Gallery”

  1. Anonymous says:

    There are times that I would agree with the author about the low impact of political/interventionist art in our daily lives. However, I find the You Are Beautiful installation particularly interesting since witnessing the course of reactions by Philadelphians. A couple of weeks ago, one of the letters was tagged with blue graffiti, but sometime after it was covered up with white paint. Whoever did the painting I guess was hoping to maintain the optimism of the message just a little longer. It kinda gave me a little hope for Philadelphia.

  2. Emily says:

    Thanks for your observation! Giving people a little more hope for Philadelphia sounds like a big thing to me, so if this is one of the effects of the “You are Beautiful” installation, I certainly agree it has some positive intervention value. A parallel train of thought, however, is whether the effort and money that went into the installation might have made an even bigger positive impact were it directed toward helping fund an art program at a public school where it was cut, or securing space for more arts writing in a Philadelphia newspaper. Unfortunately, with the glorification of radical anarchist art, it is unlikely artists will be as open to working within the system in these potentially beneficial ways.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I’m just reading these comments for the first time. I hadnt realized there was a spontaneous buffing of the graffiti on you are beautiful’s letters – I agree with the first comment – that sort of thing really is pretty awesome – there is something very sublimely radical about public art being maintained by the public.

    Emily, I’m less convinced by your ‘parallel train of thought’ suggesting we should equate money spent on one social art engagement with the many ways it wasn’t spent.
    Perhaps if phenomenal sums of money were spent on the project, we might question whether it is indulgent, but the You Are Beautiful installation couldn’t have cost more than a few hundred dollars. If we’re going to put this installation up to such criteria, then maybe every 300 purchase should be put to a similar challenge: should I really buy that IPhone, or would it be better to give the money to a needy family. SHould I really live in an apartment that costs 800 a month, or should I move to a place that costs 500, saving 300 a month to give to homeless people without anywhere to live…. There are lots of ways to interrogate how we spend money, and I dont think it makes much sense to target cheap public art for such ruminations.

    Second, Many of the artists that I know who might fall into the ‘anarchist’ category devote a lot of their time to activities that you would consider ‘inside’ the system. There is absolutely no need to think that the ‘glorification of anarchist art’ makes people less interested in working with students, with schools, with existing social groups. In fact, while I was last at the Manybody show, a school teacher was so excited about the Celebrating Peoples History Posters, that she bought 25 of them for her middle school classroom, and kept saying how things like this just never exist for her students. I think thats a pretty good example of anarchist art working ‘inside’ the system.

  4. Emily says:

    Thanks for your thoughts. You’ve offered lots to consider (including a useful ‘insider’ perspective on how some anarchist artists are spending their spare time that I didn’t realize). I’m just going to speak to one of your points that especially jumps out at me. You note that were the “You are Beautiful” installation to have cost a large sum of money, it might then be deemed indulgent (and hence the money better spent elsewhere – perhaps reintroducing a public school’s art program), but since it only cost a few hundred dollars, it was an inept target for such criticism. However, I fail to see how money figures into the art equation, whether the art is radical and interventionist or traditional and publicly sanctioned, or any other type.

    One of the most unique and uplifting (and maybe even radical) facets of art is its existence in a realm completely outside of monetary evaluation; in picking out a toaster or a microwave, for instance, it’s pretty safe to say that you get what you pay for, but in art this doesn’t apply – surely no art appreciator would contend that a painting’s price tag on the auction block truly determines its quality or the impact it had or has. As such, I don’t see why it matters whether a lot or a little money was spent on “You are Beautiful.”

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