Michael Farley on 100% Yes: Press-Press at Current and One & Three Tweets at Freddy

The gallery row emerging on West Franklin Street is bookended by two very different venues, each offering a distinctive culture of display and take on what it means to be “present.”

Current Space has been a fixture in the city’s art scene for the past decade. It’s a collectively-run exhibition and studio space that has worked tirelessly to foster Baltimore’s visual art, music, and performance networks through its own programming and a willingness to lend its space or curatorial content to institutions or other DIY ventures. Current collective members seem to be omnipresent—from public art projects to student shows at area institutions, at least one of their friendly faces is either exhibiting their own work or helping out behind the scenes. I just realized that as I’m writing this, I’m wearing a T-shirt James Bouché (Current’s studio/printshop manager) screen printed off my back in the gallery a few years ago. Current Space has a “presence” in this city that’s equally comforting and critically important to Baltimore’s cultural life.

Two blocks away, there’s a new kid in town that I’m not quite sure about. Last summer, Freddy took over the storefont previously occupied by sophiajacob, put bars up on the window, and gave this really irritating interview to ARTnews. I don’t have much to say about Freddy beyond what Colin Alexander and Marie Claire already eloquently expressed, largely because I have resisted giving much thought to the space. Subconsciously, I think I have kind of decided not to consider Freddy “relevant” to me or Baltimore because Freddy doesn’t seem to consider us “relevant” as an audience. It’s easy to ignore Freddy, because Freddy is deliberately not “present.” On another level, I am, however, intrigued by the idea of a calculated absence.

In Freddy’s interview with ARTnews, I was particularly irked by this passage: “We’re interested in Baltimore as a location specifically because it is not an art center. If you are viewing the shows via your iPhone or computer then there’s a strong possibility that you are located elsewhere. This immediately creates a certain level of removal and perhaps mystery. We’re thinking a lot about location and how location informs an art-viewing experience. In this instance, a visit to Baltimore to see a show at Freddy would most likely require special planning since most of us don’t spontaneously end up on West Franklin Street in Baltimore on a daily, weekly, monthly, or even yearly basis.”

This consideration of Baltimore as a sort of “non-site” or vacuum in which artwork can exist untainted by an existent cultural context can have some pretty funny unintended consequences. As an extreme example, I now think about trying to use a seashell as toilet paper when I think about Freddy (it’s a long story).

It probably isn’t fair to compare Freddy to Current. But the “bookend” analogy seemed unavoidable last Saturday when both galleries had openings (which I am assuming was not coordinated deliberately) featuring text-based works on paper that brought up the idea of “presence” and the physical value of the medium in very different ways. Incidentally, I only ended up at Freddy’s opening because I find myself on West Franklin Street on a pretty regular basis.

 

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100% Yes at Current

 

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Press-Press’s publication The Chilly Smart Model

 

That night, Current hosted the launch of 100% YES (fill in the blank): Press-Press Pop-Up, a collaboration between Baltimore City Community College’s Refugee Youth Project (RYP) and Press-Press, “an interdisciplinary publishing initiative… that aims to create open platforms of communication through collaborative and socially engaged projects of many forms.” The group released its newsprint publication The Chilly Smart Model — a collection of poetry and visual art by teenage refugees from Burma living in Baltimore — and celebrated the kick-off of its month-long residency in the gallery. During their Current take-over, Press-Press and RYP are compiling The 100% YES Manifesto, an open-source accumulation of wood-block printed declarations ranging from “100% YES ANNOUNCING THE TRUTH” to (my personal favorite) “100% YES KOREAN DRAMA.”

 

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100% Yes Korean Drama

 

To be honest, I’m typically not a fan of artwork that is described as “socially engaged.” I think the mini gold rush for community arts funding and holier-than-thou credibility has flooded Baltimore and similar cities with projects that feel schlocky at best and exploitative at worst. This project, though, is pretty great. Refreshingly, the organizers seem motivated by a desire to facilitate a quality, subjective experience for their viewers, rather than convince us that they have performed a charitable act. The idea of an open-ended manifesto sounds like the antidote the overly-didactic tone I’ve come to loathe in social practice. And in a move that defies the squeaky-clean, safe conventions of community art (a term that Press-Press doesn’t actually use), Current opened the show alongside a solo exhibition of June Culp’s strange erotic/grotesque paintings of nudes, including one depicting a woman being penetrated by “Chairy” from Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. Fittingly, Culp’s show—“I Love You-Hoo”—is inspired by absurd misinterpretations when sentiments get lost in translation.

This might sound like a pretty superficial observation, but the art in 100% YES looks like art. The printed poems and zines wouldn’t seem out of place at Open Space’s annual Publications and Multiples Fair or even Printed Matter’s L.A. Art Book Fair. Mostly, though, I was impressed by the variety and quality of the content. Sure, there were a few “100% COMMUNITY” and “100% JESUS” moments, but those seemed likely to be indicative of a hands-off editorial style on the part of Press-Press rather than the result of a typical “Community Arts” agenda being pushed. The tone of the poems shifts from humorous to serious, with subject matter ranging from bumming cigarettes to feeling homesick.

As a viewer, I was kept on my toes. I found myself unexpectedly moved to see a group of high school students whose lives had been uprooted by conflict working with confidence and freedom. I left the gallery feeling optimistic — perhaps, the “digital native” generation who grew up with social media is so accustomed to generating content that self-expression is more liberated and intuitive than it was at that age for those of us who are scarcely more than a decade older. Combining words and images has become second nature. The opportunity provided by Press-Press to commit this impulse to paper — via the historically democratic process of the printing press — imbues this content with a tangible poignancy.

 

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Around the corner, my optimism was met with disappointment. The work at Freddy points to the most obvious and inane relationship between the internet and art-making. The show One and Three Tweets consists of twenty-two drawings by Fox Irving of tweets posted by the poet Kenneth Goldsmith. The drawings are hung alongside 8.5×11 print-outs of Goldsmith’s original tweets and the artist’s twitter account’s copies. The tweets consists mostly of statements like “Authenticity is another form of artifice” and “Content no longer matters. The way in which we distribute ideas are more important than the ideas themselves. Citation trumps creation.” Get it? It’s clever because Kenneth Goldsmith is tweeting about appropriation and banality and then Fox Irving is writing down those tweets and showing them alongside the original tweets and also tweeting the drawing back to Kenneth Goldsmith. Oh, and there are some utterly soulless drawings made from photos Goldsmith tweeted too.

 

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Everyone I observed at the opening glanced momentarily at the papers, immediately understood that they were supposed to grin, and then stood around the middle of the gallery talking to each other about other topics. After about four minutes the people I was with were bored and wanted to go back to Current. On our way out, I noticed five spiral notebooks leaning against the barred windows. They spelled out “Love Art Hate The Art World” over and over again. I wondered what most people who happened to find themselves on Franklin Street gleaned from that pearl of wisdom.

I remembered that I had a prior engagement and couldn’t head back to the Press-Press opening. As a force of habit, I grabbed the image list, press release, and artist bio from Freddy. When I got home, I realized what a ridiculous stack I had walked away with — 12 one-sided pages that mostly contained illegibly small, nearly identical thumbnail installation-view photos of the show, each accompanied by the requisite caption “Dimensions Variable.” It seemed comically worthless.

I had intended to buy a copy of The Chilly Smart Model on my way home and regretted that I never made it back to Current. I suddenly became irrationally angry that I had wasted my time going to Freddy. One and Three Tweets was clearly not an exhibition that needed to happen, at least not in the real world. It doesn’t need to be physically present. It seemed like an infantile internet joke to be “viewed via your iPhone or computer” from somewhere far far away. Why waste the paper to print this out? Why even bother making the “drawings” instead of just writing a witty Facebook status about how funny it would be to hand-write passages about appropriation and how vapid art is? It seemed like Freddy was a piece of physical real estate that existed solely to legitimize online content in a “gallery” setting before returning it to the internet, where it could fulfill its destiny of getting favorited on tumblr or whatever it is people do with punny post-net art these days.

I realize that I reacted so negatively to the Freddy show because I had stumbled across it after attending the Press-Press event. Because West Franklin Street is a context after all — one that I do  find myself in on a regular basis. Seeing a show about someone with a Masters degree from London essentially wasting paper to let everyone know he’s in on the joke about how dumb the art world is after seeing a remarkable publication put together by teenage refugees from Burma — who clearly operated with a conviction that art-making was something worth working for — was probably not the sequence of events anticipated by the gallerist. As much as I was bummed that I didn’t get a copy of The Chilly Smart Model, I hated myself for picking up this stack of papers filled with photos of print-outs of drawings of other print-outs.

This reminded of an anecdote from a friend from my own teenage years. She had grown up in Burma but only had a few memories from her childhood, namely that paper was scarce. She told me a story about going to work with her mother in a sweatshop, where she hated going to the bathroom because there was no toilet paper. Next to the toilet, there was a bucket and a seashell that people used to splash themselves — a makeshift bidet. That image has always stuck with me vividly, and it often pops into my head when I think about how cluttered my desk gets from paper: small mountains of newspapers, magazines I don’t want, junk mail offering to insure a car I don’t own — and yes — image lists from exhibitions I didn’t care for.

I know that story has almost nothing to do with Fox Irving’s work. I know that it isn’t the art world’s fault that the world is a fucked-up place. But I am sharing the association because it illustrates a valid point — we are a context. Here, in Baltimore, we’re a real-live audience. It’s a little crass to time your “art is dumb” art opening with an event organized by well-intentioned people and teenage refugees who take what they do seriously (but thankfully, not too seriously). Pretending that your neighborhood is a blank slate might just lead to someone staring at a screen capture of a photograph of the text “There was no post-modernism. There was modernism. Then there was digital” scrawled on notebook paper while imagining a small Burmese girl wiping her ass with a seashell.

100% YES (fill in the blank) closes this week, February 28th with a potluck that night from 7-10 PM. One and Three Tweets also closes that night, but in a sense, the show has already completed its life cycle. Here, look: It’s mentioned in a blog — albeit one based out of humble Baltimore — and we all get the joke. Present at last.

 

Author Michael Farley was born at John’s Hokpins Hospital, attended MICA for a BFA in Interdisciplinary Sculptural Studies, and recently received an MFA in Imaging Media and Digital Arts from UMBC. He has a complicated relationship with institutional critique. Although he went to digital art school, he has no website, but did switch to electronic cigarettes.

 

Additional photos from Current:

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 Additional Photos from Freddy, courtesy of the gallery website:

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