Review of House Arrest at Franklin Street Works
by Nickolas Calabrese
The desire to be a member of a family is incorrigible: every person yearns to be a part of a community that reciprocates appreciation of membership. In other words, people form communities out of necessity. The better the community, the better the quality of life. With the goal of forming a utopian situation, people strive to make their families as good as possible, as complete as possible. So in order to arrive at the good life, one must evaluate every component of her life. In the book Utopistics, or, Historical Choices of the Twenty-First Century, Immanuel Wallerstein describes his proposal as follows:
“Utopistics is the serious assessment of historical alternatives, the exercise of our judgment as to the substantive rationality of alternative possible historical systems. It is the sober, rational, and realistic evaluation of human social systems, the constraints on what they can be, and the zones open to human creativity.”
The most natural place to start this ‘assessment of historical alternatives through a sober, rational, and realistic evaluation’ is at home. But home here is a completely equivocal term. It could refer to the place where I am typing this text, or a public square in the middle of Manhattan’s financial district. This humble attention is the impetus for Franklin Street Works’ current exhibition House Arrest.
At Franklin Street Works – a gallery located in a nexus of extreme wealth and poverty, Stamford, CT – notions of home, utopia, and family are being tackled through an ambitious group show, including established artists and bourgeoning ones trying to enter the family of the artworld. The show’s catalogue suggests that these artists are “creating pragmatic and paradigm-shifting strategies to re-imagine how we structure our personal priorities and environments as well as our societal organizations and systems.” Though the works are quite disparate, they share an urgent sense of expectation. They expect a change in societal tropes to happen soon, and this is reflected in the tone at the gallery (art is the measure of change in society). One of the first pieces that one encounters is a curated shop by the DJ and artist Taliesin. In this work (though I’m skeptical about whether or not it is an artwork), Taliesin presents a range of objects from the mini roses sold in bodegas and used as crack pipes, to religious candles monikered with ‘St. Google’ custom stickers, to a teddy bear nannycam. These objects show an approach to standards of comfort and levels of acceptance in local communities. The roses are sold openly in stores that expect a certain amount of crack user clientele; and nannycams disguised as ordinary objects are typical in wealthier homes to ensure that ‘the help’ does not steal or defile the home. Similar to Taliesin’s digestion of comfort is David Horvitz’ bulletin board with recipes from his Grandmother’s personal collection, free for gallery-goers to photocopy and take home. He also curated a selection of zines – the handbooks for DIY communities – that reflect the show’s thematic concerns. These two portions of the exhibition set the mood for a collective reassessment of community forming and sustaining, in the same spirit as Wallerstein’s utopistics.
Some of the pieces in the show are direct confrontations of linked topics like communitas, conviviality, family, and home. These works include Marley Freeman’s collection of intimate-space-photographs acquired from friends, onto which she has painted minimal strokes of color. These small paintings on photos are like little gems littered throughout the gallery. While they fall short of some type of cohesion, they force the viewer to conceptualize what the intimate spaces look like under the concealed parts. Also making a clear, specific gesture is Sean Hemmerle’s Zuccotti Park, 12 October 2011, New York, NY, which is a single photograph projected onto a sheet. The sheet is waving under the influence of a fan, representing the ideal vision of a nationalist’s flag. Its silent motion, chilling to gaze at, reinforces the idea of solidarity through a community of dissidents (of course the most permeating recent analogy is the silent shaming of UC Davis’ dean as she walked through a crown of calm, cool, and controlled protesters). Hemmerle’s work is complemented by what is arguably the high point of the show’s premise: a selection of benches from Francis Cape’s A Small Gathering of Utopian Benches. These benches, while simple and inviting, are an adroit analysis of utopias. They are accompanied by a zine that compiles a short history of utopian communities – from Fourier’s phalanxes to small communities of Shakers. The focus of all of this is the benches; the bench is the place where community-building/comfort-building exercises take place. Cape, who clearly has a strong affinity to carpentry, has created an amalgamation of utopian representations, which seem not to condemn nor glorify utopian communities, only to try to understand them. But this is not a bad thing, as the benches clearly demonstrate; they enable the viewer to experience the foundations of autonomous zones in an anthropological manner.
Other works in the show that are worthy of mention are Martha Rosler’s always-good photo collages, blurring lines of inner and outer, of safety and threat. Also Stuart Elster’s adult-sized works, which are composed of dissected security envelopes recall both insecurity and urgency, while the envelopes’ address pockets educe spy-holes. The show is well curated, by Franklin Street’s Terri C Smith, who must have an ear to the ground. It is prescient insofar as the works remind us that no domain is safe from critique. Not only an institutional critique, but a critique of an entire system: that there are artists who are not comfortable in the art-world, who do not feel ‘at home’ within a structure which is fostered by the accumulation of wealth. House Arrest is a selection of artworks that takes a step beyond the old utopian question, to a newer and more articulate one – a successful contemplation about which direction art should go.