Pool Party

Photo by Timothy Amundson

Photo by Timothy Amundson

I like Kendell and Madeline and so I went to see the show "A Tisket A Tasket" at their gallery Front/Space, a participatory installation featuring the work of Charity Thackston and Julia Six.  I bring this point up because the show asks us to think about how we value things, and I can't help but notice that because I value both Kendell and Madeline, that value is transferred to their gallery space, and to a smaller degree, to the show itself.  

I normally don't go out on First Fridays to see shows, not because I don't value the work that artists do, but because I'm fairly cognitively lazy when it comes to thinking about art.  It's not that I don't like to do it.  It's just that it takes a lot of effort.  It's like wading into a swimming pool.  You know once you're completely submerged you'll enjoy yourself, but there's something about that initial entry that's going to be uncomfortable.  In my case some external force has to exert pressure on me.  So maybe a friend comes along, picks me up and throws me in the pool, or to a more subtle degree, a bunch of my friends are already in the pool and ask me to come in.

Photo by Timothy Amundson

Photo by Timothy Amundson

If left to my own devices I would've wandered through the show and not thought anything at all.  I would've had an intuitive feeling of dislike for the work and then not examined it further.   Fortunately though I did feel compelled to engage with the show and I think there is something interesting to talk about in relation to the ideas of how we value objects, my own cognitive laziness and the degree to which we trust artist's intentions.

The show asks the viewer to look through ceramic replicas of outdated objects; tape cassettes, white out bottles, alarm clocks.  These objects are placed on cardboard pedestals, and the viewer is asked to choose the object that they think has the most value to the artists.  A bonus is that you get to take an object home with you.  

Walking around the scattered piles, my cognitive laziness immediately kicked in.  Instead of trying to see it from the artists perspective, I substituted my own.  What object did I find more valuable?  (See Attribute Substitution) I did this intuitively since I had no conception of who the artists were and I wasn't going to put much effort into finding out. (See Theory of Mind)  Instead I quickly came to the conclusion that whatever this valuable object was, it had to be unique.  I ignored any object that existed in multiples (the white out bottles, alarm clocks, etc) and focused on trying to find something that was different than the rest.

Photo by Timothy Amundson

Photo by Timothy Amundson

I picked up a notebook and saw that there was writing scrawled in black sharpie on some of the pages, possibly song lyrics.  I was excited to find a clue, but after flipping through the book and seeing how many things were written in it, and then looking around and realizing there were a bunch of these books scattered throughout the show, I quickly lost interest.  Why?  Well, what initially seemed like a small amount of investigative work, turned into a task that was going to take a lot more effort and I just wasn't willing to go that far.  

The question I kept coming back to was, "Did the artists put enough work into constructing a logical world that it's worth a significant portion of my time to try and figure it out?"  Is it worth going through each and everyone of these notebooks?  Is it going to give me valuable information that I can use to decode the hidden message that leads me to find the most valuable object?  No.  I intuitively decided it wasn't worth it because I didn't trust the level of effort that had been put forth.  I was skeptical about the artists intentions, whether they really valued my time and whether there actually was a singular object that they valued hidden among all of the rest.  

Photo by Timothy Amundson

Photo by Timothy Amundson

It's worth taking some time to note that this is a contemporary problem that has developed from contemporary artist's using gallery space to trick and subvert viewers expectations.  Knowing this relationships exists, that artist's sometimes intentionally lie to me as a viewer, has made me more defensive, more skeptical about their claims, which in turn, has lowered my level of trust.  

Remember the idea that you can put anything into a gallery and it automatically confers value upon it?  Well after forty or fifty years of artists filling galleries with found objects, the effects have been rather predictable. Fill a space with objects that have less thought, less intention behind them and eventually that conferring of value is going to stop working so well.   

So after wandering around a little longer, after listening to the music that was playing, after trying to discern some other clue to lead me to make a decision, I happened to pick up an old postcard.  The figures on the front had been removed by brightly colored red flocking.  The back was blank.  I looked around and found other postcards handled in a similar manner.  They had been mailed long ago with little snippets of stories about vacations to far away exotic places.  All had the same sunny disposition.  "Things are great here!  We encountered some obstacle, but overcame it!  Wish you were here!"  At first I tried to confer differing levels of value on the stories but gave up after awhile.  I did go around and pick up every card and realized that mine was the only one that hadn't been filled out.  

Photo by Jori Sackin

Photo by Jori Sackin

I flipped the card over again and looked at the blank back.  In all other cases I had ascribed value to another person's memory, but on this card, it made room for something new.   Here I had found space in the show where I could participate.  Someday I might write my own story, create my own little world from a tiny scrap of paper, transform it with my own meaning, my own internal logic and what could be more valuable than that?

However, after hanging it up on my fridge with a tiny horse magnet and living with it a few days the object slowly melted into the background until it was just another thing on my fridge.  It was not the entry point into the show that I thought it was, and it was not the most valuable thing I was left with.  After thinking it over I realized that what held the most value for me was the thoughts I had about the show, as well as the experiential lesson that my intuitional judgment was not a large a factor in whether I took the time to think about a piece of art.  

While my perception of the artist's intention and the quality of the work did initially shape my experience, these were not the factors that led me to think more or less deeply about it.  That I entered the show knowing I was going to write about it, that I value my friends and their endeavors, that I want to be seen as intelligent and insightful in the eyes of others, that I desire to be understood and aspire to use my experiences to teach others, that I'm fascinated by the fuzzy edges of value and how it gets transferred, these were the factors that ultimately pushed me into doing the cognitive work that was necessary to get past my initial emotional reaction, to slowly wade into the pool until my head submerged in the water and I no longer thought about the how it felt on my body because I was having too much fun.

(Note: The NCECA Reception for the show is Thursday March 17th 6-9 pm )