Positive Sign #33

Positive Signs is a weekly series of interpretive diagrams, quotes, and speculations on creativity, optimism*, and the lives of artists, published every Wednesday through June.

positive signs: an assortment of symbolic knickknackery.

Christine Wong Yap, Positive Sign #33 (An assortment of symbolic knickknackery), 2011; glitter and neon pen on gridded vellum; 8.5 × 11 in./21.5 × 28 cm


*Notwithstanding brief forays into the nature of space, stuff, experience, and cognition.

See all Positive Signs.

5 Questions: Miranda July

Five questions to SFMOMA artists, staff, or guests. Today’s interview is with visual artist, performance artist, short story writer, and filmmaker Miranda July. Her collaborative work with Harrell Fletcher, Learning to Love You More, is on view through August 7 in the fifth-floor galleries as part of the exhibition The More Things Change. July will be at the museum to present her new film, The Future, on July 28.

Miranda July as Sophie in The Future, which she wrote and directed. Photo: courtesy Roadside Attractions.

Do you collect anything?

I collect errata, which are the pieces of paper the publisher inserts in a book as a correction. My parents run a publishing company, which might explain this. I don’t actively look for them, just once every few years one falls out of a book and I put it in my folder.

There’s the generic interview question that goes, “If you could invite anyone to dinner who would it be?” What I want to know is, what would you serve?

This seems slightly stressful to me, like I have to have someone over and cook them something. Honestly the best thing would just be to go with my husband to the taco truck that’s parked by the Ralph’s in Echo Park and then go to the bookstore afterward. In between I would clean my hands with wipes that I have in the car and feel pretty good about how prepared I was.

If you could steal any artwork in the world to have up in your home, what would it be?

I don’t steal anymore, but if I was still doing that I might want that big pink Franz West ball.

What do you listen to while you work?

I don’t listen to music while I write, which is mostly my work. I wear earplugs. But sometimes before I start writing I’ll play a song to bring forth my emotions and make me feel united with another artist laboring to proclaim their difficult truth. The song Keeping the Wolves from the Door by White Magic is good for that.

What’s your favorite tool?

People’s willingness.


Miranda July’s new film, The Future, screens at 7 p.m. July 28 at SFMOMA with July on hand for a Q&A. Information on the screening is here, and you can learn more about The Future and have your own future read to you here. You also can browse Learning to Love You More assignments online here.

Update:  The screening on July 28 is sold out, but a limited number of rush tickets will be released on-site before the event.

Historic Marriage Equality Law Passes in New York – Everyone Turns Gay and the World Ends!

June 24, 2011: Hundreds of New Yorkers gather in downtown Manhattan outside of the Stonewall Inn, the site of the 1969 Stonewall riots that played a big part in the formation of the gay rights movement in the U.S. The crowd was celebrating after the New York State Senate passed a marriage equality bill, paving the way for same-sex marriage to be legalized in the state. Josh Marshall for Talkingpointsmemo.com.

When I was 14 I thought everyone was straight. So when I heard that Andy Warhol was gay, I freaked out. I mean, how did that happen? The teacher never mentioned it in my high school art class. But when I heard that Cy Twombly was also gay, I freaked out a little less. Then I heard Edward Albee was gay. OMFG! Then I heard a whole lot of artists and writers I liked were gay — Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Frank O’Hara, Tennessee Williams, Annie Leibovitz, Rimbaud & Verlaine, John Cage, and even Michel Foucault for god’s sake! They were all GAY! GAY! GAY! But like Andy Warhol used to say, “So what?”

See more Stonewall photos by my favorite blogger, Josh Marshall, here.

Justice, redux

Amanda Curreri, Jury Box, 2010; screenprint and acrylic on canvas; 50 x 156 x 10 in.; courtesy Romer Young

In a previous post I blogged about being detained for jury duty for the first time and the peculiar sort of conceptual art that unfolds in the courtroom. At this point, my service is complete; a decision was made. I’m at liberty to discuss the details, which were, to my surprise, notable enough to be reported in a compact Yahoo News item that a friend forwarded. Reading that, I couldn’t discern the implications — was the award excessive, or insufficient? Being there myself, I still don’t know the answer to that question. Browsing the reader comments reveals the extent to which news is distorted by media spin, by the sketched out details that complete stories through our own peculiar biases. Not that this is such an important civil suit, but being in the courtroom, I witnessed a narrative fleshed out ad nauseam, with a massive but controlled flow of information that formed an elastic fiction of a very real event. (You could apply the same idea to the Ai Weiwei scenario, a tale that just got murkier with a reappearance cloaked in restriction.)

Here’s my account of the case to which I was assigned: Ms. E drank something troubling, a crystal clear bottle of water with its Harrah’s label intact. It may have been standard transparent plastic, but was corrosive all the way down. She described burning up inside, but not as dramatically as her lawyer, who also relished, in words and sometimes pictures, the horrors of esophageal surgery — they could remove her gullet and move up her stomach, he told us, with added hand gestures tracking his round belly, tucked firmly into suit jacket, and moving his palms up to just below his tie. His expression pantomimed choking. Imagine the fragrant burps, he might have said, but we all were anyway. It helped to have a CGI version of the odorless, tasteless liquid sloshing and burning down the fleshy cave of her insides, like some kind of biotech raging waters attraction at Disney California Adventure.

Mrs. E, or Miss. E, as the defense alternately referred to her (was that a strategy or lightheadedness?), didn’t need to get so drastic with the gastric. Ms. E settled for something less surgical, yet equally perverse — swallowing a three-foot long rubber tube to stretch out the scar tissue that blocked the flow. Of course, there were differing descriptions of the thing she had to “shove down” or simply insert down her throat, ripping, tearing, or gently stretching her wounds. Her side submitted a pointy blue one made out of hard plastic, while the other side got a medical expert, a Richard Dreyfus-in-younger-days-looking man with a command of all matters of the throat, who said it was softer and more pliable than the one that was constantly brandished in the courtroom.

It all seemed like a glossy TV show — a CSI/ER weekly series. The scene of the crime a set: The California Bar. They spell it out in the cursive letters of swag sold in a John Wayne Airport gift shop. Surveillance cameras caught the action from numerous angles in abraded video form. Was it ironic or merely clever that the bar exists not in CA, but in Nevada, where law is more sympathetic to sin? Lucky for Ms. E there was a nurse, and her ex-cop husband, sitting a couple stools to her right watching football. Their kind souls and professional expertise were life saving. There were lots of salacious details: Ms. E’s mysterious companion, PTSD, a spooky bartender who seemed to have slow acting synapses (on the job as well as on the witness stand), hints at family drama, and a new age church in Marin.

All was easily digested as fiction, and I wanted to approach it as such. As I sat hearing the same gastrointestinal facts for the fiftieth, increasingly boring time, I deconstructed the system from a cool, intellectualized distance. Yet when it came to the point of awarding the poor woman some cash in the jury room, I was surprised by how quickly the conceptual angles fell away. I panicked at the thought of attaching a literal price to pain. What might be the real costs of a Drano cocktail, in PTSD dollars? It was as if there was a short circuit in my thinking patterns — all of a sudden, this was capital R real. Unlike forming a critical position on the Gertrude Stein exhibitions, our decision would have some measurable impact on someone’s life.

I volunteered to be the foreperson as my own, fairly healthy gut told me I’d resent ceding control to anyone else on this panel, many of whom were rather quiet. Who could predict that they would be so resistant (or resentful) in the realm of compensation? (The plaintiff was asking for $12 mil.) I never expected to be one of the more empathetic and generous members of the jury — we were not the majority. I thought Ms. E seemed like a reasonable woman, and she was fighting a casino corporation with defense lawyers as irritating as her own (though oddly, with less polish).

I implored the others in our closed room to consider that the one million bucks, the most popular compromise award amount, really isn’t much in today’s dollars — could be a single painting or maybe a portion of a modest San Francisco home. And was I the only one who didn’t balk at the request to fund a couple hundred sessions with a shrink? I had to admit to the group that I’ve been to mine more times than that, albeit at a lower price point, and for far more benign traumas. The major ones take time.

So it was a merger of mind and body, of the belief in the tales told. I felt a powerful sense of anxiety in my gut when we brought the decision — that $3.2 million in medical expenses and noneconomic damages, pain and suffering past and future. The story I told myself was that this was inadequate. I felt guilty for not trying harder to bargain people up, but the more pressing reality is that everyone had their own firm opinion, and a self-interest in getting back to our lives, our jobs, our diversions. I found the experience surprisingly complicated, even profound. As an embodied form of conceptualism, it was better than any work of art I’ve experienced in ages.

Ai Weiwei Released on Bail after “Confessing to his Tax Crimes” with No Mention of Why the Government Demolished His Shanghai Studio with Bulldozers a Few Months Before He Was Arrested

Ai Weiwei, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995

Ai Weiwei was detained for 80 days before being released yesterday: April 3–June 21.

From a Facebook tip by Sarah Hutchinson of the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum via the Hyperalerigic blog via the Chinese news service Xinhuanet.com:

Beijing government news outlet Xinhua has just announced that detained Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has been released on bail, having confessed to his tax crimes and stated his willingness to pay the taxes he is said to have evaded. “A chronic disease” that the artist suffers from was also a factor in his release.

For more details, take a look at the Xinhua report — it is a Chinese news outlet.

Positive Signs #31 & 32

Positive Signs is a weekly series of interpretive diagrams, quotes, and speculations on creativity, optimism*, and the lives of artists, published every Wednesday through June.

positive signs: an example of a supportive symbolic ecology in the home. reminders of who you are, what you have achieved, and what you are likely to achieve (joy and agency). signposts of what you might do in the future (purpose and agency). past to future. essential traits and values. cherished objects remind us of our goals, make us feel more confident, and focus our attention, mihalyi csikszentmihalyi. creativity.

Christine Wong Yap, Positive Sign #31 (An example of a supportive symbolic ecology in the home), 2011; glitter and neon pen with foil print on gridded vellum; 8.5 × 11 in./21.5 × 28 cm

positive signs: a thing can be domesticated by man even if it rolls out of the factory on the most impersonal and technologically advanced conveyors. since it nonetheless ends up in someone's house, where a person assimiliates it into his private way of life, endowing it with numerous general, practical, conscious and unconscious meanings. mikhail epstein as quoted by allan mccollom, allen ruppersberg: what one loves about life are the things that fade.

Christine Wong Yap, Positive Sign #32 (A thing can be domesticated), 2011; glitter pen on gridded vellum; 8.5 × 11 in./21.5 × 28 cm


*Notwithstanding brief forays into the nature of space, stuff, experience, and cognition.

Next Wednesday: Positive Sign #33: An Assortment of Symbolic Knickknackery.
See all Positive Signs to date.

I Choose for You: Meg Chooses for Cheryl (Part 3)

I don’t drink coffee, so let’s have a beer … My posts are always collaborations and are presented in two parts. Part 1 is a summary of a shared experience with my collaborator(s). Part 2 is a response, often in the form of a project created specifically for this blog.

I met Bay Area artists Cheryl Meeker and Ishan Clemenco at Suppenküche in Hayes Valley for beer, grub, and a great chat. When our foxy German waiter came to take our order, I felt adventurous and asked for a random beer that sounded interesting — which ended up tasting like moldy smoked meat. He simply whisked it away saying, “I choose for you.” He expertly chose my beer, my meal, and the theme for our collaboration! Cheryl, Ishan, and I chose works in the SFMOMA collection for each other to respond to according to parameters set by each selector. Breaking with my traditional two-part post, this collaboration will come in four entries.

Meg chooses for Cheryl Meeker (Part 3)

I asked Bay Area artist/activist Cheryl Meeker to visit SFMOMA’s fifth floor and check out Helsinki-based Eija-Liisa Ahtila‘s (b. 1959) poetic and haunting five-channel video work Lahja (The Present). On each of the five video monitors is a work responding to interviews the artist conducted with women who reveal what makes them vulnerable, fearful, angry … and each video ends with the phrase, “Give yourself a present, forgive yourself.” I like the idea of identifying, isolating, and addressing one’s fears. In addition to her being a remarkable artist, I was thinking about Cheryl’s work as a coordinator for Justice in Nigeria Now, and how she deals day in and day out with fear and despair — and also hope and forgiveness. We live in a world that is truly frightening. Every day we are delivered news about casualties of war, how the planet is being ravaged through our improper care, and hometown tragedies such as domestic violence and gang activity (and so much more). How do we all keep moving forward? I asked her what she is afraid of and how she reconciles her relationship with this fear …

asthma google search/filter pixilate/mosaic

Fukushima google search/filter stylize/patchwork

homeless google search/pixilate filter/halftone

military google search/texture filter/stained glass

unemployment google search/artistic filter/sponge

“In a simple way, Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s video installation, Lahja (The Present), might either be viewed as an investigation of internal psychological sources for patterns of behavior that exhibit as phobias, or as a hinting at repressive societal norms which manifest in the development of compensatory phobic behaviors. My interest in fear and its outcomes lies away from the focus on the psychological and on the personal that is reflected here and in the media’s endless obsession with celebrity culture and personality politics. Far from an interest in how the implications of the individual will play out externally in the personality or in society, my fascination turns more on the ways that systems of regulation, deregulation, and of ideology work socially, politically, and economically to create fear in the individual. Perhaps the subtext we have in common is that we can only strengthen our ability to work out solutions to problems that have created fears by not avoiding them. And the possibility of transcending these fearful states through actual problem solving is the present we are able to give each other. We forgive ourselves when we look to the systemic problems as the culprit, and realize that they, far more than the individual, create fear in ourselves and abroad, and that power elites have everything to gain by pointing to the individual as the root of economic and social malaise.”  — Cheryl Meeker


1 Rogers, Paul. “What are the largest sources of global warming emissions in California? The list is out,” Mercury News (11/22/2009): n. pag. Web.

2 “Gas Flaring Disrupts Life in Oil-Producing Niger Delta.” National Public Radio. (NPR), 07/24/2007. Web. 24 Jul 2007.

3 Del Pesco, Joseph. “State of the Arts,” The Present Group & Horwinski Press, poster series, December 2008.

4 “Gas Flaring.” Justice In Nigeria Now. Justice In Nigeria Now, 2010. Web. 18 Jun 2011.

Cheryl Meeker is a San Francisco-based artist and activist whose work ranges from 4×5 photographic installations to drawings, archives, interactive web projects, and social sculpture often touching on the fundamentals of sustenance in a market-dominated society. A founding editor of Stretcher.org, she frequently collaborates with artist Dan Spencer as the art team Dan and Cheryl, producing actions, panel simulations, and video. Her work with Mobilization for Climate Justice West, the International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons, and Justice In Nigeria Now informs her ongoing interest and participation in the key issues of our time: climate justice, rampant militarization through expansion of empire, resource extraction, use of depleted uranium, and the exploitation of people and destruction of their environments in oil-producing and -refining communities around the world. Her work has been seen at Southern Exposure, Mission 17, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and in collaboration on actions such as the recent Community-Based Solutions Cool the Planet in support of the creation of a public park in the Mission district on publicly-owned land currently used as a parking lot.

Sitting with Alice Toklas

“Before I decided to write this book my twenty-five years with Gertrude Stein, I had often said that I would write, The wives of geniuses I have sat with. I have sat with so many.”—Gertrude Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas

There are so many things to see in The Steins Collect, it would be unreasonable of me to suggest you notice things that aren’t there, or are only there in photographs. So if you go, go ahead and look first at Picasso’s Gertrude and Matisse’s big blue nude, Renoir’s sun-dappled lady and Cézanne’s compelling apples. Then please lean over a vitrine — or, back home, toward your monitor or over the catalogue — and look closely at this little photograph.

Rue de Fleurus, 1933–1934. Department of Nineteenth-Century, Modern, and Contemporary Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, gift of Edward Burns, 2011; Copy Photograph © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

This is the atelier at 27 rue de Fleurus, where Gertrude Stein lived with Alice Toklas (and originally with her brother Leo), in 1933 or 1934. Beside the fireplace, beneath Cézanne’s portrait of his wife and Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude, are two small wood-and-tapestry chairs, one facing forward, one turned to the side. On the back of the chair on the right, under Gertrude, is a suggestion of the corner of a picture frame. The left chair, below Madame Cézanne, bears the image of a hand. Whose hand?

Several hands made these chairs. First, whoever made the frames, in Louis XV style, maybe in the 19th century; then Alice Toklas, who worked the covers in petit point around 1930; and, in between, Pablo Picasso. Gertrude Stein, playing Alice, told this story in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas:

That lovely little painting [a 1918 depiction of a guitar, on view in The Steins Collect] he copied for me many years later on tapestry canvas and I embroidered it and that was the beginning of my tapestrying. I did not think it possible to ask him to draw me something to work but when I told Gertrude Stein she said, alright, I’ll manage. And so one day when he was at the house she said, Pablo, Alice wants to make a tapestry of that little picture and I said I would trace it for her. He looked at her with kindly contempt, if it is done by anybody, he said, it will be done by me. Well, said Gertrude Stein, producing a piece of tapestry canvas, go to it, and he did. And I have been making tapestry of his drawings ever since and they are very successful and go marvellously with old chairs. I have done two small Louis fifteenth chairs in this way. He is kind enough now to make me drawings on my canvas and to color them for me.

The chairs themselves aren’t in The Steins Collect; they stayed at home, in the archives at Yale. But photographs can hint at the wit, beauty, and utility of Toklas’s stitching over Picasso’s drawing. And, looking closer, maybe we can trace some of the threads that tie together Picasso’s kindly contempt and Toklas’s patient work, entangling the genius and the wife of genius, roles that Gertrude Stein parodied and took very seriously. Here sits a collaboration between a certified Modern Master and a woman who, for all the unconventionality of her life, always played the part of housemistress and amanuensis, cook and seamstress to Gertrude’s genius. Now, a woman’s tapestrying might mean different things — see, for one, Pae White — but in these chairs, between elbow-worn arms (which, the Autobiography tells us, Ezra Pound once fell out of), art and domesticity are literally woven together, inseparable.

Louis XV–style children’s armchairs upholstered with petit point sewn by Alice Toklas over designs by Pablo Picasso, ca. 1930. Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven

It’s in the fabric of The Steins Collect, this interweaving. The show pieces together stories about families and friends, personal connections and fallings-out, and what those things have to do with art. The photographs of the Steins’ rooms witness not only the quality and density of their collections but the fact that what are now museum pieces were once domestic objects, parts of private lives. Yes, on Saturday evenings the Stein apartments were practically public spaces: anyone who knew someone could visit rue Madame to worship at the altar of Matisse, or rue de Fleurus to sit among Picassos and geniuses and wives. But after the at-homes, Sarah and Michael and Leo and Gertrude and Alice were at home, living with these paintings. And these chairs.

The desire to live in proximity to art is one of the impulses that draw some of us to museum work — a misguided impulse, maybe, and not just because you could work at SFMOMA without ever setting foot in its galleries. On good days a museum may be full of life, but (despite best efforts) it isn’t a living room; sooner or later, you have to go home. That’s where I am now, and probably where you are, too. Maybe, sitting there among the people and things you live with, you’ll think a little of Alice Toklas at her tapestrying. Or maybe you’ll just turn to your own canvas.

Juliet Clark is a freelance editor and writer and a sometime SFMOMA staffer; she proofread the catalogue for The Steins Collect. Like Alice Toklas, she is “fond of paintings, furniture, tapestry, houses and flowers and even vegetables and fruit-trees.”

NOTE TO SELF: OMG! There Is No Privacy!

Cell phone picture sent by New York Congressman, Anthony Weiner, who resigned yesterday.


Note to self: Drunk dialing is not a good idea.  Note to self: Whenever it seems like a good idea to send a sexy/funny picture of myself without a shirt – don’t do it. Note to self: When I feel angry don’t post the angry message on Facebook because, duh, people can read it. Note to self: Even if I am at the gym working out and I look hot in a towel and nothing else – don’t IM it, tweet it or FB it to anyone. Note to self: If I think a really crude joke is funny and I am ever in elected office somehow, I should remember to just keep it to myself. Note to self: If I get really pissed off at someone and send them an email or text, they can save it and use it against me later if they want – it doesn’t ever go away – it becomes part of the archive. Note to self: Deceit has ways of sticking around so I should not be deceitful. Note to self: I feel so close but really I am so far. Note to self: Not everyone thinks I am funny. Note to self: Not everyone thinks I am hella cute. Note to self: My cell phone location data can be subpoenaed by the police any time they want and probably in secret because of the Patriot Act. Note to self: My FASTRAK data from crossing the Golden Gate Bridge & wherever else I go can be used in court by mean attorneys. Note to self: My credit card and debit card data can paint a more realistic picture of me than Kehinde Wiley can. Note to self: Ebay and Paypal have no problems giving the police a list of all the crazy and impulsive stuff I buy

The cell phone picture that ended Anthony Weiner’s career.

through them – even my lock picking set, even my Russian Pulsar Phantom night vision riflescope, and even my used copy of  the Anarchist Cookbook. Note to self: If asked nicely (and I am guessing, for a fee) AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, Virgin Mobile, etc. will all gladly turn over all of my phone logs and transaction information to the police or mean lawyers. Note to self: Be nice to people because you never know if they are holding irrational grudges against me. Note to self: Don’t be too nice or people will think I am fake and will hold irrational grudges against me. Note to self: If Vito Acconci made his 1969 Following piece today it might be illegal. Note to self: If I copied what Sophie Calle did in her 1980 performance piece Suite Vénitienne I would most likely be arrested for stalking but if the police do it, even without a warrant, it’s called surveillance. Note to self: If I ever get married and then get divorced, all the crazy shit – public sex, accusations, outright lies, the good the bad and the feckless will all be a matter of public record just like it was for Jack Ryan. Note to self: Privacy policies tell in exquisite detail how little privacy you have. Note to self: They should call them Lack of Privacy notices. Note to self: My boss has the right to secretly record every keystroke on my work computer. Note to self: My boss has the right to make secret video recordings of me while I am at work. Not sure about in the bathroom though. Note to self: Research whether or not my boss can secretly make video recordings of me in the bathroom. Note to self: Freedom of speech is not universal even though it seems like it is. Note to self: Remind myself daily that the internet is a broadcasting medium not my private diary. Note to self: Most everything I say and do and all of my recorded transactions are potential evidence just like they demonstrate in all my favorite crime dramas including: CSI: NY, CSI: Miami, CSI: Las Vegas, 24, Law and Order, Criminal Minds, Bones, Dexter, Burn Notice, and Prison Break. Note to self: Write poem about world ending with a whimper.