September 28, 2010

Event Report: OS Thursday 9.23

I’m going to try to commission event reports for each of the Open Space Thursdays discussions — first up is a report on last Thursday’s “Bay Area art writing” conversation, from writer and artist Ariel Goldberg. If you were there — or not — responses much welcome and encouraged.


Getting Away with Language

True Story: earlier this month, I was at the ticket inspection stairs of SFMOMA when my pen got the hairy eyeball. I’m sorry, we’re pencil only. A security guard later offered me a pencil when I tried to use the ink.

Then Open Space Thursdays was born as a blog-comes-to-life event. Suzanne Stein introduced the invited conversationalists, and Dominic Willsdon proposed topics of discussion. As we sat with refreshments in stationary orbits of couches and chairs, our purpose was to discuss the interpretive language a museum may produce; art criticism as language of evaluation; and writing that exists alongside, while not about, visual art.

The evening proceeded like a polite dinner conversation. The vibe was moderated by common-interest strangers, mentors and students, bosses and coworkers, potential dates and acquaintances, all plopped into a dreamscape of restaurant tables turning to each other sans cacophony or eavesdropping.

Perhaps because it was the first Open Space Thursdays discussion, speakers articulated their opinions on the purpose of this blog. So replace Tupperware party with dictionary party. And replace virtual with physical so that a group poses in front of a mirror. This blog as an “atrium” or “archive record” were definitions that elicited head-nodding. And there was applause for the personification of Open Space evading a brand because it invites a rotating set of outside columnists who are granted great liberty.

What about arts writing in The Bay Area at large? Patricia Maloney, editor of Art Practical, another local arts-writing website, wants to bring a sort of “rigor” back to writing. To assure Maloney, Meg Shiffler announced that she prints out Art Practical articles. Dominic Willsdon steered the conversation back to etymology about what rigor really is, and questions about how arts writing may or may not be responsible for generating rigorous thinking, especially in the landscape of online reading. Maloney responded that Art Practical strives for “a platform divorced from the personal.” And then the murmur: Is that possible, when The Bay Area Art World is small and there’s not much $$ … When the economy depends on the social, are people being too nice?

In terms of styles, nontraditional art criticism on Open Space got a round of applause — or, was it an announcement of approval? The constant presence of a poet-columnist seems to be much appreciated. Brion Nuda Rosch’s YouTube selections are, for Shiffler, leisure time that doesn’t feel wasted.

At this point I drew a line in my notebook with “poetic” at one end and “theoretical” at the other and a big question mark hovering on top. I don’t see the question of rigor in arts writing to be the fraying rope in a poetic vs. theoretical tug of war. Hello, hybrid, can you hear me?

Some more reporting: Erin O’Toole, assistant curator of photography, and, therefore, writer of (some) wall text at SFMOMA, brought up the curator pastime of anonymously watching people read the big decals on the gallery wall. Rough statistics: 25% of people read wall text, and only half keep reading past the first paragraph. In response, a commenter self-identifying as “a consumer of wall text” admitted, “I want bullet points.” Another comment suggested wall text is not coming up with a power-bar recipe, and in the meantime, functions mainly as “graphic design.” Poor wall text is so out of shape in the internet age! And then a commenter, who said he felt like he was listening in to a locker room conversation, gave an inconclusive ramble on wanting and not wanting to be guided by wall text. I found this ramble useful in asking how much the museum is out to please or educate the visitor via its language aids. The new Oakland Museum’s thought bubbles as wall text got airtime as one extreme.

I will now ask you to compare wall text to captions. The New York Times Lens blog once presented two versions of the same slideshow, one with captions, one without, and invited comments on the different reading experiences. Is context under attack as an infringement on a romantic notion for art to delight the senses without the help of professionals?

Language in a museum is at its least subsidiary when intrinsic to a collected art object. Museum-sanctioned language otherwise tends to land messy along binaries of the promotional or the subversive. Renny Pritikin named poetry as the orphan among art mediums in the visual art institutions.

But what about people just talking inside the museum or on its website? Language in a museum is to the telephone game as sculpture of melded car parts is to the permanent collection. Let me try again. Language in a museum is to a puddle as — never mind. What about the museum store? By-appointment libraries? Catalogues wire-locked to a table?

Confession: I have distributed an unsolicited text at SFMOMA. It was at the symposium “Is Photography Over.” Security found me out. You can’t do that here. It was just so easy to go up to Charlotte Cotton and Philip-Lorca diCorcia and say, here, this is for the symposium, I must have forgotten it wasn’t allowed! In other words, I shouldn’t have given my transcription of a performance on the current state of photography to the coat-check person. I might as well have been handing out sandwich shop lunch special coupons.


Ariel Goldberg is a writer and artist working in the form of captions, open letters, and slide lectures addressing unknown and multiplying photographers and images. Her chapbook Picture Cameras is forthcoming from NoNo Press in 2010. She is the cohost, with Charity Coleman, of the public access talk show You can find her online at

Comments (3)

  • Maybe the museum should be split half into words, and half into not-words, and then we can film people and what they do. Of course divide up the art into similar categories. Add some people who have never been into a museum into the mix.

    I am all for bullet points. Or for the shape of the wall text doing something other than paragraphing around. This conversation these people are having is hard to picture, though I cam glad people are at least addressing text. People need more spaces in the text…they will look at it more clearly.

    I wonder about the purpose of blogs too. Today is the first day I have ever commented on one. I usually avoid them because I spend enough time looking at computers. My eyes want air. I have been going around and commenting on a bunch of blogs in this one day for the very first time.

    I am glad this one exists as a poet context to the museum.

    Thank you Ariel for guiding us through this discussion and thinking about many things and using analogies though the SAT test didn’t think they were important anymore. I hope the Tupperware party of the dictionary wasn’t too much like that game where everyone puts hands on top of other hands and it never ends.

  • AH! The hairy eyeball – that’s one I’m familiar with as I write for the (as well as my own blog) and HATE those darn stubby soft yellow pencils. I am always debating with myself about how critical I should be regarding local shows. I often pass up reviewing shows that I dislike for fear of just sounding crabby. Part of the problem, I think, is that we don’t have a tradition here of “rigorous” debate. Maybe it’s part of our West Coast Cool? In any case, having read lots of NY based art websites, I’m not sure that’s something I want to see here – too often it reads like the knives are out, just for the sake of slicing and dicing.

  • Ariel: thanks for your cool head, keeping it all under suspicion and staying suspect there with it.

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