Frank Smigiel: A Producer’s Journal, or Judgment A Go-Go
In spring 2011, Open Space hosted a series of “Shop Talk” conversations prompted by artist Stephanie Syjuco’s complex — and somewhat controversial — Shadowshop project, which included more than 200 Bay Area artists showcasing “wares” in a gift shop-style installation on SFMOMA’s fifth floor. In this essay, published earlier this year in Contemporary Art: 1989 to the Present, SFMOMA Associate Curator of Public Programs Frank Smigiel responded to the editors’ request to reflect on “judgment” in contemporary art by discussing Shadowshop, and the lively dialogues it inspired, against the ever-expanding backdrop of the international art fair circuit. Kind thanks to Wiley-Blackwell for permission to republish.
I’m certain that anyone who visits the major group exhibitions marking our time in the contemporary art world — whether biennials or art fairs — wishes to pose the same question: Why is this thing so BIG? I have rarely heard an important group show slighted for being too small. The art world does not lack density. It does not lack supply. I could only admire Roberta Smith who, before composing her Times review of the 2011 Venice Biennale, called out the daunting “Enormity of the Beast” in a blog post: “With all the additional pavilions scattered about town and the independent exhibitions that are out there, too, Venice currently has more contemporary art on offer than any one person can see, even without the usual considerations of time, money, and eye-strain.”  If supply has not outstripped demand, it still might be noted that the supply of contemporary art has outstripped anyone’s ability to account for it. Though Claire Bishop, noting the Venice Biennale’s “return to sculpture,” delivers some happy news: “the Arsenale can be completed in a relatively rapid five-hour circuit” (“[p]rovided you don’t fall hostage to Christian Marclay’s seductive twenty-four-hour epic, The Clock, 2010”). 
Even so, it’s no longer enough to tackle Venice’s beast; it’s no longer enough to stroll Chelsea and think you have a snapshot of contemporary art. Art gets made, circulated, and discussed everywhere. If I remain addicted to Artforum’s “Scene & Herd” column, it is not just for the world-trotting, soap opera saga of after parties, but for the sheer range of openings and art fairs and actions that flash their fireworks from Stockholm to Dubai, from Tapei and Guangzhou to Los Angeles and Mexico City. Where does one pick up the thread here? In San Francisco, I’m trying to imagine a setting for Eve Sussman and the Rufus Corporation’s latest project, whiteonwhite:algorithmicnoir (2011). A film noir set in the fantasy architectures of such places as Kazakhstan, Dubai, Azerbaijan, and New York, the single-channel video has no beginning or end. Instead, an algorithm manipulates 100 hours of shot footage (roughly 3000 clips anywhere between 10 seconds and 5 minutes in length) so that no linear sequence can be repeated twice. One searches for a limit here, like the rigid rules of Marclay’s clock keeping real time. One wants to know where one is, and where one is going. But the characters keep going; the landscapes keep unfolding. whiteonwhite:algorithmicnoir will always outlast you.
As we struggle to locate ourselves in the global contemporary, Frederic Jameson’s postmodern injunctions seem as relevant as ever; writing in 1981, Jameson was certain: Art as a specific and autonomous sphere has been wiped away, not through master planning and bulldozing but through successful franchising. Postmodernity marks “a prodigious expansion of culture throughout the social realm, to the point at which everything in our social life — from economic value and state power to practices and to the very structure of the psyche itself — can be said to have become ‘cultural’ in some original and as yet untheorized sense.”  Art supersized to everything and everywhere, of which the global art world and its expanded group shows and expanding art centers and omnipresent events is itself just one small part.
The problem of the contemporary, outside and especially inside the art world, might then be framed as the problem of art’s infinite egress, of art being too much with us. Globally produced and promiscuous in form, contemporary art is also coupled with the democratization of aesthetics in everyday life, via the design of not just sleek new technologies but also utilitarian staples like toothbrushes and trash cans. Forms abound, and so formal judgments must be made all the time. Even as artists, art historians, critics, and theorists sought to complicate the register of aesthetic judgment by linking its formal pronouncements to context, politics, and history, the fact remains that form remains, everywhere. John Tierney’s article in the New York Times introduced me to two new terms: “decision fatigue” and “ego depletion.”  Scientific method is proposing the following: The more you judge, it seems, the less you can judge. You cannot constantly weigh the forms of art and life; you will run out of steam. And as your judging powers expire, you’re increasingly at the risk of losing yourself to what somebody else (or some corporation-as-body) prefers. You stop judging. Business as usual proceeds.
Most days, the original Regency dandy Beau Brummel is my hero. He once asked a manservant: “Which view do I prefer?” Where can I find the assistant who chooses what I prefer in landscapes and effects and maybe even toothbrushes? Then I’d have the bandwidth to choose everything else, maybe even those five hours in the Arsenale. Truth be told, the assistant can choose a Top Ten at Venice for me as well. I want the space and the time to make the right judgment, not the judgment I have to make, on every occasion and on every art-world demand. I would like to weigh the contemporary less so that I might know the contemporary more.
A mythology of my locality in the Bay Area is that the vibrancy of the technology sector depends upon young visionaries unconcerned with the physicality of their own world because of an immersion in the virtual one. From early dot.com-era profiles to David Fincher’s The Social Network (2010), we see exceedingly rich start-up gurus who live in empty mansions or banal tract homes when their monetary profiles could afford so much more. This refusal of the “fashion system,” as Roland Barthes once called it, hints at a key element of judgment today: The need for space, or what Hal Foster describes in his excellent polemic, Design and Crime, as the need for “running room.”  Steve Jobs’ sad uniform of mock black turtleneck and light-colored Mom jeans spoke a disjunction: I am the tech world of everything moving forward, only because my personal affect is static. It is the Beau Brummel response, in odd reverse: “I reject choosing fashion because I make what is fashionable. I cannot make fashion and be fashionable.” Many designers opt for such daily uniforms and so know this dictum well. Only their withdrawal from the scene of staging permits them to stage anything themselves. Oscar Wilde’s dictum from “Phrases & Philosophies for the Use of the Young” holds: “One should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art.”  You cannot be and have at the same time, much less make. For being and having, as we know from Freud and Lacan, are ultimately relational and not static. Which perhaps means that being and having and even making only mean something via the fractured field of the social.
We have lost the open space where different folks can do something other than consume their world—and that space where objects themselves can be something other than their circulation as commodities. Our judgment cannot ignore the market here. And so our own tangled artistic economy, where groups like W.A.G.E. (Working Artists and the Greater Economy) highlight the speculative crap shoot whereby artists foot the bill for appearing in prestigious and seemingly nonprofit exhibitions in the hope that their work will be carried by ever better and for-profit gallerists. In such a world, careerists and cynics abound, winking at or despairing of the situation where any art that operates in a product system is just so many products. As Jerry Saltz noted in 2010 about a spectacular solo show in a globally-branded gallery, “Andy Warhol famously talked about a future of ‘business art.’ Here we have that, but without the art. Now we’re just getting the business.” 
A group like W.A.G.E., self-described as “[a]n activist group of artists, art workers, performers and independent curators fighting to get paid for making the world more interesting,”  looks for that elusive running room, imagining ways of doing business that support and don’t squash the art. They point to an interesting development in the contemporary art world: that it’s no longer impolite to talk about the money. In fact, it might now be impossible to talk art without talking economics. In New York, before the real estate and other financial bubbles showed any signs of collapse, I remember my naive outrage when traveling behind a museum curator who pointed out to some collectors available objects and their prices in an important solo exhibition. What blue chip review can resist some nod to the artist’s market value now? A few months after that New York show, I saw Andrea Zittel speak at the Marin Headlands Center for the Arts outside of San Francisco. Her preface: Ask me anything you want about making a living as an artist. Surprisingly then, no one dared (Lehman Brothers had yet to fail).
Today, I think that room would be talking, as we’re all talking about auction prices, sales at Art Basel, and forgiveness of our student loan debt. In my city, we’re also talking about young artists perpetually leaving because the rents are too high and the collector base is too small.  Like W.A.G.E., we’re wondering what an alternative and sustainable arts ecology might look like. These structural discussions might happen alongside of or separate from evaluations of a work’s merits, success, or failure, but I’m increasingly interested in the ways that the structural analysis and the aesthetic review come together. Zittel inspires: Of course an artist talk should discuss the seemingly invisible means of support that make an artwork, practice, or life in the arts possible! Auction houses twin capital and connoisseurship all the time. Why not redirect the price + provenance reporting for other ends? Could there be a return-to-Brecht school of art criticism, one able to demonstrate the social situation of the work of art, the artist, and the institutions upholding both, atomizing all those economies in ready dollars and cents, while still delivering the object itself?  Could there be such an artwork? I am interested here not in broad strokes but more in nuts and bolts of economic reporting: How is such an object implicated in global, or even local, capital? How can it be a work of art but also be had in a system of exchange, at the same time?
Stephanie Syjuco’s Shadowshop tested the emerging possibilities for an economically expansive field of art objects and aesthetic judgment from late November 2010 to May 1, 2011. Staged at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), the piece, a pop-up store stocking over 200 invited and local artists’ “wares,” existed as a “live art” component of the collection exhibition The More Things Change. The latter exhibited works that SFMOMA has collected across object departments in the twenty-first century. The show spoke a great deal to fragility, entropy, and failure, whether through Pae White’s tapestry of a smoke exhalation, Smoke Knows, Mark Bradford’s gridded Monster, or Alec Soth’s photographs of detritus (both people and places) along the Mississippi river’s “third coast.” But the show also spoke to the intimate exchanges making themselves known over the last decade, whether Ryan Trecartin and his crew’s manic histrionics or the everyday poignancy of Harrell Fletcher and Miranda July’s Learning to Love You More archive. Full disclosure: I was one of ten curators on this show. Fuller disclosure: I curated Stephanie Syjuco’s Shadowshop. Even fuller disclosure: My curation had less to do with the project itself than in getting the project institutionally green-lighted. When Syjuco and her project manager, my colleague Megan Brian, got to work, I had almost nothing to do with the large contingent of Bay Area artists invited to sell their work in the shop. I did not interview every “guest worker” (as Syjuco dubbed them) who would serve as an attendant in the shop. And I certainly had little grasp of the almost overwhelming and also changing inventory Shadowshop made available for viewers of The More Things Change. In the end, when I would stroll through the shop’s gallery space, I was, at times, more like the day’s visitors than I cared to admit.
And so what did visitors see? We found a functioning retail store, a satellite museum shop closing some blockbuster exhibition. Yet the DIY aesthetic — from loading palettes as display bases and cases to the photocopied signage — suggested something else was at work. The stocked artists were invited to submit the full range of their output, from multiples to sketches to CDs and catalogues. Syjuco asked her local colleagues to examine their full range of production, to consider their studio and nonstudio practices that might circulate everywhere BUT in a gallery, and to use Shadowshop as a distribution hub for this uncertain product. The artists selected the items, the pricing (up to $250), and would receive 100% of the profits. SFMOMA covered infrastructure (from shipping to guest worker salaries), sales tax, and credit card fees. Internally, I described the piece as “bad capitalism.” We put money in, but only artists would get money out.
Shadowshop became the platform for a number of public conversations hosted by Suzanne Stein, our community producer and editor for SFMOMA’s blog, Open Space, and Patricia Maloney, editor of the Bay Area online arts magazine Art Practical. Maloney’s review of the piece in her journal set the tone for the public conversations to come.  As she rightly pointed out, the retail structure of the installation blocked one’s art vision, so that work that could have been evaluated and appreciated as art in a gallery became so many toothbrushes in that overwhelming Target aisle. Artists who set modest materials to higher price points (the $250 ceiling that would look bargain basement in a gallery) and also devised retail stacking displays over white cube spacing, like Zachary Royer Scholtz and his hand-cut blue packing material, 6610 (blue sheeting) – force of habit, made no sense to the shopping eyes enabled by Shadowshop.  As Maloney points out, one went for the $20 or even $10 gift card set instead. Yet it’s also true that savvy arts insiders — including SFMOMA curators, San Francisco gallerists, and Bay Area collectors — thrilled to the price tags some well-loved artists affixed to their Shadowshop wares. Josephine Taylor’s small drawings (at 4 x 6 inches, a truly miniaturized version of gallery works that can unfold on paper sizes more like 8 x 6 feet) sold out in a few hours of the shop’s initial opening (and then on a subsequent re-stock). Her nineteen delicate images riffing on complicated child-like figures, positioned on a shelf below the main countertop display, would hardly have been spotted and sold so quickly to a casual shopper, even priced at $20 each.  No, what Taylor buyers were looking for was some bargain basement art by real artists. Shadowshop’s goal — to focus on artists’ non-art products and to distribute them, was not always met. The artists bucked the system. The shoppers sometimes played the system well too.
And this overlay and opposition and overlay again of aesthetics and economics, of insiders and outsiders, of art and wares, continued throughout the Shadowshop exhibition. As the Open Space conversations began, this doubled vision provoked a number of headaches for the sessions’ participants, who wanted nothing less than the right corrective lenses. Self-described “emerging” artists felt that they had to accept Syjuco’s invitation to join Shadowshop because of its affiliation as an SFMOMA-sponsored project. Others felt that the shop, under Syjuco’s sole authorship, exploited the participating artists by absenting their names in official museum wall texts. Everyone argued about whether they would include the project on their CVs.
But perhaps the surprising twist in these public conversations was the voiced argument that to present works in Shadowshop was to destroy both their market value and thereby their ontological status as works of art. Shadowshop’s play with the retail structure of the contemporary art world was seen to deflate all that that structure makes possible: namely, the production, circulation, contemplation, and critique of autonomous artworks, spaced well on a white wall. For artworks both to be what they are and also to be had in a system of exchange could not be shown and hence known together. Now that any gallery block cannot be read without the real estate lens of its booming or becoming neighborhood valuation, the desire to stay in this artistic game without naming it seems like my naive self aghast at money talk on the museum floor. I preferred my art front and center and my art market in the closet. Dollar bills are pretty dirty in the end, and their links to gluttony, monstrosity, and feces well noted. Our housing for art can’t be a mess — and, ideally, should follow architect Yoshio Tanuguchi’s quip about MoMA’s early aughts’ expansion: “Give me enough money, and I will give you a beautiful museum; give me more money, and I will make it go away.”
Shadowshop, unlike MoMA’s new building, asserted its infrastructure, wedding art objects to their means of support, and thereby inaugurating a series of critical confusions. Clark Buckner, reporting on the Shadowshop conversations, highlighted one woman, self-identified as “only a consumer,” who suggested that the wares-on-sale failed as artworks-on-view not because they were so many tchotchkes with price tags in a store, but because they lacked visible authors and intentions. Our consumer’s complaint is a curious one: Certainly the whole dilemma of the commodity form is its erasure of its scene of production in favor of its magical deployment in your own life. The artwork to anyone but a collector, however, is even more inscrutable. If you can’t take it home, what are you going to do with it? Why is it here? Who made it? As any museum’s Education department can attest, the art object must ever be aligned with some answers to these questions, via wall text, iPhone stops, online video, etc. What is so compelling to me about this problem is the perception that the art object needs to carry its own scene of production for it to be considered an art object at all.
This perceived lack—a people gap, really — is crucial to Shadowshop, as I would argue its success or failure as an artwork lies solely in its ability to twin the commodity with the community of its circulation, to double a product with the scene of its making, and to enact a DIY transformation on art objects as wares. Rejecting the sleek minimalism and haughty silence of the boutique, the shop ran on the “pitch,” knowing that an overload of products paired with an overload of signage hoping to explain those products is, in the end, simply an overload. And so anyone on the production side of the piece — our artist, stocking artists, project manager, rotating guest workers (who were themselves often stocking artists), and even this mostly absent curator — would hawk our Shadowshop wares. The complaint of a consumer who thought the wares failed as art because they lacked visible intention was hardly an isolated affair — it was, instead, the very engine of the piece. We Shadowshop hawkers had a job to do: connecting people to objects and objects to people. Encountering the shop, and recalibrating themselves from art viewers to shoppers, our visitors did indeed want to know who made what, which inventory had the best value (for us, and by extension for them), and why they should be involved in the project at all. We made our sales pitches. We connected some dots. And visitors bought some wares. In the end, Shadowshop channeled over $100,000 to Bay Area artists. SFMOMA’s $30,000 project budget took work directly to the museum’s audiences and asked them to evaluate creative output that straddled commodity and art forms. That public did not fail to decide.
Shadowshop ended with a special performance by artists Packard Jennings, Steuart Pittman, and Scott Vermeire. The artists posed as QVC-like itinerant salesmen contracted by the store to sell our final stock via the web. Streaming online and selling in-person (Shadowshop sales had no online inventory), the performance spoke to the clichéd disjunction between the art world and the seeming “real” world, with the Red State attired pitchmen trying to thrill us with objects that looked, from their world’s perspective, at best inscrutable (San Francisco Giants pitcher Tim Lincecum’s rookie card signed by artist Lee Walton) and at worst naughty (Rebecca Goldfarb’s wax flashlight meets phallus sculpture). This was purely an inside job, with the performers playing up to our fantasies about the seemingly real America and to our certainties about “real” America’s fantasies about us. This was community building as comedy roast. We were all in on or the butt of the jokes.
If I began this essay in global dislocation and exhaustion, imagining an art world impossibly everywhere and overproductive, I want to end with the “lure of the local,” as Lucy Lippard’s great book  calls it, but with the “lure,” following Shadowshop’s dynamic engine, twinned with a “logic.” I hosted the eminent art historian Irving Sandler for a talk several years ago, when his memoir, A Sweeper-Up After Artists (2003), was published. The book, and his conversation with me that evening, spoke to the truly awesome scale of the contemporary art world. A Sweeper-Up might be sub-titled “Tenth Street,” for such is the original Manhattan neighborhood of the intimate art world Sandler recounts.
Thinking about Sandler’s Tenth Street now, it’s interesting to note that Sandler discovered the downtown neighborhood through midtown: In 1952, he had a “road to Damascus” moment when viewing Franz Kline’s painting Chief at MoMA: “it was the first work of art I really saw, and it changed my life, somewhat like Saul jumping into Paul, as Elaine de Kooning wrote of Kline’s own leap from figuration to abstraction.”  But in Sandler’s case, the love of abstraction and of the painting led inevitably to the figures and locales making such things. In Sandler’s case, MoMA didn’t go away; instead it pointed out where, with whom, and how to live. It pointed downtown. By fall of 1953, Sandler finds himself in the Cedar Tavern, silently sitting across from the irrepressible Franz Kline. With enough hanging out near such artists, Sandler is now a part of their world; he writes: “Within easy walking distance of the Cedar [Tavern], Tenth Street between Third and Fourth avenues, where the Tanager Gallery was located (and where Sandler would eventually work), was the geographic hub of the international avant-garde, or so the artists who lived, exhibited, and congregated there had the self-assurance to believe.”  If we no longer have such self-assurance about our centrality in the global contemporary, we still have hubs. Art remains local and social. And it will be from these local and social hubs that artists, artworks, hangers-on, sweepers-up, and judgments about them all will spring.
For me, the “lure” of the local is the lure of positioning oneself in an arts community. And it’s heartening to see just how many new arts communities constitute the global contemporary. If Shadowshop and Sandler prove instructive for me, it is because each example demonstrates how art is born from a social field of interests. And so the “logic” of the local, the sense that artworks both spring from and generate ways of looking at the world. Though he’s evaluated a changing art world for over forty years, Sandler remains rooted to the logic of Tenth Street at its action painting apogee. He’s explored many neighborhoods since then, but the logic of individual dynamism, gesture, and even heroism remains his starting point. It is the logic of our own critical localities, like the scene of the artwork’s production, that must be surfaced today too.
My local logic, embodied in this Shadowshop examination, proceeds from artworks and art worlds that mind the gap, using disjunction to twin a seemingly impossible this and that.  I like Eve Sussman and the Rufus Corporation’s whiteonwhite:algorithmicnoir because it is impossible to view in total. I admire the way that the difficulty of the production process rebounds on the viewer in the impossibility of the viewing process. I find myself wishing they had shot here too. San Francisco fogs are Noir 101, so I mourn our absence from the piece. Like our Shadowshop’s consumer and her complaint, I want to know the artist too.
So in the end these are a producer’s notes about supporting and evaluating contemporary art in a specific time and place. If I can skip the jet-setting of the global contemporary, it is because my people and purposes are here and not there. Warhol used to say, “Pop Art is liking things.” I’ll say, “Judgment is loving things enough to make them happen for other people.” I pose this love-into-action as a means of engaging the sprawl of contemporary art. And while I sought to leave him out, isn’t this just Immanual Kant in the end? Judgment as a universal subjective: We are so arrested by the thing that we determine and declare that everyone else must be arrested too. We fall hard for some thing, and we want to be a part of that thing we love. We want to find a way to make that thing happen, here, for us and for ours. And we want everyone else to love it too. So buy the postcard, start the conversation, or put on the show. The artwork will have it no other way.
1. Roberta Smith, “Artsbeat blog,” New York Times (June 2, 2011).
2. Claire Bishop, “Safety in Numbers,” Artforum (September 2011), online edition.
3. Frederic Jameson, “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” New Left Review I: 146 (July-August 1984), p. 87.
4. John Tierney, “Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue?” New York Times Magazine (August 17, 2011), online edition.
5. Hal Foster, Design and Crime (London: Verso, 2002), p. 15.
6. Oscar Wilde, The Artist as Critic, ed. Richard Ellman (London: Vintage, 1968), p. 434.
7. Jerry Saltz, “2007 Art in 2010,” New York Magazine (September 19, 2010), digital edition.
8. W.A.G.E. website.
9. A great conversation on SFMOMA’s blog, Open Space, has tracked this debate. See artist Brion Nuda Rosch’s response to curator Renny Pritikin’s post, “Artists Who Have Left Town,” here.
10. Reading Brecht lately, I’m struck again by his insistence that theater must always witness its social significance. In “The Epic Theater and its Difficulties,” he argues: “The essential point of the epic theater is that it appeals less to our feelings than to the spectator’s reason. Instead of sharing an experience, the spectator must come to grip with things.” Yet he also notes, in “A Short Organum for the Theater”: “From the first it has been the theater’s business to entertain people, as it has also of all the other arts. It is this business which always gives it its particular dignity; it needs no other passport than fun, but this it has got to have.” The sensuous and the social must always be paired. Brecht on Theater, ed. and trans. John Willet (New York: Hill & Wang, 1957), pp. 23 and 180.
11. Patricia Maloney, “Shadowshop Review,” Art Practical 2: 6 (2011).
12. See the item on Stephanie Syjuco’s The Shadowshopper blog.
13. There is no blog post of Josephine Taylor’s work in Shadowshop, since the pieces sold out so quickly.
14. Lucy Lippard, The Lure of the Local: Senses of Place in a Multicentered Society (New York: The New Press, 1997).
15. Irving Sandler, A Sweeper-Up After Artists (London: Thames & Hudson, 2003), p. 10.
16. Ibid., p. 12.
17. Think of a Brechtian actor not embodying but demonstrating a role, or of Wilde’s aphorisms, or of Foster’s running room.