Thursday, July 24, 2008

What is the price of democratic art?

Cottage Industry at Baltimore Contemporary

June 1 - August 24, 2008

Above: The Baltimore Edible Estate. Photo from Clarence's Edible Estate.

Passing through Baltimore recently, I had a chance to visit the Baltimore Contemporary for the first time. Their current exhibition, Cottage Industry, was intriguing to me because of the democratic applications of some of the artists that were included. The exhibition itself embraces the do-it-yourself philosophy prevalent today – offering a pay-what-you-wish entrance fee. Even their catalogue, printed by, at a mere $20, is affordable and reflects the DIY spirit of exhibition.

Tyler Green refers to the artists in the exhibition as “hyphen-artists,” though grammatically that seems to imply to me that the hyphen comes first. Most of the practices of these artists do merge their entire process into a hybrid form of object making, activism, commentary, and the necessary participation of others. It calls attention to the fact that many artists no longer separate the process of making art from the final product, creating a new territory in which art objects and the practice of art making are blurred, and part of what an art purchaser actually buys is the account of an object’s creation.

But who are these art purchasers? The recession continues, but art prices skyrocket. As I left the exhibition, I couldn’t help but wonder, what is the price at which art becomes democratic?

Edible Estates

I couldn’t help from being a bit amused by the idea that an art museum wrote grants and begged money from sponsors to create a vegetable garden in a middle class Baltimore neighborhood. Don’t get me wrong; it’s great, and a terrific benefit to not only those living on the new Estate, but their neighborhood as well. Fritz Haeg’s Gardenlab describes his projects as inspired by the garden as metaphor & laboratory, initiating ecology based art & design projects.” The Edible Estates documentation installation at the museum definitely seemed crowded, it could benefit from more space and some organization, and the tent screamed unnecessary echoes to this Philadelphian of the Philly-ICA’s Locally Localized Gravity exhibition last year. Yet the Edible Estates are more of an ongoing experience, rather than institutional objects. Fritz Haeg has figured out not only how to make a difference in communities, but to get paid to do it. Additionally, he includes advice on how to create your own Edible Estate on your own front lawn, encouraging others to utilize such spaces to grow their own food. As gas and food prices go up, it’s something we can all consider.

A cruise though the Gardenlab website mentions their new project Animal Estates, which were part of the 2008 Whitney Biennial. As Philadelphia launches its new Office of Sustainability, I think Gardenlab would be a great institution to bring to Philadelphia, perhaps in partnership with the newly recreated Office of Arts and Culture.

Tract House

Lisa Anne Auerbach, who happens to be one of the Smockers of Andrea Zittel’s Smockshop, also part of Cottage Industry, debuts a project called The Tract House as part of the exhibition. Installed in the museum are some of the “tracts,” (based on the idea of the religious/political tracts in the past). I was given to understand that in addition there was an actual “Tract House” location outside of the museum, where the tracts were being given away. Unfortunately, time did not permit me to visit. There is also an online component to the project, allowing anyone with computer access and a printer to print out their own tracts to keep or to distribute.

The tracts are basically like numerous other zines I’ve seen before. However, that doesn’t take away from the quality of their presentation or the writing therein. Some of the tracts the Graphic Conscience might get around to printing out and saving. Some of my favorites were:

“Your Economic Stimulus Package”

“The Detainee”

“The Grass is Always Greener”


“How Not To Cook Something”

“Full Frontal Gardening” (a tract by Gardenlab)

These works focused on the dissemination of ideas, clearly, concisely, without any conspiracy theory garbage or radical blame casting. Instead, they simply evoked some overlooked societal truths – how grass lawns are actually bad for the environment, how the economic stimulus package for most of us is a big joke, thoughts on how our belongings define us, etc. Simple truths, subtle suggestions for better lives and how to make a better world – all for free!


I’ve been intrigued with Andrea Zittel for many years now, and I believe she has reached a conceptual breakthrough. I’ve always liked her concept of making life easier with less decisions, however, I’ve found her executions to be awkward and that they somehow always seem to be a form of pushing her own needs and ideas onto others. Now she has created a versatile design that can be customized to suit personal purposes and styles. Her smock design is individualized by various “smockers” – artists whose work, according to the Smockshop website, is either “noncommercial or not yet self-sustaining.”

This isn’t a new idea; in fact, it’s very reflective of current dynamic between individualized and mass-produced items such as jeans, Nikes, handbags, etc. What impresses me most is that Zittel is no longer making it all about herself; she is extending the opportunity to others. Most of the participating smockers are fiber artists of some sort, being part of the Smockshop isn’t too far a step away from their own work. The designs on the website don’t seem to alter the original design by too much, the Conscience wonders if that is to defer to or humor Zittel, or if it’s just easier. Personally, I’d like to see some more daring alterations, as I think the actual smock shape is a little plain.

Smocks cannot be purchased off the Smockshop website (this seems odd), so I cannot comment on their price range. However, the website does list several high end NY, LA, and Chicago galleries where they can be purchased, yet fails to mention their participation in Cottage Industry. This might be due to that fact that the smocks present in the exhibition are not for sale.

Zittel has always claimed her work is about simplifying life and providing peace of mind, and the smocks promise to “save you time, money, and energy.” I couldn’t help wondering, considering where the smocks are selling, for whom Zittel is actually saving money and providing peace of mind. On one hand, let me admit that the smockers are creating handmade work and deserve to be paid well for their efforts and the quality they are providing – this idea would be a more honest marketing strategy. Because who is more deserving of saving time, money and peace of mind, those who can afford to shop on 5th Avenue and Beverly Hills, or those who are struggling to make ends meet?

Also included in the exhibition was the City Reliquary Museum, Christine Hill’s Volksboutique, and the John Erickson Museum of Art. To see images of the opening reception, visit here.

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