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01 Right -- artists may not visibly invoke the logic of what has been called “crisis capitalism,” but we are all in the midst of absorbing and processing its discursive and material effects.


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.1 All the artworks we have been discussing enact various forms of commerce between entities that might otherwise be thought of as existing separately. In this way the work of art constructs the “world” as something shared.



When we speak of artists engaging with the economy, we might immediately think of artists, dealers and art collectors buying and selling works of art. Yves Klein’s Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility (1958)

rethinking questions of economics and systems of distribution. I spoke about the emergence of what I call “occupational realism,” when artists perform waged work as art.



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Yes, commerce says, “Everything flows.” Which is another way of saying that the viewers of an instance of commerce-by-artists are already absorbed, or enveloped, by the commerce we are witnessing. That is the power of Clark’s “organic line.”


Here it’s clear that such a relationship creates flows, or currents. But money is only the customary form in which we conceive of flow; currency is not its essential form.





Conceptual Application, two seemingly oppositional ideas inextricably linked. The Conceptual, with its roots in art and philosophical discourse, pushes the boundaries of human rationality, creativity, and understanding. It incites a critical analysis and poetic logic that brings new forms of knowledge to the fore, but in its referential language remains indecipherable to a broader public not schooled in decades of prior academic writing and artistic thought. Therefore, those in art discourse end up talking to themselves, and are losing a relevancy war in the face of massive, global economic and environmental crisis. There is no place for the Conceptual without its Application. Application embeds art and philosophical concepts in the consciousness of a broader public. Enclaves exist where artists and designers and philosophers experiment with new social and organizational forms; but always the problem of scale and sustainability raises its head, and the raging river of society merely flows around such endeavors. How to embed new concepts and epistemologies in our actions, consumer habits, and trends on a vast socio-cultural level, so the flow of the river is dramatically altered? This is an activist project. The work within the publication you are holding is the primary stakeholder in a company and the company exists to leverage current economic systems to reinvest all its profits to fund scholarship. The very funding, production and distribution of this progressive work is the subversive model that Conceptual Application (Con-App) seeks to employ and expand. In the case of Cipher #1, (a cipher being a means of decoding and mapping previously opaque systems—an apt metaphor for this endeavor), the sale of an artist-designed shoe by Rich Cofinco debuts at Barney’s and other retailers in LA and New York. The profits gained from the sale of that shoe in the luxury retail market are then used to produce and pay for this freely distributed ‘zine and the ideas contained within it. As we said to Neil Brenner, an urban theorist who interrogates this effort in an interview he conducted with us called “The ‘zine is the Project,” this is less an interruption of the retail system than a critique on the economic systems that fund the production of art and knowledge in our culture. “The engagement of Con-App in these retail channels challenges the assumption that the not-for-profit model is the only way to advance progressive and publicly responsible work. Rather, Con-App is a call to action for organizations to rethink financing, sustainability, and a broader commitment to art and knowledge within our economic reality.” The work contained within these pages investigates economic forms, new and old, in artists’ work and their thinking—from Julia BryanWilson’s interview with Luis Jacob on his book project Commerce by Artists to Neil Brenner’s thorough investigation of Con-App itself. Other contributions include the work of Theaster Gates, Gabriel Kuri and Aaron Sandnes, artists who critically deconstruct economies and systems of distributions, and a new essay by curator Nato Thompson analyzing the common critiques of economic power imbalances in socially-engaged art work, particularly in the post-industrial town of Braddock, PA. Finally, the shoemakersturned-collectors of the Shoes or No Shoes Museum in Belgium have contributed images of an astonishing array of artists’ shoes from their collection (some paint-splattered or lovingly worn, others refabricated into artworks), recalling the spark of this endeavor and its birth into the world—just a pretty darn good pair of shoes. - Sue Bell Yank and Glenn Kaino




T.O.C. X Commerce by Artists Julia Bryan-Wilson and Luis Jacob

\ Gabriel Kuri

# The ‘zine is the Project Neil Brenner, Glenn Kaino, and Sue Bell Yank

% Accepting Imbalances of Power in Socially-engaged Art Nato Thompson

Q Shoes or No Shoes?

^ Theaster Gates

& Aaron Sandnes


COMMERCE BY ARTISTS An Interview Between Julia Bryan-Wilson and Luis Jacob

In February 2012, Toronto-based artist Luis Jacob and I met in Antwerp, Belgium, as part of an event hosted by the art space Extra City Kunsthal. At Extra City, Luis presented his book Commerce by Artists, published by Art Metropole in 2011, a brilliantly conceived compilation of artists in the 20th and 21st centuries whose practices involve rethinking questions of economics and systems of distribution. I spoke about the emergence of what I call “occupational realism,” when artists perform waged work as art. Given our shared interest in artistic labor, we had an engaging conversation about the production of art beyond commodities, the manufacturing of effort, and the business of selling affect. Because our time in Antwerp was all too short, and I wanted to continue our dialogue in another form, we conducted this interview by email.   –Julia Bryan-Wilson, associate professor of modern and contemporary art, University of California, Berkeley

Yves Klein The Ritual for a Zone of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility, Photograph documenting the transfer of a zone of immaterial pictorial sensibility to Claude Pascal, Pictured: Yves Klein, Jean Larcade, Claude Pascal, Pont au Double, Paris, February 4, 1962.



Julia Bryan-Wilson: How did you become interested in the subject of artists who engage with the economy, which is the primary focus of your book Commerce by Artists? How do you see this project as linked to, or perhaps distinct from, your own artistic process? Luis Jacob: When we speak of artists engaging with the economy, we might immediately think of artists, dealers and art collectors buying and selling works of art. Yves Klein’s “Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility”(1958) is a relevant example here. Or we might be reminded of art

Ben Kinmont, Sometimes, A Nicer Sculpture Is To Be Able To Provide A Living For Your Family (2002), Publication made as an introduction to an antiquarian bookselling business as an artwork.

projects that take the form of retail operations, such as Ben Kinmont’s “Sometimes a Nicer Sculpture is to be Able to Provide a Living for Your Family”(begun in 1998). But the inclusion of the majority of projects in the book relies on a broader definition of “commerce.” In general terms, I understand commerce as any relationship between entities that causes things to flow. In a retail exchange, money and goods trade hands; here it’s clear that such a relationship creates flows, or currents. But money—currency—is only the customary form in which we conceive of flow; currency is not its essential form. Commerce by Artists is an attempt to engage with this expanded definition of commerce. JB-W: This makes me think of the idea, too, of the “charge”—both as a kind of electrical current, as well as a monetary fee or a price exacted. These words signify interestingly in numerous directions; the currencies you talk about have a charge, in several senses of that term. And of course flow and currency are not necessarily monetized; they can also refer to currents or waves of feeling—that is, affective coursings. LJ: Yes, many different types of flow are possible. In friendly discourse, for instance, ideas flow between friends and this flow can create an intense synergy such that, sometimes, I cannot decide whether my friend or I came up with a certain idea during our conversation.


The friendship is a medium in which ideas are generated, and through which ideas circulate between individuals. It strikes me, then, that a friendship is a form of commerce. Living organisms, to provide another instance, are in constant relationship with various entities in order to ensure their survival. Each of us must find access to organisms that, as food, will provide us with nutrition; we struggle against other organisms that, as parasites, threaten our health; and we expel those materials that, as excreta, are toxic inside our bodies. And so—to consider only the human entities with which we sustain commerce in order to survive—we depend on farmers to cultivate food, on doctors to help during an illness, and on sewage workers and civic engineers to properly channel what we flush down the toilet. In these various ways, commerce creates a “world,” which refers to the unity of entities connected by various flows. With Commerce by Artists I wanted to look at the ways artists engage with the world they live in, from the perspective of these flows of commerce. Artworks are not merely inert objects that hang on walls or sit on pedestals. In fact, artworks are active players in a rather complex web of relationships— players that allow some things to flow while blocking others, players that transform their world and are transformed in turn. If this insight is a true one, then we may conceive that all artists are engaged in “commerce by artists.” JB-W: As you state, you are not so much interested in artists who “represent commercial transactions” but rather those who “enact them”? How do you make that distinction? Can you give some examples? LJ: I define commerce as an interaction that causes things to flow. The artworks documented in Commerce by Artists take the form of such transactions, rather than represent these transactions using artistic means. I first became interested in this distinction between representation and enaction during the 1990s, when I noticed, in the work of artists as diverse as Lygia Clark and Hans Haacke, a shift from artworks that employ fictive artistic means, towards artworks that engage with reality in an actual and direct manner. In the case of Lygia Clark, this shift appears with extraordinary lucidity. In her Neo-Concretist paintings of the 1950s, a pictorial line on the surface of her abstract paintings would come in contact with a non-pictorial line produced at the gap between the painting and the passe-partout that is an element of the work. This non-pictorial line (which she called the “organic line”) possessed a different reality than the depicted line; it was made up of real space, not the fictive space of the depicted line. In the words of Brazilian poet and art critic Ferreira Gullar, the organic line “irrigated the surface of the painting with real space,” and gradually assumed an assertive role in Clark’s subsequent work. The organic line—a seam consisting of nothing but

empty space—expanded in the “Casulos (Cocoons)” of the late 50s, to become a pocket of space physically enveloped by the art object. In her celebrated “Bichos (Animals)” from the early 60s, this immaterial space full of potential was identified with the voluntary participation of the viewer who freely manipulated the object and activated it. What began as an abstract mark produced with fictive artistic means became, in Clark’s work, explicitly articulated as an actual subject/object relationship.

“The Life of Timon of Athens”–a play about a man who gives away all his money to false friends. That same evening, Sotheby’s was completing a record-breaking two-day auction of the work of Damien Hirst that grossed almost $200 million. All this occurred a day after Lehman Brothers collapsed in the largest bankruptcy filing in U.S. history, on

JB-W: One of the most compelling connections you are making here is about the economies of form; that is, how formal means can register ethical or political dimensions. Clark shifted her practice in reaction to the Brazilian dictatorship in the later 1960s, and then left the realm of art altogether to pursue her career as a therapist. Her earlier handson abstraction arguably pointed the way towards her more pointed participatory interventions, perhaps also in a way that Haacke’s did, as he moved from systems-based work to explicit institutional critique. LJ: I completely agree. During the early 1960s Hans Haacke worked under the influence of the Zero group of artists. In his case also, abstract forms eventually became identified with actual natural and then social systems. Here in Toronto, the Art Gallery of Ontario has in its permanent collection one of his early works, titled “Eisstab (Ice Stick)” (1966). This work resembles a minimalist sculpture, and contains a refrigeration system that causes ice to accumulate on a vertical pole. The quality of the ice at any given time—its thickness, its wetness—is the physical manifestation of the interaction between the object and the context where it is displayed. This context is constituted by several factors: natural weather conditions outdoors, the artificial transformation of these conditions by the museum’s climate-control system, the humid exhalations of viewers as they freeze and accumulate on the sculpture. This stick of ice—which we might call, following Clark, an “organic form”—makes manifest the interaction between the forms of the object fabricated by the artist, and the actual, though invisible, conditions of the space around it that “irrigate” and sculpt its visible appearance. There is something very powerful about this way of producing works of art. JB-W: You note that your research for this project begun just as the world economy entered a state of crisis. Can you expand on how you think the current shifts in production— as well as transactions and economies and commerce and markets—are borne out in artistic practices? LJ: I recall a peculiar moment during the early stages of conducting research for this anthology. I happened to be in London on September 16, 2008, watching Shakespeare’s

Martha Wilson, Posturing: Drag (1972) Colour photograph, 25.4 x 20.3 cm (10 x 8 inches).

September 15th. The nervous uncertainty in the air in London at that time was palpable. In such a volatile context, it’s practically impossible for us to ignore the link between the financial crisis and the choice of artworks documented in the book. JB-W: My work on occupational realism also took on a different tenor given the rise of the Occupy movement, which took hold in fall 2011 and was exceptionally active Oakland, California, which is where I live. I was thinking through “occupations” at a time when inequality, precarity, and the lack of job security were being made legible in new ways through sometimes aggressive street demonstrations. Occupy Oakland also raised questions about the criminalization of protest, and forced many to see how deep the crisis of injustice is in the U.S. LJ: Economic crisis is endemic to capitalism. Such crises are not exceptional, but they haunt us as if by clockwork. At least since the time when I was born, in 1971, crisis has been a recurring condition: the stock market crash of 1973; the debt crisis in Latin America during the 1980s; Black


Edward Poitras Offensive/Defensive, (1988) Outdoor installation at Gordon First Nation and Mendel Art Gallery.

Monday in 1987; the 1989 Savings and Loan crisis in the U.S.; the Asian financial crisis of 1997; the bursting of the dot-com bubble in 2001; the global financial crisis that began in 2007; the European sovereign-debt crisis that remains unresolved today. These are only the obvious instances of crisis. Even moments of prosperity, for some (for example, the rise of the technology sector in the U.S. during the 1990s boom, for example), are simultaneously catastrophic moments of crisis for others (outsourcing and the closing of factories in the manufacturing sector). At the risk of making a too-broad claim, it seems to me that, in recent memory, the experience of economic crisis necessarily informs all artistic production. I suspect that some artists deal with this influence symptomatically, while some deal with it thematically as the very content of their work. JB-W: Right–artists may not visibly invoke the logic of what has been called “crisis capitalism,” but we are all in the midst of absorbing and processing its discursive and material effects. I am really interested in this sentence, from your introduction to Commerce by Artists: “Flow transforms that which flows.” Can you say more about that? How are flux, change, and instability both transformative and also destructive? LJ: I’ll give an example. One of the chapters of Commerce by Artists deals with economies of identity. Martha Wilson’s project, titled “Posturing: Drag” (1972), is a photograph that features the artist posing as a man who is posing as a woman.


About this work, Wilson said that “form determines feeling, so that if I pose in a role I can experience a foreign emotion.” For the artist, the work transformed her emotional state, as Wilson attempted to embody what a man feels while posing as a woman. As a viewer, I find myself entangled by the work as I try to make sense of my readings of her gender cues. Is that softly raised eyebrow a man’s facial expression or a woman’s? Are the arms, folded in a gesture of relaxed self-protection, those of a woman posing as a man, or of a man posing as a woman? Are the fingers, which are as delicately poised as a fashion model’s, those of a woman’s interpretation of a man’s image of a woman, or truly those of a man’s interpretation of a woman’s hands? Are the cheeks, which I judge to be too round to be attractive, the signal of a woman’s failure to embody social norms, or the signal of a man’s inability to “pass” as a real woman? What is the difference in appearance between a woman posing as a man posing as a woman—and a woman, tout court? In my commerce with the work of art, I become entangled with it. I experience a slippage between what I see and what I understand about a person’s gender. My self-presence is transformed in this way, as I recognize that my own “solitary” act of viewing is inhabited (we might say, “irrigated”) by all the magazines I have read, all the television I have watched, all the bodily gestures I have incorporated, all the people I have met and desired—active agents that haunt my perception of others, and that I scarcely comprehend. JB-W: It is interesting that as you become implicated as a viewer and subject in some of these works, the flow touches you. With the Wilson piece, you speak of a gendered relationship to the work, but there is also a sexuality component—as a viewer, you are hailed queerly. Your book also

Edward Poitras Offensive/Defensive, (1988) Outdoor installation at Gordon First Nation and Mendel Art Gallery.

notably includes several artists who raise issues of identity vis-à-vis migration and exile. Given that you were born in Peru but raised in Canada, can you speak more about this? LJ: Commerce says, “Everything flows.” Which is another way of saying that we, as viewers of an instance of commerce-by-artists are already enveloped or absorbed by the commerce we are witnessing. Another chapter in the book focuses on the goods that flow in commercial relations. Edward Poitras’s “Offensive/Defensive” (1988) deals with those goods called “land.” Rights to the land is a central unresolved issue in Canada, as it is in the rest of the Americas, particularly when it comes to Native land rights. Poitras’s “Offensive/Defensive” was made by exchanging a rectangular strip of lawn from the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon with a rectangular strip of prairie topsoil from the grounds of the Gordon Indian Reserve near Fort Qu’Appelle. Grafted into each other’s location, the two strips looked somewhat like Robert Smithson’s forlorn non-sites, or like the lines on the earth that Richard Long made by walking. Two pieces of living earth traded places, and thus connected various entities: soils, species of plant life, as well as cultures—Native, Métis and settler—united on contested ground. As each strip of living soil took root in its new location, the commerce enacted between these various entities became a question of life and death. In this way the work addressed the history of forced removal of Native and Métis people, and the ongoing processes of cultural assimilation, with all its destructiveness and creativity. As it turned out, the Prairie grass eventually survived and blended with the other plant species in its new location on the museum’s grounds, while the gallery’s patch of lawn, unable to adapt, withered and died on the reserve. Lead ingots were buried

beneath each strip of land, bearing the words “OFFENSIVE” and “DEFENSIVE.” These linguistic bullets memorialize the 1885 North-West Rebellion, and serve as hidden catalysts for future resistance to assimilation—a lead cache buried in the land itself, archaeological proof for a time to come. Various plant species, different cultures, the past and the future, are all woven together in Poitras’s work, creating a complex web of relationships. As a viewer, I find myself entangled here, too, as I catch glimpse of my inheritance as an immigrant citizen on Canadian soil, an unwitting settler on Native land. JB-W: Your process really foregrounds how these issues end up speaking to each other—that is, queerness and alternative masculinities and immigration and labor are not distinct, but placed in relation to each other, and to the production of culture. This results in a richly textured understanding of how work is one fundamental aspect of what Hannah Arendt called world-making. LJ: All the artworks we have been discussing enact various forms of commerce between entities that might otherwise be thought of as existing separately. In this way the work of art renders manifest the “world” as something shared. As viewers, we are directly implicated and become entangled with the work because we recognize we share the same world with it. Our commerce with the work displaces us from our habitual sense of self and, as you pointed out, there is something both transformative as well as destructive in this. Is this transformation experienced as liberating or as threatening? Is it accepted as a challenge to one’s self-identity or as an enrichment of one’s sense of place in the world with others?


Gabriel Kuri


Gabriel Kuri


Gabriel Kuri


Gabriel Kuri



Neil Brenner, an urban theorist, was invited by the editors of Cipher, Glenn Kaino and Sue Bell Yank, to contribute an essay. Intrigued by the invitation, but somewhat uncertain about what he might be able to offer, he asked the editors for further clarifications regarding the nature of the publication and its somewhat unconventional mode of circulation via, among other means, a shoe line sold at Barney’s New York. An initial email exchange with Sue Bell Yank developed into a wide-ranging discussion of writing, art, cultural production and commodification. Glenn Kaino subsequently joined the conversation during a more structured, three-way interview regarding the production and distribution of this ‘zine in the context of the broader project of Conceptual Application (Con-App), simultaneously a company, funding structure, and artistic platform. The text that follows recounts the main elements of this dialogue.

THE ZINE IS THE PROJECT A conversation with Glenn Kaino and Sue Bell Yank, editors of Cipher Diagram by Rob Daurio


Neil Brenner (NB): Glenn and Sue, can you tell us a little bit about who you are, what you do, and how you came to be involved in this particular project? Glenn Kaino (GK): This is meant to be an experiment where we begin to chart out unmapped terrain, and I think that having this conversation is a big part of beginning and extending that process. I’m a visual artist. My practice for the past 15 years has been about finding and revealing new epistemic moments and poetic invention in the spaces that exist between the existing systems of cultural production. This project started with an old friend of mine, Rich Cofinco, who was a very noteworthy graffiti writer in the ‘80’s and who later migrated out of the urban street art world to create a very popular line of shoes. He subsequently left the organization because of corporate politics. We were sitting in my studio talking about how we might be able to use his knowledge and resources to intervene into a consumer system that he was savvy to. We thought it might be interesting to create an organization that would use that retail system as the landscape for the dissemination of ideas. That concept also extends from my particular vantage point in the art world proper. During the culture wars in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s, the systems of art patronage changed radically—for instance, with the dissolution of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Subsequently the shift in these mechanics of support caused a lot of inquiry to migrate into commercial galleries. This in turn evolved into necessary engagements with the current high-end, market-manipulated system. So, the Con-App project seemed like a natural, if somewhat perverse, extension of these trends into a more retail framework. We decided to embark upon the project with a very clear idea of the context in which we are working, but also with a set of principles about what we wanted to investigate and how.


Sue Bell Yank (SBY): I’m a writer, educator, and cultural organizer. I come from an education background: I began teaching in inner city Los Angeles and slowly made my way into the museum world, working most recently in museum education at the Hammer Museum. In my six years running a department of education, I repeatedly came up against a broad questioning of the relevancy of art, especially contemporary art. Personally, I often found contemporary art to be intellectually exciting and full of possibilities for innovative thinking about our world. But, mostly due to issues of public accessibility, I found that many others rarely saw it as central, relevant, or even very interesting. I am particularly interested in working on and writing about projects that exist entirely outside of the commercial gallery system, because they tend to be socially engaged or community-based. Such projects don’t necessarily coalesce around a single output; given their pedagogical or activist orientation, they often assume quite diverse organizational forms. Artists sometimes confine themselves to small enclaves, producing radical innovations in economic forms or social visions, but they often go completely unnoticed by the societal mainstream, and thus do not necessarily make any kind of deeper impact. In a world faced with such enormous crises, it’s very important that we invest in these projects and find ways to scale them up so that they can make a broader impact. So the principles behind Con-App really interested me—working within systems of production, including retail, that can potentially reach wide audiences, but with criticality and a subversive intent to leverage those systems for ends other than the pure pursuit of profit. NB: Can you explain the structure of this project? What is the connection to Barney’s New York? How do the shoe line and this ‘zine connect to your broader cultural and artistic agendas? What are people holding in their hands as they are reading this text?

GK: The Con-App project is a retail intervention in which a group of artists have created a product (a shoe), invested our own studio and relationship capital in it, and sold it through conventional retail channels, using the existing distribution patterns of a luxury brand. The profits from that transaction are then leveraged to produce this free publication, containing transparent and progressive knowledge, which is to be disseminated to an even broader public. The first stop is Barney’s. As a large retail gatekeeper/taste maker, Barney’s is a validating force on the market that transfers its own cultural agency into the viability of the products it sells. In this sense, working with Barney’s is not a collaboration. From their perspective it is simply a retail risk, part of their conventional portfolio of such risks. Because of Rich Cofinco’s past successes with Barney’s, we were able to get the shoes into the shop. They’re savvy that it is a bigger project than just a pair of shoes, but ultimately it had to work for them as shoes—because they are a retail fashion business. In proceeding in this way, we wanted not only to map out the terrain from which an artistic practice can find its way into Barney’s, but also use that model of distribution as a new access point for ideas. To the extent that a customer could be reading this interview in Barney’s, we may have created an entirely new situation. SBY: To my mind, this publication is also a way to stave off the threat of artistic activity being subsumed entirely in a retail realm dominated by profit-driven forces, devoid of any sort of criticality. Cipher is intended to support criticality in that it’s transparent about its own means of distribution and production. GK: I would complicate that point, just a bit. The shoe we are selling in Barney’s is just a really good shoe. In and of itself, the shoe is more like a carrier-vessel than an art object. In other words, Cipher itself, and its use of corporate funding, is not dependent on the shoe being read particularly as an art object. I want to make sure that we got that point on the record. SBY: That’s a good distinction, because Cipher is not in the service of the shoe, it’s the other way around. NB: Starting with the shoe is actually a good idea: it reminds me a bit of what Marx does in the opening chapter of Capital in which he is trying to decipher the mystery of the commodity; he constructs quite an argument by tracking the pathways of a coat through its production and circulation process. Perhaps we’re dealing with something similar here, trying to understand your shoe and its connection to this ‘zine?

GK: Yes, the shoe is a marker-vessel that we can trace and map, in order to then figure out where we want to mobilize certain points of intervention. But Cipher is not meant to be a sort of didactic text, to go along with or protect the shoe. I see it more as the project. We could get the same exact group of artists together and then try to make a lot of money, but the actual project is the idea that we would get together in a room, spend our time and try to create scholarship with the use of the shoe’s proceeds. NB: So the publication is the project, not the shoe—Cipher is the project? SBY: Yes, Cipher is the project, but only insofar as it also brings to light the means of production and distribution that have created it. GK: Yes. It’s like an MRI or something. (laughs) SBY: Its content is intended to function as a way of taking a step back and looking at the entire economic means through which we’re able to produce the various kinds of work embodied in this publication. It didn’t just come out of nowhere, or because somebody donated a bunch of money; it’s precisely the result of this leveraging that involves the shoe. NB: So you went to Barney’s with the shoe idea, and but indicated that your work with them hinged upon being able to give away this publication for free in their store? Can you tell us more about that? I mean, this is somewhat an unusual idea. It could be viewed as by some retailers as a hassle to deal with something else beyond the presentation and sales of the shoes. Was your main goal simply to use the profits from the shoe to produce the ‘zine, or were you insistent that the ‘zine also had to be distributed where the shoe is sold? GK: Actually, the pitch to Barney’s for the shoes had nothing to do with the publication. The Barney’s buyers had to feel that the shoes were going to sell with or without a publication. The shoes either fell in line or out of line with their patterns of buying. The Barney’s conversation pretty much could have begun and ended at the shoe, because that was utilizing their normative system of buying. Barney’s is a big machine, and there is not any room for “art projects” that aren’t also business projects. In that negotiation, there was probably a disparity between their knowledge of the systems of cultural production in which we are working, and our own knowledge of the retail systems in which they are working. We said, “Hey, we would also like to put a scholarly publication in the boxes and distribute it with the shoes, because this is part of a larger overall art project.” And they said, “Yeah, sure.”


NB: Will Cipher also be circulated outside the store? GK: It will have much more distribution outside of Barney’s than inside of Barney’s. We are designing it and producing it with the aim of being able to distribute it through a number of different public outlets. NB: Is the connection to Barney’s mainly a matter of creating a financial structure through which to channel profits into criticality and art, or is it part of how you’re branding and disseminating the ‘zine itself? GK: It’s the former. Barney’s is the main gatekeeper and validator for a luxury retail line. Because of the Barney’s relationship, a handful of other smaller boutique retailers who specialize in interesting products have reached out to work on the project, either in the form of carrying out a consignment or buying some small orders. All of those access points will clearly be areas of distribution, but we have plenty of relationships at cultural institutions and universities as well, from which we intend to cultivate distribution points for this publication and any other projects that might follow. SBY: In my mind, there are two side-by-side goals. One is the utilization of this retail system to generate the funds to be able to produce Cipher, and I think that’s what we’re really experimenting with in this first round. Barney’s is the jumping-off point for making the financial calculus viable. Another interest of mine is the broader question of accessibility and distribution. In this particular project, the output may be a bit more limited to high-end retail stores and cultural institutions with which we already have relationships. But, in subsequent issues, a goal is certainly to increase the accessibility of these ideas. Every project will hopefully open new means of distribution and new arenas for discussion and debate. NB: So the Barney’s brand doesn’t have any influence over the content or representation of the publication? It’s more about leveraging a relationship with a retail organization in order to generate funding for your work; the distributional side of your relation to Barney’s is not that important. Am I getting this right? **

GK: You are understanding it, but I’m going to throw in another little nuance. The other way in which Barney’s plays a possibly important role is as an actor in the story itself. I always think that the projects that I do resonate not only in the now, when they’re actually articulated, but in the ways in which the story inspires subsequent iterations, or influences additional projects. Even though we’re not explicitly using it at the moment for that cultural caché, subverting Barney’s gatekeeper role in this way does add some intrigue to the story. NB: So Barney’s is, after all, part of the “aura” of the project, even if the distribution is independent. Would you call this a work of performance art? GK: I would say yes. I was discussing my practice with a curator recently. And I said, “This is the thing. I grew up believing that the conceptual was real. And so the delusion of mapping the invisible to me is something that becomes tangible.” So one might label this performance and I would be okay with that. To me it’s in this abstract space between performance, system production, rumor; it exists in the conceptual. We might think of the project as a “breadcrumb”—a kind of trail marker enabling us to find our way back out of the woods, or perhaps demarcating a pathway for others to follow us into the woods. It’s part of the search for a conceptual cartography enabling us to demystify these systems to allow additional infiltration by us, or other people. SBY: Yes, this project is meant to be a spark, an impulse to be taken up by others, to be remixed or used in different ways. So the breadcrumb being the initial bit that people pick up and they’re like, “Let me follow this where this goes.” And it might lead people in totally different directions, but it’s an interesting provocation. NB: You both emphasize that the systems of retail profitmaking are not interrupted at all by this project. In other words, it had to be viable for them from a profit-oriented perspective, as is any other line of shoes or any other brand that they use in the store. And meanwhile, there’s no exclusivity here; the publication is going be distributed

through many other outlets. So you’re simply using Barney’s to add a new cultural dimension to the publication output. Where, then, is the criticality located? Is it related to the content of what the publication conveys? Is it related to the actual system of distribution? Is it related to how you fund the project? Or is it all of the above? GK: It’s all of the above with nuanced variations. The contents of the publication are the most forward-looking mechanisms of criticality, because we are literally trying to assemble voices here that would in a very explicit way deconstruct the attempt. I think your point is very well taken that the retail channel isn’t interrupted per se. But I think that, because of its nuances, the model still has the long-term potential to be disruptive. The criticality exists not only in the current manifestation, but in its potential in many future instanciations. SBY: The criticality also lies in the broader context of art production and cultural production in our society. I don’t think the purpose of this project is to disrupt retail, at least not directly. It is rather to offer an alternative to the way that systems of art production currently function, which is extremely problematic. GK: In and of itself, the publication establishes a critical position, but the entire project is a case study for how one might attach criticality to a larger conceptual project in this way. SBY: It’s also an application, hence the name Conceptual Application (Con-App). It’s not just conceptual, it’s also meant to be a—I hesitate to use the word “solution” … but at least an alternative or different way of thinking around problems. GK: It’s active. SBY: It’s active, yes, it can be applied in the real world. And that goes back to the spark comment. So hopefully it’s something that other artists or cultural producers with radical ideas could take up, rather

than depending on our patronage or commercial gallery models. That’s one way that I read it. NB: When you say criticality, though, it sounds like you mainly mean criticality in relation to the art world, and in relation to the systems for the production of art. GK: I see this as the primary object of discussion, though I think that the case study is a critique of cultural production at large. I think it is explicit in terms of the application of conceptual art ideas into the public realm. It has the opportunity to serve multiple purposes by critiquing the intention of an overall retail and corporate apparatus that trades on fashion and artists’ ideas, unattached to any selfreflexivity about or responsibility to their own work product. SBY: There’s a little bit of calibration I think that needs to happen. Going back to the enclave metaphor: you can be in your enclave and be completely ignored, or you can start to throw your elbows out like the radical activist and get squashed. There’s an interesting tension between those ways of working, where there’s a little bit of disruption, perhaps, or potential for disruption, maybe not too much at this point. A foothold needs to be established first. So it’s a fine rope that we’re walking here in terms of disruption, criticality, and intention. NB: It sounds like, at this stage, the criticality is more clearly articulated in relationship to a project of disrupting existing channels of art production and consumption, rather than a disruption of the retail industry, the divisions of labor associated with the production of these shoes and clothes, and the broader political-economic systems to which those retail systems are connected. Is that fair? GK: I think that’s fair. However, as a rumination that can have several generations of activity and possible influence, there remains the potential for broader disruption. Hopefully people who try something like this after will be better than us at it.


NB: Who is your target readership? The shoppers at Barney’s? Or fellow artists and art critics? Sue, you began by talking about your interest in education and pedagogy. Do you have a broader pedagogical intervention beyond those particular publics?

that be access to curators and artists, or influence over acquisitions. Institutions end up doing backflips and acrobatic twists and turns in order for their programs to survive. The shoes are the protective line between artists and writers and the money that funds their work.

SBY: As I mentioned before, I think each iteration of this publication is going to have its particular opportunities for publics and for readership. Because this one is focused around economies of art production, the core readership will certainly be cultural producers, as well as an interested crowd that is excited by the art project-nature of these shoes at Barney’s.

NB: How would you respond to a skeptical critic who views this as an elitist strategy complicit with the broader economy of luxury consumption—and social inequality— that currently prevails in big cities such as NYC and Los Angeles. Why not partner with public institutions or not-for-profit organizations to get your message out?  How can “criticality” be promoted through a retail outlet oriented predominantly towards the 1%?

NB: I still don’t entirely see how your model disrupts extant systems of cultural philanthropy. Isn’t the shoe basically serving the same function that an art patron would serve in a different context?  The shoe generates funds to support cultural work that might not otherwise take place.  Here, the shoe sales, rather than the donor’s generosity, provide resources needed to support the cultural work? GK : The shoe serves as a proxy investment from a utilitarian function, rather than as an art purchase.  It is also at substantially lower contribution prices that most art patronage. It is more akin to crowdsourcing, a kickstarter model, than a high-end museum dinner party. SBY: From my experience, the shoe also functions as a protective boundary between art production and arts funding. The transaction is clear: you pay money and you get a great pair of shoes. What we as Con-App end up doing with that money is not really your business as a buyer. Therefore, we and our editorial board are protected to pursue projects and concerns that are of most interest to us, without having to consider what is of most concern to our funders. In my experience working for art institutions, this protective boundary does not exist except in the case of the most rare of philanthropic donors. Grantors, as expected, have very specific programmatic requirements that are more transparent, but most philanthropic donors have requirements as well, whether


GK: The criticality exists in the fact that it happened. A for-profit corporation spent all of their profits on scholarship. Wealthy people are going to buy luxury goods, which in and of themselves look and smell like art products. Why not create an intervention of intention into that ecosystem for generative scholarship to raise awareness of the complexity and problematic nature of that very cycle of production? Public institutions and not-for-profit organizations are encumbered with administrative overhead that, with the loose assurance of the adherence to a public mission, trades away its market flexibility. The retail outlet is a channel for financing, not a ceiling on mission. SBY: I think my earlier comment is relevant here as well. Just because public institutions and not-for-profits have that designation does not mean they are not complicit in economies of luxury consumption and social inequality. Every public institution I have ever worked for has had to orient themselves towards the 1% in order to survive. Though many are doing wonderful work serving the public as well, they are not immune to market forces, and often have to bend their programmatic missions in questionable ways in order to live to fight another day. The engagement of Con-App in these retail channels challenges the assumption that the not-for-profit model

is the only way to advance progressive and publicly responsible work. Rather, Con-App is a call to action for organizations to rethink financing, sustainability, and a broader commitment to the production of art and knowledge within our economic reality. NB: You indicate that the relationship with Barney’s is intended primarily to fund the work of the ‘zine. If this is the case, why link the distribution of the ‘zine at all to Barney’s?  Doesn’t that complicate your message in problematic ways?  If you are committed to making your ideas accessible to the public—and not just to the patrons of Barney’s—why not simply use the profits from the shoes to support a message that is disseminated through other channels of your own choosing? GK: We are aware of the fact that linking the distribution in some ways to Barney’s does complicate the message, but this project intends to raise more questions than it answers, from the immediate audience, the critical lens, and the resulting narrative and storytelling. SBY: I do think, however, that our distribution will be broad and ongoing, and that we will endeavor to get this out there as widely as possible. We are committed to making our ideas as accessible as possible and for that reason we are going to plumb the depths of our relationships with museums, universities, and libraries, as well as online distribution methods. NB: In recent months Barney’s has gotten some quite negative publicity for alleged racial profiling on security issues in its stores. More recently, the store has also gotten some publicity for a new advertising campaign that narrates the experiences of transgendered people.  Do you know if Barney’s interest in working with cultural producers/artists such as yourselves is linked in some way to a broader strategy of redefining its public image? GK: Since we just got a note from Barney’s telling us that we can’t put the ‘zine on the shelf but rather need to put it in the shoe boxes, my guess is that they have no interest in aligning themselves with artists overtly. 9













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6 Matthew Hodgman, Battered Mosaic, Braddock, PA.



Heidegger once opined that philosophy is like a bunch of people sharpening knives with nothing left to cut. Such has been the case with art criticism for some time as questions of formalism and content have slowly eroded into confused obscurity. “There is no there there,� as Gertrude Stein liked to say. As formalism slipped away and the desire to invent the ultimate form became a pale, post-modern shadow, at some point art had to come to terms with actual lived conditions. With the emergence of an array of politicallygeared artworks burgeoning in the 60s and 70s and reaching its stride in the 90s and turn of the century, critics finally have something to cut. As the growth of socially-engaged art continues apace, the limits of contemporary art’s reflective critical tradition have begun to emerge. Artists, curators, critics and journalists alike continue to evoke similar lines of critique regarding socially-engaged art. In fact, some specific critiques (that I will soon enumerate) are so common that far from feeling specific to any one project, their constant presence reveals ongoing concerns about the existence of socially-engaged art writ large. Not that critique in and of itself is a bad thing per se. Certainly, the field of art and politics benefits from analysis. But when the critiques feel like a series of irresolvable and familiar concerns, an unproductive impasse has been reached. Hopefully, with enough sustained effort, we can mature the analysis so interpreting socially engaged art can be situated with an understanding of the difficulties of getting things done in the world.


I would like to use a real life parable told to me by the artist Paul Ramirez Jonas. The setting is the rust belt town of Braddock, Pennsylvania, located along the Monongahela River just ten miles east of Pittsburgh. Hit hard by the effects of de-industrialization, the town continues to struggle to re-invent itself with a dwindling population of 2,159 as of the 2010 census. But in this small town, we find not one, not two, but three (if not more) socially-engaged artists making influential and impactful work.The first artist isn’t really an artist but the mayor. John Fetterman, a burly man with tattoos and a Harvard degree, came to Braddock in 2005 touting the gospel of creative communities. The combination of his boosterism, biker look and belief in the power of creative economies have gotten him on the cover of the Atlantic magazine, and the U.K. Guardian described him as “America’s coolest mayor.”1 He has initiated numerous development projects including youth and art programs as well as a deal with Levi’s Jeans to make the denizens of Braddock the subject of an advertising campaign. The second artist grew up in Braddock. LaToya Ruby Frazier is not a transplant but a long-time resident whose close-knit African-American community has lived through enough difficult times to understand what it means to persist in a city like Braddock. She gained prominence following her exhibition of photographs in the 2012 Whitney Biennial depicting the hardships of her community and family. One series ironically juxtaposes images of Frazier’s family with Fetterman’s Levi’s campaign with signs that read, “Everybody’s work is equally important” and “Go forth.” The aesthetic of urban hard work and manual labor rings hollow next to the realities of a post-industrial landscape lacking in basic needs such as healthcare and jobs. These concerns cut across racial lines as the Levi’s advertisements as well as Fetterman’s policies seem to overlook the black community. The third artistic practice is a collective named Transformazium consisting of three artists: Dana Bishop-Root, Ruthie Stringer, and Leslie Stem who moved to Braddock from Brooklyn in 2007. In the tradition of upstart anarchist-inspired artistic production, Transformazium have initiated screen-printing workshops, an artist-in-residence program, and an art lending library. They also have put their sweat equity to use in rebuilding existing vacant structures, like the first Carnegie Library in the United States, into workable environments for art, planning and civic production. Anyone familiar with socially-engaged art can quickly notice three very familiar genres of practice. Mayor Fetterman, not really an artist but sometimes resembling an artist in his persona and unorthodox thinking, operates from a position of power and leverages the arts to promote urban development, economic growth, and civic activity. The second, LaToya Ruby Frazier, uses the camera to expose contradictions as well as her own authentic lived experience in a more provocative, agonistic (but Ed Pilkington, “Coolest mayor in America? Why John Fetterman has his postcode tattooed on his arm,” The Guardian, July 14, 2009, accessed February 26, 2014,



Top Left: Matthew Hodgman, High Power Braddock, PA. Middle Left: Matthew Hodgman, Urban Tree Braddock, PA.

Lower Left: LaToya Ruby Frazier, Braddock Hospital Parking Lot, (2011) gelatin silver print, mounted on archival museum cardboard, wooden frame.

Above: LaToya Ruby Frazier,  Houston & Lafayette New York City (Braddock PA Levi Billboard), (2011) gelatin silver print, mounted on archival museum cardboard, wooden frame.


still traditionally representative) sense. And the third, Transformazium, can be seen as white do-gooders who move from hipster New York to impoverished areas in order to start creative artisanal workshops and idealistic grassroots improvement initiatives. These stereotypes make up the characters in the parable of Braddock. The reason this example is so interesting and instructive—aside from the fact that such a range of socially-engaged art practices exist in a such a tiny, unlikely place—is that each of these artists comes under fire for different reasons. Moreover, each critique tends to be a prototypical complaint riddling the scholarship around art and politics; complaints that have not deepened in nuance, maturity, or understanding in decades. John Fetterman, the pro-development mayor who uses the arts to advance his civic agenda, faces critique for perpetuating neoliberalism with the boosterism of Richard Florida-inspired creative economy jargon. Selling Braddock as the frontier for “creatives,” Fetterman is questioned by Braddock-native artists such as LaToya Ruby Frazier. She considers him an opportunist who ignores the value of Braddock’s existing citizenry in an effort to attract a more economically mobile and predominantly white

humanitarian assistance is seen as being traded for ulterior motives like social capital. Pushing the critique even further, there often remains doubt that white activists (and particularly artists) are capable of working across lines of race. Whites helping blacks might sound good (or not), but often younger artists addressing questions of race without both a sophisticated analysis of racial nuance and a capacity to back that up with demonstrated connections with a community of color can often appear as self-aggrandizing forms of ineffectual, if not offensive, Sally Struthers-like charity. As much as the intentions might be good, the lack of knowledge surrounding privilege plagues the work. And finally, LaToya Ruby Frazier herself comes under fire. No outsider to the contemporary circuits of art practice, Frazier studied at the Whitney Independent Study Program, a profoundly important residency program that has launched the careers of a mind-blowing array of contemporary artists. As much as Frazier is able to distance herself from other artists by the fact that she is from Braddock, she has also managed to turn her personal experience and her photographs into a lucrative art career. That is to say, LaToya Ruby Frazier herself falls prey to the critique that she is merely exploiting the pain of others for personal gain. The point here isn’t necessarily to agree with any of these critiques. What we have here in the story of Braddock is a clear delineation of modes of critique on art and politics that continue to be broadly applied. As Paul Ramirez Jonas said, and I agree, “I honestly think that each of these people— Frazier, Fetterman and Transformazium, in the deepest part of their hearts, feels they are doing good things for this broke city.” And yet, each falls prey to an eviscerating, ungenerous (and ultimately, unhelpful) critique that is not only common, but tragically inescapable.

The first Carnegie Library in Braddock, PA, and current home of Transformazium.

creative class. Frazier commented on the Levi’s campaign that Fetterman brokered: “They got to pretend that they cared about a community, get some humanitarian points, and now they get to make their million dollars off of that campaign by selling all their jackets and jeans, and in the meantime we’re all still suffering and dying in Braddock.”2 Rather than addressing existing infrastructural and economic issues that continue to plague the working class community, the aesthetic of their hardship is leveraged as a marketing campaign in order to raise Braddock’s cultural caché. The artist collective Transformazium, as white Brooklyn transplants, are unsurprisingly accused of parachuting into a community they don’t understand and have little connection to for their own personal leveraging of the situation. The critique of Transformazium isn’t all that far removed from that of Fetterman in the sense that

To build on this quandary, these lines of inquiry continue to persist in most art criticism without acknowledgment of the possibility that these critiques are inherent conditions of art and politics and not, as the critics often assume, unique to one particular work of art or political action. As is often the case, criticism of sociallyengaged art discovers some societal imbalance of power and then points to this dilemma as an irreconcilable artistic flaw that cannot be assuaged. Whether the artist parachutes in, the artist uses the pain of others to make money, or those in positions of power ruthlessly instrumentalize artworks and political projects for social or actual capital, each line of critique implies an inherent ulterior motive. The artist says they are doing x, but instead they are doing y. The discovery of this contradiction provides enough complication to a clean ethical position that the only logical conclusion is that the entire effort (and genre as a whole) should be categorically rejected. But perhaps we are learning that imbalances of power and



Above: Transformazium print shop users at work. Right: One of the collections facilitators, Jonathan, working with library patrons in the art lending library initated by Transformazium.


calculated trade-offs are par for the course. Unlike the impulse toward the utopian which has a long tradition in the realm of art and politics, interpreting an art of getting things done requires the knowledge that this work must acknowledge, address, and embrace both the sacred as well as the profane. Questions of impact (which also implies questions of scale and duration) inevitably are connected to questions of compensation, livability and political economies. Artists and activists must make a living. Artworks and all people on the planet must navigate social and political spaces that have varying levels of access of power. Finally, power itself, by its very nature, is always at work, being exchanged, leveraged, and enacted.

Matthew Hodgman, Chutes and Ladders, Braddock, PA.

The impulse to critique art and politics based on the idea that if one is proposing an agenda of social change then one’s politics must be squeaky clean (often at the expense of sustainability, effectiveness, or impact) is not germane to only the arts. Activism in general falls prey to similar lines of critique, as any semblance of dealing in the conditions of the real (how to make money, the inescapable complexity of being on the planet) are exploited for the sake of a good story. Protesters at Occupy Wall Street suffered from this immensely as the New York Post, for example, transformed inherent difficulties into sensationalized hypocrisy. Accusations that participants in Occupy Wall Street were not truly utopian citizens became a narrative that newspapers couldn’t help but exploit. After all, the downfall of the do-gooder makes good news and strikes to the heart of some deep human psychological tendency. Though there is not room here to discuss the histories of why this is, one must acknowledge that this sensationalist hunger often haunts those that are doing social justice work. The higher the dreams, the more idealistic the vision, the more enjoyable the fall. Ultimately, this is not to dismiss all forms of criticism. Concerns around imbalances of power, parachuting, and perpetuating policies that are ultimately exploitative by making money off the poverty of others remain vital considerations when thinking about socially-engaged art. Of course these questions are important, but they are not enough. The conversation should begin, not end, with these ubiquitous and societally embedded concerns.They are givens, not revelations. In order to move forward, we must appreciate a few ingredients that are not typical in art criticism. These elements include situating critique within an artist’s full scope of practice, with an appreciation of scale and effects, and within the realities of power (which is often called privilege). There are many possibilities for how artists and activists can work across an array of imbalances of

LaToya Ruby Frazier, Fifth Street Tavern and U.P.M.C. Braddock Hospital on Braddock Avenue, (2011) gelatin silver print, mounted on archival museum cardboard, wooden frame.


Selected pages from the book that Jim Kidd made during his residency at Transformazium in 2011.

power to get things done. It can certainly be difficult to swallow the extreme contradictions of an oligarchic art world buying work that talks about the poverty of others, but artists need to make money like everyone else, and this is the system currently available to them. Doctors make money, cops make money, mayors make money, and social service people make money. In post-industrial advanced capitalist societies, imbalances of power and privilege are exploited for profit in all facets of life, be it healthcare, schools, retail jobs, telemarketing jobs, etc. This is a reality. To get stuff done in the world (as much as it pains us) we must work within that precarious condition. As a fish swims in water, so must we swim in the sea of power. Racial difference is not the end of a discussion or to be avoided, as in so much art criticism, but an integral part of any social justice work, and must be acknowledged and responsibly addressed head-on. Still, talking about race is often a clumsy proposition because people don’t know how to talk about it and are afraid of sounding stupid and racist. It’s a volatile discussion, but working across race is critical. White artists that are naïve to race and plow into neighborhoods of color are, yes, ultimately problematic. But it is more than just being aware of race; rather, developing relationships across race is core to reaching a deeper nuanced understanding of its complexities. Rather than complaining that white artists are just doing dogooder work and don’t know how to work across race, criticism could be of actual, generous, and significant

assistance by interrogating how strong cross-racial relationships are formed and how they are contextually significant to social justice efforts. Simultaneously, white privilege in the arts is not fake and finding methods to support existing structures and institutions across racial lines is a critical project. Finally, to expand the conversation to the work of a mayor who touts the values of the arts in order to try to get whatever scraps are available for a post-industrial city—I think all mayors fall prey to the capitalist boosterism they need to sell. It may not be true that the arts can save Braddock, but saying it over and over again might get someone like Levi’s to dump some cash down. It is the desperate move of desperate cities across the United States. If people in the town don’t appreciate being part of a misleading campaign for revitalization, who can blame them? Appreciating the difficulties of these conditions is clearly also a part of the story. These lines of critique touch upon instrumentalization, race, privilege, social capital, and a variety of other biproducts of power. In acknowledging their existence, wrestling through them, and providing generous analysis and careful interrogation around the specificities of context, I suspect the conversation around art and politics could, in fact, assist in making (rather than dismissing) compelling work.


I am Pierre Bogaerts. My wife Veerle Swenters and I are the curators of the artists’ shoe-collection Shoes or No Shoes (SONS), which is displayed in a museum in Belgium open to the public. Almost 25 years ago we used to work as shoemakers in the Centre of Antwerp, Belgium. As we were quite interested in contemporary art we came on the odd idea to collect shoes worn by celebrated artists. From the very beginning we aimed on big names and in no time we got donations from Michelangelo Pistoletto, Lawrence Weiner, Richard Long and so many others. Many of them even transformed their shoes into an artwork. It was incredibly surprising to open all those parcels and to discover a sculpture from Edward Kienholz or Claes Oldenburg’s shoes splattered with paint! We called the collection “Shoes or No Shoes?” because when we put the first pair on a display it reminded us in some way of the bicycle wheel put on a wooden stool by Marcel Duchamp. Did they remain common shoes or did they become a readymade artwork? After a few years of collecting we encountered problems concerning storage and maintenance – it became clear that we needed a sponsor. One day we met Dirk Vanderschueren, the director of Cortina, one of the largest shoe companies in Europe. He told us he had read an interview on SONS in a magazine, and wanted to help is find an appropriate space to store the collection. A few years later he discovered an architecturally significant building from the early 70’s build on top of a hill in the Flemish countryside which was for sale. Besides the artists’ shoes, the SONS Museum houses William Habraken‘s ethnographical shoe collection. The largest in the world, it contains more than 3000 pairs from more than 155 countries. We are still in contact with some of the artists and have had the pleasure to see them in the museum. But after all we are just a couple of ordinary shoemakers who once had a funny idea.
















Images Courtesy SONS












Conversation started May 1. 2012 Veerle Swenters 5/1. 10:05pm Dear Glenn, Thanks for your add! I would like to invite you to participate in the “Shoes Or No Shoes� project. My husband Pierre and I started this project almost 20 years ago as a couple of shoemakers. In meantime SONS has become a very intriguing collection with over 1300 participants! We ask(ed) the artists to donate a pair of their shoes. Often they have transformed them into a little piece. If you like, you can visit our website : where all the objects can be seen. We ourselves never change or add anything. We can only depend on the enthusiasm of the artists. You will understand otherwise we could not have created a collection representing artists as f.e. Baselitz, Fabre, Francis, Kippenberger, Long, Richter and so many others. In return we permanently expose all the objects in a beautiful museum (photos on Facebook) which is open to the public. Thanks to our sponsor we are able to make use of the building. We really hope we can count on your interest and you decide to participate. If anything is unclear or if you have any other question, please do not hesitate to contact us. Kindest regards, Veerle md

Theaster Gates, Nice=Nice, 2012. Wood, chalkboard and chalk, 23½ x 23½ x ½ in.


Theaster Gates, Contemporary Prison Architecture, 2012. Wood, chalkboard and chalk, 23½ x 23½ x ½ in.


Aaron Sandnes



Glenn Kaino has transformed conventional materials and forms through works that forge dynamic relationships between visual art and other creative disciplines. Developing his practice in Southern California, Kaino has distinguished himself internationally by mobilizing his diverse experiences in various spheres of cultural production to generate works that propose critical reconsiderations of historical narratives and intervene in economies of art and knowledge production. He received his BFA from the University of California, Irvine, in 1993 and his MFA from the University of California, San Diego, in 1996. Kaino has had solo exhibitions at various institutions including the Whitney Museum of American Art, The Studio Museum in Harlem, Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, the Andy Warhol Museum, and LA><ART, and was selected by the U.S. Department of State to represent the United States in the 13th Cairo Biennale. Kaino’s work is included in several prestigious public collections including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, The Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, The Studio Museum in Harlem, and the Hammer Museum. Sue Bell Yank is a writer, producer, and arts organizer. She currently works as an online education producer for the Oprah Winfrey Network and was formerly the Associate Director of Academic Programs at the Hammer Museum. She graduated from the Masters of Public Art Studies program at USC, focusing on the role of contemporary art in rebuilding efforts in post­-Katrina New Orleans. She has worked with artist Edgar Arceneaux as a co­founder and Assistant Director for the Watts House Project, and has a deep­-seated investment in socially and politically­-engaged art that can be traced to her years as a public school teacher in Lynwood and South Fairfax. She is currently an advisor for the Asian Arts Initiative’s Social Practice Lab and the granting organization SPArt, was a curatorial advisor for the Creative Time Living as Form exhibition (2011), and was part of the curatorial team for the 2008 California Biennial. Her writing has been featured in exhibition catalogues, Journal of Aesthetics and Protest, n. paradoxa, the Huffington Post, KCET Artbound, and various arts blogs including her ongoing essay blog entitled Social Practice: Writings about the social in contemporary art ( She has been a lecturer at California College of the Arts, Otis College of Art and Design, UCLA, and USC. Julia Bryan-Wilson is associate professor of contemporary art at UC Berkeley. She is the author of Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam War Era, and the editor of OCTOBER Files: Robert Morris. She has published widely on topics such as feminism, artistic labor, queer theory, and craft histories. Her article “Occupational Realism” was published in TDR: The Drama Review; a companion piece, “Dirty Commerce: Art Work and Sex Work since the 1970s,” appeared in differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies.  She is currently the Terra Foundation Visiting Professor in American Art at the Courtauld Institute in London.  Luis Jacob is a Toronto-based artist and curator whose practice addresses social interaction, forms of communality, and the subjectivity of aesthetic experience. As an artist, he has achieved an international reputation–particularly since his participation in documenta12 in 2007–with solo exhibitions at Kunsthalle Lingen (2012); Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art, Toronto (2011); Fonderie Darling, Montréal (2010); Städtisches Museum Abteiberg, Mönchengladbach (2009); and Kunstverein Hamburg, (2008) – and group exhibitions at the Taipei Biennial (2012); Witte de With Contemporary Art, Rotterdam (2012); Generali Foundation, Vienna (2011); Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (2010); Contemporary Art Museum, Houston (2010); Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), Philadelphia (2009); Museum voor Hedendaagse Kunst (MuHKA), Antwerp (2008); and The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery, Toronto (2008). His curatorial projects include: Funkaesthetics (co-curated with Pan Wendt) at Justina M. Barnicke Gallery, Toronto, and Confederation Centre for the Arts, Charlottetown (2009); Golden Streams: Artists’ Collaboration and Exchange in the 1970s, Blackwood Gallery, Mississauga (2002); and Out of the Showers and Into the Streets: Remembering the Bathhouse Raids (co-organized with the June 13 Committee) Art Metropole, Toronto (2001).  David Matthew Davis is a Graphic Designer / Creative currently finding happiness in Los Angeles. In his work, he strives for an aesthetic driven by concept. In his life, he hopes to be a hopeless romantic.


Nato Thompson works as Chief Curator at Creative Time. He writes on art and politics as well as experiments with science fiction. He is curator of the last five Creative Time Summits and has curated numerous art projects including the exhibition Living as Form (2011), Paul Ramirez Jonas’s “Key to the City” (2010), Trevor Paglen’s “The Last Pictures” (2012), Paul Chan’s “Waiting for Godot in New Orleans” (2007), Tania Bruguera’s “Immigrant Movement International” (with Larissa Harris) (2012), Jeremy Deller’s “Conversations about Iraq” (2009) (with Laura Hoptman and Amy Mackie), and The Interventionists (2004). He is also a new dad. He lives in Philadelphia. Gabriel Kuri was born in Mexico City 1970. He lives and works in Los Angeles CA, USA, and studied at Escuela Nacional de Artes Plasticas UNAM Mexico (BA 1988-92) and Goldmisths College London (MA 1993-95). He participated in Gabriel Orozco´s workshop between 1987 and 1990 with Damián Ortega, Abraham Cruzvillegas and Dr. Lakra.  Kuri is primarily a sculptor, also works with collage, print and installation. His work has featured in major international group shows such as Venice Biennale 2003 and 2011, Berlin Biennale 2008, State of Play (Serpentine Gallery London 2004) and Unmonumental (New Museum New York 2007.) His one person exhibitions at public institutions include: Kunsthalle Bergen Norway 2012, South London Gallery 2011, Kunstverein Bielefeld, Kunstverein Freiburg Germany 2010, Museion Bolzano Italy 2010, Blaffer Art Museum Houston USA, Institute of Contemporary Arts Boston USA 2010. Awards and distinctions: 2011 Artist of the Year; The Armory Show, New York; 2007 Artist in Residence, OCA Office for Contemporary Art, Oslo; 2006 Artist in Residence, Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Zealand; 2002 Master Artist in residence, Atlantic Center for the Arts, Florida USA. Neil Brenner is Professor of Urban Theory at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. His most recent book is Implosions/Explosions: Towards a Study of Planetary Urbanization (Jovis, 2013).  Brenner directs the Urban Theory Lab at the Harvard GSD (, a research collective which uses the tools of critical urban theory, historical geopolitical economy and radical cartography to decipher emergent patterns of urbanization, dispossession and struggle under twenty-first century capitalism.  Rob Daurio is an architect and urban designer residing in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Rob has a keen interest in uncovering and understanding complex socioeconomic and geographic relationships. He is currently working with the Sustainable Future for Exuma Laboratory at Harvard University, a project dedicated to creating social and environmental change in the Bahamas. Theaster Gates has developed an expanded artistic practice that includes space development, object making, performance and critical engagement with many publics. Gates transforms spaces, institutions, traditions, and perceptions. Gates’s training as an urban planner and sculptor, and subsequent time spent studying clay, has given him keen awareness of the poetics of production and systems of organizing. Playing with these poetic and systematic interests, Gates has assembled gospel choirs, formed temporary unions, and used systems of mass production as a way of underscoring the need that industry has for the body. Recent solo exhibition and performance venues include Kavi Gupta CHICAGO, White Cube, Hong Kong, White Cube, Sao Paulo, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, The Fabric Workshop, Philadelphia, Locust Projects, Miami, The Krannert Art Museum, Champaign, the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, Harvard University, Cambridge, and Kunstmuseum Basel. Gates has also participated in group exhibitions in such venues as the Whitechapel Gallery, London, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Santa Barbara, Punta della Dogana, Venice, and The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York. Aaron Sandnes earned a Bachelor of Arts in Studio Art from U.C. Irvine in 2003 and a Master of Fine Arts from Cal Arts in 2007. Drawing from his experiences of growing up in Los Angeles during the Cold War, his time customizing and building muscle cars and motorcycles, and his background in the L.A. punk scene, Sandnes’ work explores conditions of feeling alienated juxtaposing minimalesque gestures with subjects of time, speed, and violence. In late 2012, Sandnes unveiled a solo exhibition: Desire Armed, at LA><ART, Los Angeles, consisting of a series of portraits of the members of La Bande à Bonnot, an early-20th-century French criminal anarchist group, rendered only by using his fingerprints and fingerprint-dusting graphite. He is currently preparing for his D.I.Y. solo exhibition: SO WHAT, at a warehouse in downtown Los Angeles. In addition to making objects, Sandnes mentors a group of troubled youth from a high school in an underprivileged area of Los Angeles. Sandnes lives and works in mid-Los Angeles. xo Photo Credits: 1: Courtesy of the Yves Klein Archives, ParisŠ Yves Klein Estate/SODRAC (2011)Photo: Gian Carlo Botti 2: Published by Antinomian Press, 500 copies, 8 January 2002. 3: Courtesy of the artist and P.P.O.W. Gallery. New York, Photo: Doug Waterman 4 & 5: 2 Silver prints, 48.0 x 72.5 cm (18 7/8 x 28 1/2 inches) each Courtesy of the artist and the Saskatchewan Arts Board Permanent Collection, Regina 6, 7, 8, 14: Images courtesy Matthew Hodgman. http:// 9, 10, 15: Courtesy the artist and Michel Rein, Paris/Brussels 11, 12, 13, 16: Images courtesy Transformazium. Page Q: Photo: Ryan McBride Pages ! to ): Images Courtesy SONS Pages ^to =: Images courtesy Kavi Gupta CHICAGO | BERLIN X: All Con-App photography by Afshin Shahidi




CIPHER is a zine dedicated to the production of artistic and cultural knowledge on a variety of wide-ranging topics. Issue #1 focuses on Art...

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