Thursday, June 13, 2024

Enrico Baj

Enrico Baj died on this day, twenty-one years ago, in Vergiate, Italy.



Christo was born on this day in 1935. 

Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Rich Pell | This Is Not An Artifact

Rich Pell
This Is Not An Artifact
Berlin, Germany: K. Verlag, 2023
440 pp., 24 x 18 cm., hardcover
Edition of 1200

The first pages of This Is Not An Artifact feature endorsements from some prestigious colleauges: Mark Dion, the Critical Art Ensemble, The Yes Men, Trevor Paglan and bio-artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg. The latter describes the book as “like a visit to the Museum of PostNatural History followed by a long dinner chat with its ingenious creator, Rich Pell.”

While in Pittsburgh last week we were lucky enough to do both. Pell toured us around his incredible museum, and then joined Roula, Jon Rubin and myself for tacos on the corner. This Is Not An Artifact successfully captures the genius and unassuming quality of Pell, who introduces the book claiming that the ideas it contains are neither complicated nor earth-shattering. They are actually both, in the best possible way. 

The notion that “human desire, curiosity and fear shape the evolution of certain plants and animals just as they shape architecture, technology, art, music and sports” is both immediately and indisputably true, but also somewhat staggering. Only four percent of mammals are wild (lions and tigers and bears) while sixty percent are domesticated (sheep, pigs, goats, camels, horses, etc). By biomass, even domesticated birds outnumber the wild by more than two to one (with poultry farming tipping the scale considerably). 

Pell's introductory text is titled “Who Left The Dogs Out?” and notes that a natural history museum is far more like to display an elephant than a dog, or a chicken, or other animals bred for human consumption, companionship, labour, clothing or transportation. He describes his museum (now operational for over a decade) as a kind of sequel to Natural History museums, picking up where their efforts end. The focus is both narrow enough to distinguish the collection from other ventures, and broad enough to include SeaMonkeys. 

The Museum focuses on deliberate human intervention - such as the selective breeding of fruit to taste better or not have pits - versus the unintentional ways that human affect nature (eg. pollution).  Examples span from the dawn of domestication to contemporary genetic engineering. 

A display of SeaMonkeys and related ephemera date back to Pell’s own childhood, when he ordered them from the back page ad of a comic book. 

Harold von Braunhut invented the two most dubious and ubiquitous items advertised to children this way: the X-Ray Specs and the SeaMonkey. Originally called Instant Life and sold for half a dollar, von Braunhut changed the name to "Sea-Monkeys" in 1962 and secured a patent in ’72. They were essentially just brine shrimp, bearing little resemblance to the friendly illustrations by Joe Orlando (associate publisher of Mad Magazine, vice president of DC Comics, etc.), disappointing thousands and thousands of kids. 

Another display illustrates the wide approach to PostNature: a sound booth featuring recordings of bird calls sang by virtuoso singers who added enough embellishment and interpretation that the songs became a bird and human hybrid sound. 

Only open one or two days a week, admission to the museum is ten dollars, five for kids and students, and free to those who reside in the zip code. Entrance price includes a pair of 3D glasses, which can be used to view a number of the displays. The book, too, provides a pair and select images are presented in this format. 

The book aims to function as traveling version of the museum. There’s about a dozen compelling facts per page, and half of them sent me down my own research rabbit holes. I was surprised to learn, for example, that the domestication of dogs precedes agriculture, by a couple of thousand years. 

A visit to the museum should be on the schedule for anyone traveling to Pittsburgh. This Is Not An Artifact can be purchased for $40 from Printed Matter, here, or directly from the Museum, here

“This truly brilliant volume elucidates the deep history and nuance of artificial selection, providing a visually lush and beautifully written contribution to the history of natural history. In fact, natural history museums would do well to use Rich Pell’s brilliant book as a road map for how to move away from the colonial romance of nature and towards a progressive, fresh culture of nature. This Is Not An Artifact hybridizes biological research, the history of science, museology, and art, to produce an impressive and visually stunning volume concerning the future of life. Essential reading for anyone invested in the culture of nature."
- Mark Dion

Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Imin Yeh | I’m In Ya.

Imin Yeh
I’m In Ya.
Pittsburgh, USA: Self-published, 2019
[unpaginated], 12 x 7.5 x 1 cm., softcover
Edition of 200 numbered copies

Subtitled ten days of strangers making fun of my name on facebook, this small volume collects seventy messages mocking the artist’s name. The barrage took place from February 29th to March 10th, 2019, a few days before Covid lockdown. 

Each message is reproduced - one to a page - and paired with a thumbnail sketch by the artist of their profile pictures, in coloured pencil. 

The messages range from the pedestrian puns of "No you’re not”, "No your not”, "Are you in?", "You’re in my what?” to the hostile and racist ("Last hing I want is to be in you hen”), to the sexually aggressive ("fancy getting shit faced and sit on my face?”). 

These are not the 'micro-aggressions' of a minimum-wage earning teenager at Starbucks misspelling one’s name on a coffee cup. They are not the twitterverse attempting to amuse each other with banal variations on a theme. These messages were sent to the artist’s inbox. 

By using the offenders' full names, the work could be accused of doxing, but it seems more akin to Laurie Anderson’s habit in the 1970s of carrying a camera around and photographing anyone who catcalled her on the street.

I’m In Ya can be purchased from the artist, here, for $20 US. Images from our visit to Iain’s studio last week are below. 

“My name, Imin Yeh, is the result of a very careful and deliberate decision process by my parents. They emigrated to this country in the mid ‘70s, but my siblings and I were born in the States. Many Asian immigrants in this situation choose to give their children American names, reserving the Chinese name as a middle name, or for use at home. My parents intentionally chose to keep our first names Chinese. [...] Aware of the discrimination against women, my father chose gender neutral names to give to his two daughters. This is the way I have always thought about and loved my name”. 
- Imen Yeh, afterword

Monday, June 10, 2024

Kenneth Patchen | The Famous Boating Party

Kenneth Patchen
The Famous Boating Party
New York City. USA: New Directions, 1954
66 pp., 23 x 16 cm., hardcover
Edition of 2000

The author’s 20th book, and his sixth with famed New Directions as publisher. The title features thirty-five prose poems, including the nine-part poem "Childhood of the Hero" and the twelve-part "Wanderers of the Pale Wood”. 

The Famous Boating Party was also released with a cover painted by Patchen, in a signed and numbered edition of 50 (see below). 

I picked up the title at Bottom Feeder Books, which opened less than two years ago in Point Breeze, Pittsburgh. Based on the name, I was expecting something akin to the chaos of Amy’s Books in Amherst (where the shelves are hidden by stacks of books and retrieving a particular title is like playing Jenga, and not sending a stack tumbling is a rare success). But the store is meticulously presented like an art gallery, with books in the front and a small exhibition area in the rear. 

Owned and operated by painter Ryan McLennan, Bottom Feeder Books arranges the titles alphabetically by author/artist, dispensing with section headings. The titles are mostly avant-garde art and literature, along with some art theory, poetry, philosophy, etc. Artists I recall in the collection include Joseph Beuys, Kiki Smith, Brion Gysin, Jonas Mekas, Paul McCarthy, Christopher Wool, Tom Sachs, Emmett Williams, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Louise Nevelson, and Nam June Paik. 

The store stocks a series of New Directions books (who published this Patchen title) with covers designed by Andy Warhol. Other publishers well-represented in the collection include Grove Press and Primary Information. 

Sunday, June 9, 2024

A physical book which compiles conceptual books by various artists

[Various artists]
A physical book which compiles conceptual books by various artists
Madison, USA: Partial Press, 2022
180 pp., 5.83 x 8.27”, softcover
Edition size unknown

A compendium that collects a series of ‘conceptual’ or ‘unrealized’ books and moves them one step closer to realization by bounding them together and getting them into bookstores. 

Edited and published (as Partial Press) by Carley Gomez and Levi Sherman, the book’s full title is 
A Physical Book Which Compiles Conceptual Books by Various Artists: Possibly Undermining Their Conceptual Commitment to Dematerialization, but Also Sparking Unforeseen Juxtapositions and Insinuating the Works into New Situations.

Featuring over ninety contributors from around the world, the volume presents books that previously only existed as "verbal statements, descriptions, or provocations”. Beyond conceptual works, the book features rhetorical, impossible and implausible books.

The title can be purchased from Fungus Books, in Pittsburgh, a small but well-curated store dedicated to "Rare, new, & used books, records, printed matter.” Fungus was founded by writer Ed Steck, alongside partners Seth Glick (Concept Art Gallery) and Michael Seamans (Mind Cure Records). Seamans stocks a small display of vinyl records in the store, where one might find Sun Ra, Sonic Youth, Brian Eno, Moondog, Jandek, and Terry Riley disks. 

The bookstore carries some of my favourite contemporary publishers of artists’ books: Primary Information, Siglio Press, and New Documents. Our visit was brief, but I spotted several gems, such as 
Brion Gysin’s Dream Machine Plans, a rare Ben Vautier pamphlet, Steve McCaffery’s double volume Seven Pages Missing and Marcel Duchamp’s The Blind Man reprint. Other author/artists in stock included Harry Smith, Susan Howe, Luis Bunuel, Bernadette Mayer, William Burroughs, Yvonne Rainer, James Baldwin, Valie Export, Dieter Roth, Destroy All Monsters, and many others. 

The store is located at 700 & 1/2 South Trenton Avenue, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Visit their site here

A physical book which compiles conceptual books by various artists is also available as an ebook, for $2.00, here.  

"When Levi first envisioned the anthology, he pictured conceptual books in the vein of 1960s and ‘70s Conceptual art, and we did receive such books. Like many Fluxus publications, these conceptual books build a frame through which to view everyday experiences in a new light. An Index of Beginnings and Endings by Ellen Bruex makes this explicit: “Instructions: Move through your days with awareness of new beginnings and final endings.” Some instruction pieces lend themselves to execution, relying on chance to produce novel outcomes. Random Color Generated Instant Book by Esther K Smith & Susan Happersett exemplifies this approach with detailed, plainspoken instructions and everyday materials. Other instructions are more poignant as mental exercises. In this category, we would place Who Has Seen the Wind by Cathryn Miller of Byopia Press. One could feasibly print her ninety-nine sonograms of the wind, but it is Miller’s Duchampian declaration that these imagined prints are art, specifically asemic poems, that is so striking. Despite their variety, these works all share Conceptual art’s emphasis on the viewer/reader rather than the artist. They remind us that reading is a creative, constitutive act.”
 - Carley Gomez

Saturday, June 8, 2024


Mahsa Biglow/Jon Rubin/Dawn Weleski
Pittsburgh, USA: Conflict Kitchen, 2015
82 pp., 18 x 13 cm., softcover
Edition size unknown

Conflict Kitchen was an internationally renowned take-out restaurant in Pittsburgh that ran from 2010 to 2017. It served cuisine exclusively from countries with which the United States was in conflict.

NPR described the venture as “an experimental public art project—and the medium is the sandwich wrap.” It was founded by artists Jon Rubin and Dawn Weleski, funded in part with proceeds from the neighbouring Waffle Shop, which Rubin had opened a few years prior (see below). The Waffle Shop was a functioning storefront restaurant that produced and broadcast a live-streaming talk show with its customers during all operating hours. Pittsburgh feels like the kind of city where one DIY art project begets another, rather than bankruptcy. 

“[Conflict Kitchen] is a place on the street level where we can unpack politics together, using food as a storytelling device,” Rubin told the Smithsonian Magazine in 2013. Each iteration was augmented by performances, publications and events. 

The first of these was a free meal held simultaneously in Pittsburgh and Tehran, where diners in both cities sat around long tables that were connected via Skype. The menu included freshly baked Barbari Bread, Tah Dig, Khoresht Fesenjan, lamb kebabs, Khoresht Ghormeh Sabzi, and Doogh, a yogurt and mint drink.

The food wrappers at the restaurant were printed with interviews with people from the country being highlighted. The wrappers for the first iteration, which focused on Iranian food, featured sections about bread, women’s rights, poetry, fashion, nuclear power, tea, and the perception of Americans. 

"We're using food as an entry point to help people explore cultures that aren't talked about in the mainstream media,” Rubin told Salon in 2010, clarifying "We don't support the Iranian government or anything”. 

SKIES AND SEAS WERE PASTED TOGETHER is the first of four publications produced during the seven year run of Conflict Kitchen. Each featured interviews with residents from the countries in question. These were conducted in Iran by artist Mahsa Biglow, accompanied by her photographs of the subjects. 

On the left side of the book, children are interviewed, and on the right, the same questions are posed to their grandparents. 

In keeping with the foregrounding of voices of residents, the titles of each book is taken from the interviews. Seven year old Amirali was asked "Where did our planet come from?” and he replied "Skies and seas were pasted together and made a big circle that scientists named Earth.” 

Other questions include: 

Q: What would you do if you were president?
A: I would remove financial inflation.
Q: What are you afraid of?
A: I’m scared of death and souls.
Q: What would you ask an American kid your age?
A: Is your country beautiful like mine?
Q: How would the world be different if animals could talk?
A: If wild animals could talk, it would be really scary.
Q: What is the hardest thing about being a kid? The best?
A: The hardest thing is having to study. I don’t know. Yes, studying. The best thing is that we can come outside and play with our friends. Kids can play because we have spare time, but when you grow up, you have to study all the time.
Q: If you could make one rule that everyone in the world had to follow, what would it be?
A:I would make a rule that no one can start a fight or a war.
Q: What is something that confuses you about grownups?
A: They fight again and again.

A’zam, his fifty-three year old grandmother was asked the same: 

Q: What is the hardest thing about being a grandma?
A: The hardest part is that I’m always worried about my grandchildren’s futures because of the unique situation that we’re dealing with here in Iran. Grownups generally have no hope for a bright future here.
Q: If you could make one rule that everyone in the world had to follow, what would it be?
A: Only one rule? Well you cannot change the world with only one rule!
Q: It’s not a matter of changing the world. I’d like to know your priorities. So, if you had only one rule to make, what would it be?
A: I would try to strengthen rules that bring justice.
Q: What is something that challenges you about children?
A: When they insist on being stubborn.

"Conflict Kitchen reformats the preexisting social relations of food and economic exchange to engage the general public in discussions about countries, cultures and people that they might know little about outside of the polarizing rhetoric of U.S. politics and the narrow lens of media headlines.”
- Jon Rubin

Friday, June 7, 2024


We just got back from a week or so in Pittsburgh, where Roula installed a small exhibition at Gallery Closed. The window gallery, in the Troy Hill neighbourhood, is operated by artists Phillip Andrew Lewis and Lenka Clayton, from their studio. The enormous former bank building (complete with functional vault) has two street-facing windows, allowing the gallery to be permanently closed and also continuously open. 

For a fourteen month-long series called Exhibition Copy, works by artists in the window space spill out into neighbouring businesses, residences and nearby school. The series includes projects by Martin Creed, Louise Bourgeois, Roman Ondak, Ryan Gander and others. Roula created a party room scenario reminiscent of fish-bowl party spaces and play areas where children celebrate in full view of passersby (like the one in the Rainbow Cinema in Toronto, which we keep threatening to host a party in for our friend Jon Sasaki). Balloons from the party appear to have drifted off and become lodged in the other windows. The painted cast resin balloons can be seen in the window for Ron’s Pizza Palace, a Public Notary Office, a former Beauty Salon and several other adjacent spaces. 

Troy Hill is also home to several “Art Houses”, the brainchild of collector Evan Mirapaul, who buys up dilapidated homes and invites artists to transform them into installation spaces. German artist Thorsten Brinkmann produced the first one, complete with Being John Malkovich style half-floors and passages to crawl through. Polish artist Robert Kusmirowski’s Kunzhaus followed in 2016. 

The most extraordinary of the three is Lenka and Phillip’s Darkhouse Lighthouse, which gutted the original home and built an elaborate lighthouse inside it. Mark Dion is currently working on the fourth home. A fifth possible space is currently covered in vines, with bricks from the crumbling chimney threatening to fall from the roof. All are located within a block or two of each other, with Gallery Closed close by. 

Affordable space in Pittsburgh means that artists can often rent out spaces and create DIY museums, billboards and restaurants. Jon Rubin (a co-curator of the Exhibition Copy series and one of our excellent hosts) has done all three. His work often explores the authority of text in the public realm, and his projects include Waffle Shop (Talk Show), The National Museum and the renowned Conflict Kitchen. More on these in future posts. 

Rich Pell has operated the Centre for Post-Natural History for about a decade. I was expecting a thrifty studio space with some objects on makeshift tables, but the presentation was top-notch, with a full library of books, museum-quality glass cases, audio descriptions, projected films and taxidermied animals. 

The week was pretty packed, and we only managed to visit three bookstores: Fungus Books and Bottom Feeder (both excellent and around the corner from each other) and Caliban, which - we later learned - was involved in an eight million dollar heist, regarding prints and plates cut from books from the Carnegie Library (read the story, here, at the Smithsonian site). 

Over the next week or so I’ll try to get to the above titles, which tell the larger story of some of the great places we visited. 

Wednesday, June 5, 2024

Ben Vautier

Ben Vautier took his own life today, at his home in France, at the age of 88. His wife Annie, who he had known for over sixty years, died of a stroke hours earlier. 

I had the incredible pleasure of conducting a telephone interview with Ben many years ago, which was never published. I’ll track down the tape and transcribe it in the coming days. 

"Characteristic of Ben’s irreverent nature were works such as boxed editions of God; wineglasses in limited editions of twenty, accompanied by certificates verifying that he had drunk the contents in sequence; Flux Missing Card Deck, 1966, a deck of playing cards from which he had removed the ace of spades; and so-called appropriation works, found objects that he branded art by writing on them Ben, je signe (I, Ben, sign). "
- Artforum