Monday, September 15, 2008
As far as we are away from the 2009 Society of North American Goldsmiths conference, it has been weighing heavily on my mind, or at least the theme has; Revolution. The SNAG conference themes have always seemed a bit hokey to me. Usually the theme is vague so a diverse line up can be paraded in front of the attendees. This year there is a distinct possibility that by naming the conference something active that the participants stand a chance of being energized by it.
Ok, lets take a step back now. Does anyone really want this conference to be revolutionary? Or is it just a catchy title? What does revolution really mean in the context of a metalsmithing conference? Perhaps the most interesting point about the title is that a revolution is usually carried out against the ruling class. Oh, fun.
Bruce Metcalf the Seer
So where to begin? I find talking or writing about Bruce Metcalf always yields interesting results, especially since there are many points that Bruce has given us on the subject of revolution, lets roll. At the last conference (2008) you might remember that Bruce and Andrew Wagner (Editor of American Craft) succeeded in sparking a blogosphere dialogue from their joint presentation: DIY, Websites, and Energy: The New Alternative Crafts. One result of this presentation and the discussion that followed was a polarization between the DIY, which Bruce called the new regime, and the old guard, meaning the craft establishment. It was prophetic in a way, setting up that dichotomy was not unlike creating a craft proletariat and Bourgeois. Now that the stage has been set, revolution will move to the fore in 2009. Which brings me to my next point about Bruce. Despite his 2008 prophecy, in his ACC sponsored follow up this past summer, Connect/ (dis)connect: Bruce Metcalf and Chanel Kennebrew in Conversation, Bruce disavows the revolution that never came and reported that since the 70's he has lived his life like the revolution has already happened. It is clear to me, and frankly to anyone that has been active in the craft field in the past half decade, that we are indeed suffering from institutional stagnation. Indeed I feel that the last studio craft revolution, that may or may not have happened in the late 60's and early 70's depending on who you talk to, has atrophied in the last 35+ years leaving only the idealized heroes of a time long gone in positions of authority and prosperity (relatively speaking of course). What incentive does the ruling class have to change, to shake things up, or to mount another revolution? Bruce's 2004 article in Metalsmith entitled Is there a Jewelry Avante-garde? seems to affirm his belief that there are no real organized movements anymore, touting jewelry's evolution rather than revolution. This seems consistent with an ever-growing list of cultural critics who pan America's youth for being too apathetic. In fact, with recent developments under our current political regime, one would think that a climate of radicalism and reform would emerge on a scale similar to that of the 60's. Not so. The populous has been conditioned to go with the flow, and today it is more socially acceptable in the face of injustice to just shrug than to actively effect change. It seems that jewelry is no different, and the Metcalfian theory of evolution seems to remain sound even today.
Responding to the Prophet
I work and write under the delusion that I may not be able to change the ills of the world, but I can change my own backyard. This is not so dissimilar from being a community organizer, the community being craft of course. In a subculture like crafts certainly change is attainable, since mobilizing a critcal mass is on the order of hundreds or thousands, rather than millions.
Certainly the Indie craft movement is organized and is an ever-growing threat to the establishment. However, militarized conflict between the indie craft guerillas and the craft establishment is at least a few months off. The real important factor for Revolution in Philadelphia is students. Of the 2008 SNAG conference attendees, nearly half were students. There was actually an open fiscal discussion at one point about how having so many students was bad for SNAG because students payed a discounted rate. What this forecasts though is the growing involvement of young people inside the organization. There is a real possibility that in Philly students could out number regular members. What then? It seems unlikely that programming will be altered to accommodate the interests or needs of the changing demographics of conference participants. Most interestingly, this really is a recipe for revolution! If there are more students than regular members, the "old guard" could potentially be ousted from power, a velvet revolution for SNAG (certainly the election of Bryan Park to the election and nominations committee last year is evidence that this is possible). The implications run beyond just the make up of the board and the programming. Bruce's characterization of the DIY as the new voice of the young craftsperson grossly neglects the extremely active and militant american craft student population. Will young metalsmiths show up ready to revolt? Will there be any real action? And for god sakes, will any real change come of it, or is the characterization of apathy an accurate one? I have been sitting with the 2002 New Paltz Student Manifesto (Rethinking Our Practice, Metalsmithing: What is it good for?) on my desk for a month now. This year marks the 6th anniversary of a declaration of Metalsmithing's insularness. Surely it will not be the DIY that changes the face of metalsmithing, but the students in America's universities and art schools that are committed to change.
Despite Bruce Metcalf's insightful take on metalsmithing the revolution has not happened for me. I look around and see so much change that needs to happen for the field to move forward. It is from a genuine heart felt closeness to metalsmithing, that I think revolution really needs to happen. The problem with evolution, Metcalfian or otherwise, is that it takes millions of years. I don't have that long, so revolution seems a better option. As with most revolutions, the problem is not the overthrow, but the subsequent reformation and running of the government. We better start planning now if we are going to get it right.
Armaments from Abroad and on the Net
Gert Staal and Ted Noten gave Metalsmith readers another manifesto almost a year ago now. In Celebration of the Street, Manifesto of the New Jewellery addressed some of the chronic problems of studio jewelry today. It seems to echo the New Paltz Manifesto, in that it calls for better dissemination and addressing our practice to a wider audience. There seems to be a general consensus among manifesto writers that something is broken. Perhaps it is the commodification of the craft world in general. "Jewellery must be owned by the public if it wants to touch the public," says Staal and Noten among other provocative things. The fact is that no one really needs jewelry or hollowware to survive, so what we make today is irrelevant to our culture unless we make it relevant. For this we do need a revolution. I say give the people roads, give the people jobs and better wages, give the people health care, and create a better foreign policy.
The 2009 revolution needs to asses the condition of jewelry's provincialism within a global dissemination scheme. There are definite trends that can be identified in contemporary studio jewelry, with european trends having a profound influence on certain circles here in the states. Leo Caballero, the founder of Klimt02, (an online, eurocentric contemporary jewellery, fee-based community) will be speaking at the revolution (the conference) about the impact of his site on contemporary jewelry. Through Klimt02 one can check out the portfolio's of many international jewellers, from the italian jewellers (geometric and tight), to german jewellers (big and ugly), to dutch jewellers (bigger and uglier). Perhaps, we should look abroad in modeling foreign policy. Certainly there is a real freedom in the work there. I propose that it is because their domestic audience is both larger and more adventurous in their tastes. Europeans aren't afraid of buying edgier jewellery. Certainly a larger and less inhibited audience is desirable here at home. May I revive Corey Acklemire's suggestion of a national marketing campaign for craft?
Reconstruction and the Other "New Regime"
With the 2008 Exhibition in Print: Equilibrium/Orchid forum debate all but dead and buried, I have to wonder whether the message of at least 50 disgruntled metalsmiths was heard? Of course it was heard, but will an effort be made by SNAG to include makers on the fringes of what is essentially an academic organization. If ever there was a time for change, the 2009 Revolution conference seems to be it. I hope all of those Orchidians come to the conference and pitch a fit about being left out in recent years. Despite all of SNAG's amazing attributes, and there are many, it is high time that it is restored from an oligarchy to a democracy. It is here that I think we can learn much from Indie craft about inclusiveness. There is so much emphasis placed on rewarding and promoting exceptional work, but perhaps SNAG should really be about community rather than work. There are too damn few of us that we should be competitive with one another. I have to admit I was more than disturbed last year when Boris Bally received a round of applause for ruining a competitor's exhibition by means of an injunction. Perhaps in the new regime such an incident can be resolved by a conversation or absorbing someone as an assistant instead of professional sabotage? To feel threatened by colleagues is to be insecure. No one is going to mistake a Coke for a RC Cola. To seek to elevate one's own work is to judge it to be better than the work of others. Maybe I was right in thinking that we are all narcissists, myself included. I hope the revolution brings a field where all makers are created equal. Leave the assessment of work to the market or the classroom.
The Other Revolution, We Now Return to Your Regularly Scheduled Program
So maybe I am being way too hopeful. A quick glance at the list of presenters doesn't suggest imminent action. In fact it looks more like list of past revolutionaries. The keynote speaker is Stanley Lechtzin, undoubtedly a pioneer and revolutionary in his time. In his key note address he could be compared favorably to Fidel Castro, a once revolutionary figure of change, now as fresh as his ideas. The second in command, Rual Castro, would be Lechtzin's star pupil Albert Paley. I have the utmost respect for these men as historical and canonic figures, but as contemporary revolutionaries they just don't cut the mustard. When the average age of the speaker's can qualify for membership in the American Association of Retired Persons, revolutionary credentials seem conspicuously absent. Camile Paglia (61) and Paul Greenhalgh (I don't know his age) round out the "old guard", while Neri Oxman and mid-career ex-conceptual metalsmith Myra Mimlitsch-Gray represent those still shy of AARP admittance.
All in all I think the lectures sound interesting, but it seems like business as usual on the planning end. It will be up to the revolutionaries to plan an assault on baseless tradition. I'll see you there. I will be the one with chasing hammer and sickle pins (just like last year), the symbol of egalitarian jewelry. The spotlight will be on Philadelphia this year, but the revolution will not be televised, hell it may not even happen, but if it does I like to think it would be on youtube.
I was a bit ageist this time out, but necessarily so. No apologies, I am owning it.
As always comments are welcome,