As I headed out to Los Angeles from New York last month, a remark by Mary Anne Staniszewski kept coming back to me. I spent a stimulating evening last winter at a small alternative art space on Ludlow Street listening to her, Martin Beck, and Ken Saylor talk about the practice of putting together exhibitions as a self-conscious act, and Mary Anne said that “curating” was definitely one of the words of 2011, stretching far beyond the art world. Indeed it has been popping up everywhere. And I became one of the fashion victims, as I considered how to “curate” my way through the sessions of the packed 100th CAA.
Wednesday, February 22
I took a flight from JFK at the crack of dawn, to arrive in time for “The Challenge of Nazi Art.” This was the only panel, other than my own, that I attended from start to finish. The opening remarks by Christian Fuhrmeister made it clear that the organizers wanted to open a dialogue about something that art historians have found it almost impossible to discuss, something I have also struggled with as a scholar of Weimar-era photography and exhibition culture. I was particularly drawn in by Despina Stratigakos’s visual evidence of how domestic design was pitched to young Nazi couples, and that what we think of “modernism” still seeped into much of that design, eliminating an easy bifurcation. Former CAA president Paul Jaskot, a great, natural speaker, spoke about the concept of “banality” and the need for art historical analysis of the era’s cultural products. More provocative questioners may have been intimidated by the largeness of the (double) room, but all in all it was a highly thought-provoking panel.
Thursday, February 23
Packed day. I spoke first thing in the morning, about “Radical Photo Spaces” at a session called “The Other Histories of Photography: The First 100 Years.” I thought our turnout was impressive, considering the time and that we were unfortunately competing with another session on photography (“Photographic Practices in Latin America”) and a video/film themed session that I was pining for (“Mobile Spectatorship”). I enjoyed going last: I think it’s a law of physics that you get the most questions—when I spoke in Chicago two years ago I went second-to-last and got zero questions! But the crowd was clearly interested in one of the main points of the session as a whole, which was how to bring attention to alternative photo practices that have been left out of the canon, and whether that can directly impact how photography is shown in museums now. Consensus seemed to be: yes, but it still doesn’t happen often enough. It’s always invigorating when the historical feels relevant to the audience.
After lunch I finally got to “curate” a time slot for myself, 2:30-5. I started at the standing-room-only Distinguished Scholar Session honoring Rosalind Krauss. Bois did an affectionate opening, and I stayed for Harry Cooper, which I loved, to hear how a practicing curator was influenced by her scholarship, particularly on sculpture. Then I exited to support a former peer of mine from the CUNY Graduate Center, Cary Levine, who was speaking about Pettibon and hardcore punk in a session called “Towards a Rock and Roll History of Contemporary Art” which sounded almost too cool, but Cary did a great job of integrating Pettibon’s subversive Zine imagery with the music of California punkers Black Flag. It brought back memories of my childhood in San Diego in the 1980s when more sophisticated kids were wearing those T-shirts in seventh grade while I still thought “punk” was a playground slur. Although pretty beat, I finished at the HGCEA session (Historians of German and Central European Art) to show fealty, as a member to an organization co-founded by my dissertation advisor, Rose-Carol Washton Long. And speaking of HGCEA, there was a super-cool dinner for members that same evening on the top floor of a downtown theater space, a space so raw that it looked like someone had just torn down some scenery from the walls. Very hip for HGCEA!
Friday, February 24
The morning session was another case of me bopping around. I went to “Live Forever: Performance Art in the Changing Museum Culture” and watched Pablo Helguera, the first speaker, upend the normal mode of speaking from the podium, which was mesmerizing. He engaged with an historical topic (why a preponderance of creative minds all came from a particular small town in Mexico) but turned all the lights off, put a spotlight on himself, and spoke in the middle of the room— a performance-paper hybrid. Kudos to him for thinking outside the box (throughout the conference he also took part in graduate-seminar style gatherings that were open to the public, another very cool way to push for feedback through new models of learning). I made brief stops at “The Modern Gesamtkunstwerk” and the Radical Art Caucus session, before moving on to my shift at the Book Fair table of the Women’s Art Caucus, to try to sell copies of my now-in-paperback The New Woman International, co-edited with Elizabeth Otto. People were not in heavy-duty buying mode, but many flyers and review copies were distributed, which is always a good thing, and these tables become places to discourse with long-lost friends. Once our shift was over at 1pm, I noticed another publication table giving away free food and drink, and ran into grad school classmates who had scattered across the country. That evening my husband, daughter and I met up with my cousin JD Walsh who is now a television actor and director, so we really had the whole breadth of the LA experience, not least of which was staying at the Biltmore, the most glamorous convention hotel ever.
Saturday, February 25
I only attended morning sessions so that we could take my daughter to Disneyland. I was particularly enthused by Kim Sichel’s paper in Jordana Mendelson’s session, “The 1930s,” where she focused on Brassaï’s book Paris de nuit. All forms of alternative (meaning outside canonical museum presentation) photography circulation fascinate me at the moment, including those in books, and Sichel showed Brassaï’s images as they appeared in the original publication, with full bleeds, even spilling over onto the steel spirals—gorgeous. In keeping with my attempt to see as many diverse photo-based papers as possible, I made a last minute dip-in to “Pop and Politics, Part II” to hear Martin Berger talk about Warhol’s Race Riots. This session proved to me that yes, going to CAA can be important to reinvigorate old talking points in lectures to our students. I use Race Riots routinely in my history of photo lectures but I had never closely contemplated the contemporaneous meaning of the word “Riot” before: that although Warhol seems sympathetic to the protesters in his images, the use of the word “Riot” was actually considered quite incendiary and helpful to the anti-protester position. So the images are, at best, ambivalent. Thank you Martin Berger!
All in all, I would say it was a most stimulating CAA, although I have heard some differ. Maybe I got into it because, as a colleague said to me, it was “a great CAA for Germanists.” But mostly I think it fulfilled what we should expect from these gatherings: new ideas, old friends, and a reminder of why we do what we do.