It Cannot Be Trivial

Lane Security

August 24th, 2010 by Michael Branson Smith · Comments Off on Lane Security

Lane Security – Securing Art School Security, Performance, 1994, Photography courtesy Jim Fosset

On March 2, 1991, shortly after midnight, awakened by police sirens and a helicopter, George Holliday stepped out onto his second floor balcony to see what was going on. He saw a white car that had been stopped by police cars. He saw a black man who was spread-eagle on the hood of the car. He went back inside and fetched his new video camera…

Hours later, Holliday’s amateur footage of Rodney King being beaten mercilessly with batons by numerous police officers was broadcast on the local TV station KTLA. Hours after that it was broadcast to the entire western hemisphere. And 423 days later when a jury acquitted four police officers accused in the videotaped beating, six days of rioting followed in Los Angeles.

This infamous video of police brutality and the subsequent rioting had a stupefying affect on the country and was yet another sad chapter in the history of race relations in America.

Holliday’s casual act of video taping police inspired the creation of numerous “Copwatch” organizations, formed to “police the police.” The citizen groups were known to patrol areas of suspected past police malfeasance, and document actions of officers with cameras, video cameras, and sometimes simply by taking notes. It’s hard to know the success of Copwatch efforts as documenting police wrongdoing would rarely be seen. But the mere presence of organization members at a location where police interact with citizens could affect an officer’s disposition – if nothing wrong is happening then potentially they’ve made a difference.

Lane Security

Lane Security – Securing Art School Security, Performance, 1994, Photography courtesy Jim Fosset

Copwatch organizations continue to exist in a number of cities: Phoenix, San Francisco, Oakland, and Chicago. Some have come and gone, others have reappeared after long absences. They exist independently some with loose affiliations, but there is no national organizing structure. The efficacy of Copwatch has been questioned not having an overarching mission and a governing body, but they still regularly appear online and occasionally in the local news.

Lane Security

Lane Security – Securing Art School Security, Performance, 1994, Photography courtesy Jim Fosset

Copwatch represents an organized effort to hold accountable the actions of police, but surveillance by citizens has taken on new meaning in an era of Web 2.0 and ubiquitous recording devices (usually via cellphone). Concerned or just curious bystanders that hear a commotion can pull out their phone, press record, and upload to YouTube – all within moments of the incident. The moment George Holliday handed over his tape to the KTLA news station, he couldn’t have imagined the outcome a little over a year later. In a 2006 interview with the LA Times, he surprising described his discomfort with what the video did to the image of the LAPD. But he also mentioned that every time a cop recognizes him, they say he did the right thing.

Comments Off on Lane SecurityTags: Performance

Please Keep Art Safe

July 29th, 2010 by Michael Branson Smith · 1 Comment

Please Keep Art Safe

Please Keep Art Safe, 1995

On the October 3, 1992 live broadcast of Saturday Night Live, Irish singer-songwriter Sinéad O’Connor was the evening’s musical guest. She performed an a capella version of Bob Marley’s War, changing the lyric of “racism” to “child abuse.” And while singing the final lyric “evil,” O’Connor held up a photograph of Pope John Paul II, tore it to bits, and declared to the audience, “fight the real enemy.”  Silence followed. Cut to commercial.

The producers of SNL were caught off guard and received over 3000 calls of protest. O’Connor defended her actions calling to task the Catholic Church for allowing the abuse of children by clergy to go unchecked (strangely prescient considering recent revelations of abuse in the church). Over the ensuing weeks O’Connor was generally vilified – three weeks later at a Bob Dylan tribute concert in Madison Square Garden, she was booed off the stage.

To Catholics and many others, Sinéad O’Connor’s defiling of a photo of the Pope was an act of blasphemy. And it may sound surprising, but if not for a landmark Supreme Court decision in 1940, O’Connor could have been arrested and prosecuted for inciting breach of the peace and criminal blasphemy.

Back in 1939, Newton Cantwell, a Jehovah’s Witness, along with his two sons were proselytizing in a Catholic neighborhood in Connecticut. Carrying a portable phonograph and literature, the three went knocking door to door.  They played for two gentleman a record that described all organized religious systems as “instruments of Satan,” and called out the Roman Catholic Church in particular. Deeply offended, the men basically wanted to throttle the Jehovah’s Witnesses, but instead called the police. They were arrested and convicted for inciting breach of the peace among other charges.


Flammable, 1995

The Cantwells appealed and claimed that they were denied their freedom of speech and  prohibited their free exercise of religion under the first Amendment. The 1940 Supreme Court agreed unanimously and set a precedent that basically made any previous laws against blasphemy in the US a dead letter.  The 1940 decision explains, that “the tenets of one man may seem the rankest error to his neighbor.” And that in a democracy an individual’s right to resort to exaggeration and vilification are liberties “essential to enlightened opinion.” And under the “shield” of these liberties, “many types of life, character, opinion, and belief can develop unmolested and unobstructed.”

That an individual has the right to offend someone, and even to do so deeply, to make their point – in speech, writing, art, performance, film, etc. – is a tremendous right. It protects from criminal prosecution, but it does not protect from outrage, rejection, and recrimination. The “Culture Wars” and “Political Correctness” of the nineties showcased how to better control unsafe expression. There was the gutting of the NEA’s budget and the addition of “advisory language” regarding decency in grant applications. Both in reaction to funding a retrospective of the sexual explicit photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and the photograph by Andres Serrano of a crucifix immersed in his own urine.  Or there was the prosecution of University of Pennsylvania student Eden Jacobowitz under the school’s speech code. He was accused of intending “water buffalo” to be a racial epithet yelled at some late night noisemakers who happened to be black.


Corrosive, 1995

A return to the days of prosecuting for blasphemous statements may not be possible. (In 1811 People v. Ruggles, the conviction of a New Yorker was upheld for saying “Jesus Christ was a bastard and his mother must be a whore.” NY Supreme Court Justice Hale affirmed that the danger of of blasphemy lay in its tendency to “strike at the root of moral obligation” and called blasphemous “words and actions dangerous to the public welfare.”)  So the preference became to find ways to encourage self-censorship. If unsure whether a particular piece of speech may be offensive to some or most individuals, it’s better left unsaid.

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Redirect the Flow of Art

July 12th, 2010 by Michael Branson Smith · 1 Comment

Redirect the Flow of Art, p. 2, 1995

1995, Redirect the Flow of Art, p. 2

Sometime around 1992 I was reading the summary reviews of movies playing in the area in my local paper the Hartford Courant. Each review listed the film rating – G, PG, PG-13, or R – but what struck me was how each assigned rating gave additional clarification. “R, with tame and randy bedroom scenes, lots of mayhem.” “PG-13, with nudity and sensual scenes for the witch, gross out effects”  “PG, with naughty ninja tricks, nasty talk.” And with no additional explanation apparently needed “G.”

My favorite was “R, hemorrhaging in blood and guts.” It’s as if the letter itself is bleeding to death. These additional explanations were part of the MPAA’s change to the rating system made in 1990. The big news in the change was actually the end of the X rating and the start of the NC-17 rating. The pornographic stigma of an X rating was supposed to be avoided with NC-17, but most media outlets saw through the new rating’s disguise and would not advertise movies with an NC-17 rating either. As a result NC-17 ratings are equally avoided by filmmakers if they wish for their film to be commercially viable.

So the more lasting impact of the rule change is on the published descriptions of each film rating, which is now often described as a film’s “full rating.” There were many  rules and society norms that I attributed to a culture of safety that was prevalent through the 80s and into the early 90s.

Redirect Book Page 13

1995, Redirect the Flow of Art, p. 13

Examples include New York which in 1984 became the first state to require drivers and passengers wear seat belts. Zero tolerance policies came in vogue in a number of states – school discipline (automatic expulsions for certain offenses) and sentencing guidelines (three strikes laws). There was the emergence of gated communities with their fences and private security guards. and  in 1984.

Everyone seemed afraid of something at the time – there were numerous choices – AIDS, Nuclear War, Crack Epidemic, Ecological Disaster (Exxon Valdez & Chernoboyl), etc. These events of the 80s were some of the archetypes of upheaval at the time. But the reaction by society to establish a sense of safety was a very different reaction to the social upheavals of the 60s and 70s. This time there was going to be control.

Being an adolescent in the 80s, it often felt like we were being punished for the previous generation’s bad behavior. I always sensed that the rules were being rewritten with an effort to keep a closer eye on this generation. It’s a silly, but one example was how high school seniors were no longer allowed to leave campus for free period. Everyone had to go to the cafeteria, where you could hang-out, play cards, whatever. But the days of driving off to do all the things you wanted to do or weren’t supposed to do were gone.

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July 6th, 2010 by Michael Branson Smith · 1 Comment

Transport 01

1994, Transport

I feel lucky that in the four summers I was a lifeguard I only had to make one save. And it was an easy save. While guarding the pool known as the “middle pool” – primarily for 4-6 year olds and running only two to three feet deep – a girl was bouncing along toward the deeper end and lost her footing. A brief slip and her head was under and she did not know how get her feet back under her. And seeing the terrified look in her eyes I knew she needed help. It was simple, I reached in, scooped her up and passed her to her mom who was close by reading a magazine. It was a save though. And I didn’t need to use any of the complex maneuvers learned in lifeguard training. Just a watchful eye and long arms.

There are a number of moves that you had to practice to rescue a drowning victim – how to support them, transport them, and even defend yourself. Developing the ability to move yourself and the victim through the water fluidly and safely was what you were trained to do. This was of particular importance for a potential victim of a spinal cord injury, someone who was unconscious floating face down in the water. To minimize the amount of neck movement, you were to enter the water without disturbing it. Approach the victim carefully. Cradle the victim’s neck with your hands front and back and your arms bracing the chest and spine. And finally with a swift kick while maintaining this cradle, you would propel yourself underwater while gently rotating the victim face-up so that they might breathe again.

Transport 04

1994, Transport

Practicing this maneuver in the lifeguard training class required that we take turns and act as victims. It was always fun to act as the flailing victim who is so freaked-out you end up attacking your rescuer. Your partner would have to push you away, swim underneath you, and come at you from behind to start over. Between this and the spinal victim exercise, you made a lot of physical contact with your partner. And between a bunch of sixteen year old boys and girls there were a number of sexual undertones that went with these exercises.

These were the kinds of things that you knew everyone in the class was thinking about but no one wanted to talk about. “Yes I know that I’m putting my forearm between your breasts while gently placing my hand on your chin. I’m fully engrossed in pretending your back may be broken. That’s all that I’m thinking about, really.”  You were supposed to be asexual and everyone else was asexual.

Transport 02

1994, Transport

I imagined that in an actual emergency situation hopefully my training would take over. All the physicality would be a means to saving a person from drowning. And all the nuances of body language would disappear behind the shear terror of being responsible for saving someone’s life.

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Physical Chemistry

June 30th, 2010 by Michael Branson Smith · 1 Comment

Physical Chemistry – Cover

Physical Chemistry, 1993

Only two electrons can occupy an orbital.” Sounds like advice a marriage counselor might give to a couple after having finished reading a biography of physicist Niels Bohr.

How about if the counselor continued to say, “It is impossible to simultaneously, with arbitrary precision, specify the position and momentum of a particle.” Wait you lost us. Are you saying that we need to focus on the bigger picture of our relationship and  not the nitpick the details? “Yes and No. I’m saying that you need to recognize that there will always be uncertainty in your relationship. It will always change in ways you won’t expect.” Oh.

At the turn of the 19th century, the first experiments to observe subatomic particles were conducted, including the famous “Gold foil experiment” which discovered the existence of an atomic nucleus. The “planetary model” of an atom with an electron orbiting around a nucleus was proposed, and still holds most of our imaginations, as it is used by many to symbolize the atom, including the US Atomic Energy Commission.

But when Werner Heisenberg introduced his theory of “uncertainty” as it applies to quantum mechanics in 1927, this model failed. You couldn’t know both where that electron was and how fast it was going around a nucleus. Suddenly, there were limits to what science could measure precisely. In fact the act of measuring would affect what you were trying to measure.

Star Trek fanatics are familiar with the Heisenberg uncertainty principle needing to be solved when it comes to the “science” of the transporter. “Beam me up Scotty!” “But captain, we can’t locate the position and speed of all the particles in your body!” “Turn on the Heisenberg Compensators dammit, and beam me out of here!”

Ok, Scotty and Kirk never had that dialogue, but Heisenberg Compensators needed to exist in the Star Trek Universe, otherwise everyone would have been transported into mush.

Physical Chemistry is the first work that I created that would fall in the genre of artist’s book.

It could be seen as a manual for the Heisenberg Compensators, explaining the unexplainable, using diagrams of group yoga/dance to solve many of the atomic (physical) chemistry axioms I learned as an undergraduate chemistry major.

Physical Chemistry – 04 Physical Chemistry – 09Physical Chemistry – 07

I imagine that these are all the various contortions your body would necessarily move through during transport to keep you from turning into mush.

Or maybe the book is a self help manual for working on your relationship – from a quantum mechanical perspective. “Because there is interaction between the two electrons in the potential energy term the values cannot be made independent of each other.” What? “Don’t expect to have a solid relationship unless you constantly work at it.” Ok, that’s what I thought you said.

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Cross Symmetry

June 14th, 2010 by Michael Branson Smith · 1 Comment

Sameness Difference Cross

Sameness & Difference Cross , 1995

My mother would implore me to hold the cross higher, “You’re so tall, you can hold the cross higher than anyone else. Use your height.”

I was an acolyte for an Episcopalian church for a number of years. I started as a torch bearer for the youth procession after Sunday school. Three of us would run after class to the back of the church, put on our frocks and blouses, and lead the other kids into church with a cross and two torches. I eventually became the cross bearer for the main procession at the start of the service, leading in the way for the pastor and clergy. The height to which I lifted the cross was a point of pride for my mother.

As an acolyte, you never actually sat with your family. The six of us, cross and torch bearers for the service and for the youth procession, sat in the front pew alone. We often got  into trouble for not being the model Episcopalian youth we were supposed to be. We would stand, kneel, and sit when asked, but we rarely read from the prayer book or sang from the hymnal when we should have. We’d open to the pages we were supposed to, but only to check them off a list of the various portions of the service. I would actually use my fingernail and “strikeout” each part of the mass listed on the weekly program.

I also spent grades 1-5 in a Catholic school and four years as an undergraduate at a Catholic college. I didn’t intend to surround myself with so much formal religious culture given that I’ve never felt comfortable with all the rituals and symbols, and was never a deep believer in what they were to represent. That there was a system of belief certain of “the way,” just seemed silly. How could you know for sure?

Maybe it was the science side of my brain, which would question, “show me the proof!” And I wasn’t looking for someone to prove to me that God exists, but that these religious words, symbols, and actions were the answer, the only answer.

(0, 0, 0) Origin Cross

(0, 0, 0) Origin Cross, 1995

In an earlier post, I mentioned that I spent a year in a chemistry Ph.D. program at the University of Chicago. By the end of the year I knew I would leave for art school and would not join a research group.  But I was still required to take a research course to finish my Master’s degree. The chair of the department suggested a mini research project that he felt would be appropriate given my change in academic pursuits. The final project was titled Quasicrystals, Ancient Building Science, and the Golden Mean. It was followed by a quote from the mathematician Roger Penrose:

It is a mysterious thing in fact how something which looks attractive may have a better chance of being true than something which looks ugly.

Penrose was speaking about the researcher’s desire for the more aesthetically pleasing solution to be the right solution. This was how I introduced the presentation’s survey of examples in art, science, and religion where symmetry is used to find “perfect” answers. In the process I was introduced to molecular symmetry based in group theory that is a system used to classify molecules by their symmetry. Molecules fall into different symmetrical groups and each group reveals various fundamental properties.

Cross Symmetry analyzes the symmetry of different crosses, as an ancient architect would use the “perfect human form” as a guide to build the Parthenon.

Canon of the Six Foot Human Figure

James A. Kane, Ancient Building Science, 1940

This new cross symmetry system became a way to affirm, deny, or qualify the value of each crucifix.

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Moment Study

June 10th, 2010 by Michael Branson Smith · 2 Comments

Moment Study – 'The Past'

Moment Study – "The Past" , 1997

In the summer of 1996 I was returning from Lake Lanier in Georgia where the Olympic Rowing Trials for the 1996 Olympics were hosted. I had competed in the single scull, finishing 7th,  after disappointingly not making a two person boat which had a real shot at making the US Team. It had been a year of training full-time and struggling to make ends meet.

It had also been a third straight year of drastic change since college. A year of studying for a Ph.D. in chemistry at the University of Chicago, was followed by a year of pursuing an M.F.A. in fine art at Tufts University, and then the rowing. I was emotionally spent and did not know what to do next.

I decided to work full-time for a moving company that I’d worked for part-time while in art school. Moving furniture was about the only thing I was comfortable doing, there was no career choice involved, not a lot of thinking, just humping heavy objects around. Each day ended with a call to the office to find out if there was work the next day and what time you were to start. Days would start usually at 6AM and finish whenever you were done getting everything off the truck – 3PM, 5PM, even 8PM – exhausting.

Moment Study – Whenever I Sit Down My Knees Will Hurt

Moment Study – Whenever I Sit Down My Knees Will Hurt , 1997

In the year that I was a full-time mover, I made the choice to finish art school. And I would commit to art school completely, leaving behind chemistry and rowing. I sold my boat and bought my first Mac with the money. This way I could work on projects at home.

The two “Moment Study” pieces were an effort to reconcile these different paths chosen and to “measure” what happened.

Moment Study – Whenever I Sit Down My Knees Will Hurt, is a vectorization of a video still of two men trying to bend steel bars behind their heads for the “World’s Strongest Man” contest in the 1980s. This vectorized image has a lot visual similarity to the print outs from various spectroscopy used to identify the composition of chemical compounds. When working with spectra, identifiable peaks at specific moments are signatures of parts of compounds. I used this process to identify “peaks” as memories and moments.

Moment Study – “The Past”, uses similar techniques to look at a drawing of a spectra. Certain parts of the spectra were exploded to a higher resolution and different vectorization techniques used to attempt to find more information. Both prints were manually fed through a large format inkjet printer numerous times to layer the images on top of drawings and collage. As a process I’d liken it to feeding a chemical compound through some spectrometer at different points in a reaction.

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They Shall Cover the Ground, So That the Ground Itself Will Not Be Visible

June 7th, 2010 by Michael Branson Smith · 1 Comment

They Shall Cover The Ground

1992, Cement Installation

It was supposed to be a commentary on overpopulation and global warming.

Exodus 10:5, “They shall cover the ground so the ground itself will not be visible,” is the eighth ultimatum Moses delivers to Pharoah to describe a plague of locusts.  The resulting plague, “Ate all the vegetation in the land…Nothing green was left on any tree or plant.”(Ex 10:15)

The quote was inscribed on a 750 pound  slab of cement made to look like a typical piece of sidewalk.  I proposed and received permission from the Vice President of the College to install the slab on an island of mulch surrounded by concrete in front of the college campus center.

They Shall Cover The Ground

The installation coincided with the annual spring fine arts majors’ show in the middle of April. Buildings and grounds transported the slab from the sculpture studio with a fork lift and the difficulty in doing this safely led them to delay removing the slab at the end of the show.

On April 29th 1992 four Los Angeles police officers were acquitted of criminal wrongdoing in the beating of Rodney King. A bystander from a balcony had videotaped what looked to most (including myself) like a merciless beating of King by the officers with nightsticks. Yet, a jury found the officers not guilty on April 29 and six days of rioting followed in Los Angeles.

I watched with many friends the near-continuous and instantaneous coverage of the riots on television. However naive it may have been, we all did our best to make sense of the riots.

Meanwhile the slab of cement was still there. It was now being interpreted by some I spoke with in the context of the riots. “They” had become abusive powers and the “ground” had become the truth.

In the middle of May, Buildings and Grounds finally decided the safest thing would be to crack the slab apart before moving it. I didn’t get to see it, but the B & G guys said it busted up easily and they tossed the remains in the dumpster.

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June 4th, 2010 by Michael Branson Smith · 1 Comment

PSI “Oh that’s interesting. So what are you going to do? Illustrate science textbooks or something?” This was a typical response to my choice to major in chemistry and fine art. My answer varied from, “Yes. ” (easiest and least confrontational) to “No” (not in the mood and likely off-putting) to the truthful “I’m not really sure.” I really had no plan at the time, but I did make attempts to marry the two.

There is a lot of visualization in chemistry, particularly organic chemistry. An organic chemist colleague of mine, Stephen Fearnley, and I chat about chemistry a bit on the LIRR from Brooklyn to Jamaica. I’m definitely very, very rusty but one thing he said recently reminded me how art and organic chem do relate.

“Organic Chemistry is still a very pencil and paper subject. Lots of drawing of chemical structures, arrows pointing to where electrons are going, showing changes in molecules, etc.” I would often  put structures in my art notebook and began to qualify chemistry statements and rules with my own authoritative interpretations. These word plays on the rules of chemistry lead to a lot work related to science, art, and safety.

PSI, ψ (pictured above) is about the mathematics used to describe an electron in orbit around a nucleus.  It was to be part of an installation I proposed for the Holy Cross science building atrium between Swords and Haberlin Halls. It was rejected by Father William O’Halloran which I discussed in my first post to this blog.

PSI, ψ  is a 47″ x 60″ block of painted plaster adhered to gypsum board mounted on a two by four frame. It’s like a relief painting with deep grooves and ridges, so I decided to use it as a printmaking block rolling white acrylic paint and pressing black paper to make a white “thumb print.” I made about eight prints with the goal of using the block and prints for the installation. None of the prints remain.

This mock-up for the installation was attached to the proposal, but shows how the suspending block was to be the nucleus, with the prints surrounding to create the electron cloud.

PSI Proposal P3

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It Cannot Be Trivial

June 1st, 2010 by Michael Branson Smith · 3 Comments

It Cannot Be Trivial

1992, Intaglio print on paper.

It resulted from an argument I had with a Jesuit Priest. “Michael, art cannot be trivial. You cannot make art from trivia. Art cannot be a trash can.”

This was how Father William O’Halloran let me know that my proposed sculpture installation for Swords Hall would not be allowed. Fr. O’Halloran was Vice President of Holy Cross in the spring of 1992 and he had, earlier in the semester, allowed me to install a sculpture temporarily in front of Hogan Campus Center. That success inspired me to try again.

In retrospect, I understand that every proposal made by an undergraduate seeking attention for his art cannot be indulged. But it was how he said “no” that was disturbing to me. The dialogue drifted into a polemic on the definition of art and its value.

I documented Fr. O’Halloran’s statements about art in my journal at the time. “It must be lasting. It must be exquisite. It must be magnificent.” I admit I did provoke him by asking if he believed Jesus was an artist. To which he answered, “Jesus Christ was not an artist.” Why not? “He didn’t paint anything, he didn’t draw or sculpt. Art may be directed performance, written word, music.” But he spoke freely about his beliefs and affected millions. “Jesus Christ was not an artist.”

This was an argument that I wasn’t going to win. The piece would not be displayed.

Though I couldn’t install the work, I didn’t let the conversation end there. I made 18-20 intaglio prints of a trash can on paper and stenciled each with one of Fr. O’Halloran’s statements in red ink. I posted them throughout Fenwick Hall, the main academic building on campus and home to the deans (mostly Jesuits) and Fr. O’Halloran.

After about a week, only a few remained, which I decided to take down and save. Fr. O’Halloran and I didn’t discuss art ever again, but it got back to me that a few faculty had taken the prints and put them up in their offices.

The words and definitions of  “it” as “art” stuck with me. They became the seeds of inspiration for many future works about art, religion, and safety.

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