Frente Agua Project

Frente Agua (Facing Water)

The Frente Agua Project

Frente Agua

If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you sell them?

_ Chief Seattle

Collaborating Artists: Stephanie Wagner and Brack Morrow

Grants Received: New Mexico Arts & National Endowment for the Arts

Installation: Fantase Fest, Santa Fe, New Mexico in DeVargas Park, June 18, 6-midnight.

We are interested in the opportunity to share through visual art the story telling about water and it’s importance to all New Mexicans. Our project seeks to locate the deep and intimate relationship New Mexicans have with water. The Navajo Creation story tells us that a great river crossed the land from north to south, and this was the Female River. At the same time there was a river flowing from east to west, and this was the Male River. This “Place Where the Waters Crossed” is where life flourished for the first peoples.

Today these waters continue to cross our paths. New Mexico’s rivers connect all of us with precious resources that are our lifeblood.  At the same time a combination of drought, invasive species, over-allocation, toxification, and unsustainable management is placing this lifeblood in danger. The wildlife that depends on rivers is in decline. The future of many communities and economies relying on river water is uncertain.

NM Major Rivers, Streams, Creeks, Lakes

New Mexico Lakes, Rivers and Water Resources Map, Geoscience News and Information,

The Frente Agua (Facing Water) project seeks to put a face to the “magic, moving, living” resource that is our river water. We seek to create a conversation by lending voice to the many New Mexicans who rely on and are connected to water either by livelihood or by recreation. Our multidisciplinary project is a collaborative endeavor incorporating photography, sculpture, video projection, and sound for the purpose of exhibiting visual stories depicting how water impacts the lives of New Mexicans from broad walks of life around the state.

This project will rely on several elements to complete. The first stage requires research and storytelling. As we travel around New Mexico to visit our major river areas, we will shoot video and record the sounds of waterways. We will collect stories from individuals who rely on, or recreate in, those waters in various ways. We will ask people to convey what the river water means to them and how it has impacted their lives. We will record the stories of their experiences, and photograph the face of each storyteller. As fellow humans we are naturally drawn to the exquisite uniqueness of the face and all that it tells us of living.

 The second element involves synthesizing the photography, video, sound, and text into a unique blend of imagery wherein water becomes the surface of each individual’s face as text and sound convey their thoughts and feelings about New Mexico’s riverways.

 The project’s third element will require the construction of a 10-foot modular sculpture depicting the form of a face. This abstract face serves, in essence, as a projection screen that will give 3D form to the projected faces of the storytellers from all over New Mexico.


Please follow our project here:

The Frente Agua Project


A river seems a magic thing. A magic, moving, living part of the very earth itself.

 __ Laura Gilpin, photographer,  The Rio Grande: River of Destiny, 1949.

Art After Modernism-Fall Semester 2013

HAIR| Material : Subject

      Toward the end of my Summer 2013 in-residence period at MassArt, I became very interested in hair as a material and have learned since then that connotations of hair are a deep well that course through many important socio-cultural issues. I began the research for my art history class project of curating an imaginary exhibition knowing only about a small handful of artists who work with hair as a material or hair as subject (or both). By the end of the project, I learned about nearly 200 international contemporary artists, both male and female, who are working with human and synthetic hair or who reference hair as subject matter in their works, such as in painting, drawing, and photography. I was fortunate to engage with a few artists and curators directly, and I thank them for generously sending to me writings, images, personal comments, and exhibition catalogs. Very special gratitude goes out to artists Rosie Leventon and Samantha Sweeting. To date, not very much has been published about hair as a contemporary fine art medium and subject. I’m thinking that a book enriched with essays and photographs of fine art works just might be in order, oh say around 2016, when I am done with the business of being an MFA candidate. Thanks, Valerie Hellstein…you rock!

Please click on the link below to view and read the catalog, which was created for educational purposes only. Due to copyright infringement issues, please do not download or reproduce the catalog in any manner whatsoever.  Thanks.

Art After Modernism-Fall Semester 2013

The Inarticulable Sublime

      I had the opportunity to experience Bill Viola’s Going Forth By Day at the Guggenheim (NY) in 2002 that comprised five videos and sound, “The Deluge”, “Fire Birth”, “The Path”, “The Voyage” and “First Light”. It was an overwhelming sight to witness in “The Deluge” a perpetual scene of people running from a building followed by thousands and thousands of gallons of water, numerous household objects, and a few flaccid “bodies” streaming down stairs through the front door out onto a street. I stood there in front of the screen until there were only rivulets of streaming water at the end of the video. I was transfixed and dismayed, so speechless that the most I could mutter to my friend was a quiet, “Wow”.  Quite taken, when the video began again I sat on the floor watching it and each of the videos in the gallery several times comparing and combining them in order to find some kind of greater understanding. What has stayed with me all this time has been difficult to articulate. I accepted the experience as one of a handful of exhibition encounters that I felt deeply, particularly the ascending man from a pool of water in “Fire Birth”.

Later on having become a little bit more familiar with Viola’s works, albeit over the Internet, I came to appreciate a number of his videos, such as “The Raft” (2004), “The Crossing” (1996), “The Reflecting Pool” (1979), however to me, to view most of his works in person is key to the potentiality of what I believe is his desired affect on the viewer. Being prolific in talking publicly about his works, himself, and his spiritual views, he repeats in various ways some of his core beliefs that support what he creates as an artist, such as birth is not a beginning and death is not an end, pure infinite dreams lie beneath the eyes and mind and are the reflection of one’s own soul talking to other souls, throat clenching, deeply profound fear is man’s greatest invention—the thing that creates art—the thing that tells you that you can get to the edge of the precipice and close your eyes and jump.[1]

While I have never read anything stating so, by the manners in which he speaks and often holds one or both hands in mudra positions, I believe he views himself as a teacher to the world or at least, a unabashed speaker of his personal spiritual truths. Yet too, even though he is a talker, I believe he is purposefully spare. After listening to numerous interviews and reading slews about him in the last week, I wish I never had delved so deeply because just as I could not put a finger on what moved me about portions of Going Forth By Day all those years ago, now I cannot quite put a finger on what it is about him that bothers me.

Through a Kantian understanding Cynthia Freeland described his work: “When we are faced by something vast or powerful like a mountain range or storm, what Kant calls our faculties of sensibility and imagination become overwhelmed. They cannot take it all in. But on the other hand, we have another cognitive faculty, reason, which feels uplifted by the experience. Reason, which is also the source of morality and freedom for humans, somehow identifies with the vast object. But this does not involve actual cognition, which is done by yet another faculty, understanding. No faculty is adequate to the sublime experience. It is as if instead reason makes an intuitive leap to embrace the sublime object without actually conceptualizing or recognizing it-and we ride a resultant surge of energy” (Robertson and McDaniel, 279). Immediately I questioned the specifics of her description of sublimity when referring to his work. I recalled a former art history professor prolifically describing numerous sublime artworks during a series of lectures on Romanticism, one of which was J.M.W. Turner’s The Slave Ship (1840) that is undeniably a painting depicting man set against man, and the sublimity of great natural forces and what might be believed to be divine retribution. But she said too much about each work just as Freeland wrote too much. Suddenly it occurs to me that one thing that is disturbing is that Bill Viola says too much and when he purposefully puts himself into check by stating he has said too much, the carefully carved out market that is Bill Viola (thanks to his never tiring wife, Kira Perov) says a lot.

Perhaps the whole of what I have just expressed is a final recognizing that the brunt of Viola’s work has become too repeated in its expression of humankind’s cyclical life experiences and its fabrications of elemental sublimity.  I understand he almost drowned as a young boy and that the power of childhood memories can remain with us throughout adulthood. Wasn’t it Thor Heyerdahl on the raft, Kon Tiki, who was afraid of water, yet sailed for thousands of miles upon the Pacific taking action to uphold his beliefs against his fears?  To me, Viola’s excessive water iterations are becoming more and more like over-priced cheap illusion, albeit masterfully implemented.  An argument in terms, I know! While his work has become extremely glossy for my tastes, too much focused on the pictures he stated are no longer of interest to him after he studies them to come up with ideas (um, really?), I am still riveted to certain characteristics of his works. Extreme slow motion technology affords the eye to catch the beauty of time passing and lovely bodily expressions. So through these aspects by relation, I often remain in a kind of mesmerized, speechless state that, yes, still comes from that quiet viewpoint I mentioned earlier that continues to be fairly inarticulable for me. The one thing I have learned from my research this week is that my respect for Bill Viola’s work is largely due to an awe response about what technology can offer to the artist’s playground.

[1] Lucas, Peter. “A Conversation with Bill Viola”. Glasstire (Texas Visual Art), 03 October 2013. Web.

Reading List

  • Eleonor Heartney. “The Global Culture War”. Art in America, October 2011. Pp. 119-123. Print.
  • Craig McDaniel and Jean Robertson. “Spirituality”. Themes of Contemporary Art: Visual Art After 1980, 2nd Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. Print.
Art After Modernism-Fall Semester 2013

Toward Politics of Representation

      I would like to introduce to those of you who do not know of him, the artist Paul Chan. I stumbled upon his work and numerous writings about him during my research of the artists that were new to me from this week’s readings. There were quite a few, which was very exciting! The only disappointing thing about my research was that I could not find Pierre Huyghe’s films in their entirety on-line. I did, however, discover some in-depth videos that helped me to understand more about who he is as an artist.

The first video is of the talk he gave in 2012 at The Retreat dOCUMENTA (13) at The Banff Centre (Canada). The introduction of Huyghe is very poignant to this week’s readings, as the scholar who offered an introduction to Huyghe paraphrased ideas of the late Russian philosopher, Mikhail Bakhtin. She said, “There is no alibi in life. And he (Bakhtin) meant by that saying, actually, that there is no alibi because we need to deal, all of us, with the fact that life comes as an immense given-ness that we are forced to transform all the time into a world for us, through an exercise of understanding the passages, the connective-ness, the in-between-ness, not only of time, but also of space”.

The other video that I discovered is an interesting Q&A that took place in 2006 between Pierre Huyghe and Mark Godfrey (Slade School of Fine Art, UK)

I discovered a series of seven talks given by Pierre Huyghe in 2008 at the European Graduate School about narrative, projection, and memory. How pertinent to my interests! Here is the link to the first one and you can link to the rest from there:

But back to Paul Chan.

I had not heard of him before now. Following a line of thought from the readings, I looked up Jacques Ranciére and landed on an article written by Ben Davis, “Ranciére, for Dummies”.[1] Perfect! I discovered that Ranciére has been described by Artforum as “the art world’s ‘darling du jour”. The same magazine described Paul Chan as “Ranciérian”, so is he also one of the art world’s darling du jour? These are the little tidbits that many times offer up a whole new world of questions and exploration, and for this I am glad. To me, Chan represents  part of that new generation of artists discussed by Nicolas Bourriaud when he stated at the end of his “Berlin Letter about Relational Aesthetics”, “The political value of the relational aesthetic lies in two very simple observations: social reality is the product of negotiation and democracy is a montage of forms. Whatever the artist’s degree of awareness, every artist secretes and transposes social values, bringing them to bear on the individual or the collective.” Quoting the psychiatrist, David Copper, he goes on to state, “…’madness is not inside the person’ (as if it were a foreign body), but inside the system of relations in which that person participates…What has been ground down by the machine of community must be re-singularized. And this work implies the constitution of temporary subject groups, or micro-communities, the modeling of alternative modes of sociality and the appropriation of industrial production and economic structures. That is what relational aesthetics is about, the emphasis on a parallel engineering, an open forms based on the affirmation of the trans-individual.”

To cut to the chase, Paul Chan’s work falls into with this line of thinking, which is what I perceive to be meant as an egalitarian approach, as individual artist, critic, writer, and human being involved in the politics of our world’s issues with others. He creates. He participates. He disseminates. He doesn’t hold much back, to be sure. Perhaps one could even think of his life’s work as being a contemporary answer to the Ranciérian question of, “What landscape can one describe as the meeting place between artistic and political practice?”[2]  Paul Chan seems to do it all. He embraces modern technology as a means to create, and to support himself (clearly) through DVDs of his art videos, font designs, GIF designs, and experimental publishing. His online company, Badland Unlimited, describes their publications as such: “Historical distinctions between books, files, and artworks are dissolving rapidly. We publish and produce new works by artists and writers that embody the spirit of this emerging dissolution. We make books in an expanded field.” He has been written about in more art magazines than I can list here and has been published by just as many. He is a regular keynote speaker at many high-ranking international art venues. Numerous interviews with him can be seen on the Internet, both in texts and videos.

In an interview with Alina Viola Grumiller, while he comes from a journalism and labor organizing background, Chan stated that he does not mix politics with his art.[3] This statement points back to earlier explorations, with thanks to Valerie Hellstein, about two ways in which art can engage politics-as tending toward a representation of politics wherein art content deals specifically with social identities and political positions or toward a politics of representation wherein art is constructions of representations that are interrogated and deconstructed formally and ideologically.  However, he is adamant in his Ranciérian viewpoints when talking about art:  “I think it’s important to remember where these lines are being drawn; within the philosophical, economic, and social parameters of art, as opposed to politics, and this sort of freedom is exhilarating but impotent. Again, to mix. This is where we get into trouble. To mistake the freedom in art for the freedom and liberation in politics is to be disingenuous about both. The freedom in art translates as pure impotence in politics and the freedom of politics means among other things the destruction of art. To mistake art making as a form of political work I think is fine, but in the end does a disservice to art. It doesn’t mean that artists can’t be political activists or that art can’t have a political resonance. It simply means that we must be aware of the power and the impotence that is the social and historical fabric of contemporary art.” Nevertheless, to me, his art falls into the latter category of interrogated and ideological constructions of representations”.

Paul Chan has much to contribute to the art world along with Pierre Huyghe and many of the other artists studied in recent weeks. He makes sound observations about critical world issues and human exeriences through his art, activism, and writing. To me, he lives a life that points toward the earlier quoted Mikhail Bakhtin, “There is no alibi in life.” At first you might be taken aback by some of his works, but dig deeper and you’ll be surprised:

Here are some interesting supporting articles about his work:

Baghdad in No Particular Order

Waiting for Godot in New Orleans

Sade for Sade’s Sake

Some of Paul chan’s views on art:

[1] Ben Davis. “Ranciére, for Dummies” Web.

[2] Fluvia Carnivale and John Kelsey. “Art of the Possible: An Interview with Jacques Ranciére”. Artforum. March 2012.  Web.

[3] Alina Viola Grumiller. “Hope of Escape”. Web.

Reading List:

  •  Nicolas Bourriaud. “Berlin Letter about Relational Aesthetics”.
  • Thomas Hirschhorn. Critical Laboratory: The Writings of Thomas HIrschhorn. Lisa Lee and Hal Foster, Eds. Cambridge: October Books. 2013. Print.
Art After Modernism-Fall Semester 2013

Biennale Dismay and a Note On Apartment Art

      This week’s readings were definitely eye openers for me. To write about every issue covered would take a month of Sundays to address. It’s strange how in the past I’ve tried to find out about some of these issues and must have searched Google erroneously because I gave up my searches after a while. But this week’s readings have opened up all of that. It pays to be able to begin researching after having a better start at it than zero like before. I found so many supporting articles my head was spinning. I am grateful.

Julian Stallabrass’ explanation about biennials and the other global art venues I read about gave explanations to what I have only felt in my gut and could barely articulate.  The last time I attended a biennale was back in 2002. I was involved in the film side of things, but I went to the Giardini on a day off to look at the architectural concepts. At that time, I was overwhelmed by the magnitude of creative brilliance and paid only cursory attention to the art that was placed outside for public view along the main travelling route. Having little free time to enjoy anything was an issue then. Today, I find myself wondering how I would have responded if the Giardini exhibitions were focused on art that year instead of architecture. I might have come away with a stronger viewpoint on all I witnessed.

Nevertheless, I did come away with thoughts about how the pavilions were staunchly nation oriented, not necessarily displaying as I had hoped the larger-than-one-country important global concerns of that time. Some countries presented slight global branching, albeit from an interior eye, so to speak.  They are specific nation’s pavilions, after all. Our own United States pavilion featured design proposals for the new World Trade Center accompanied by photographs of Ground Zero taken by Joel Meyerowitz. The display felt slight as compared to the real issues of loss of life, terrorism, and war. Outside the pavilion was a large twisted heap of metal from one of the Twin Towers. I recall thinking it must have cost our country a fortune to ship it there. Having close ties to 9/11, the whole of our country’s representation in that international intellectual venue hit me hard.

I thought it was such a superficial portrayal of the actual horrors and real fear experienced in Manhattan, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania, indeed in the whole of the United States, not to mention for the innocent peoples of Afghanistan and Iraq. Right there with me in Italy I relived my own experiences of confusion and concern for dear friends and colleagues while being riveted to the news. I thought about all of the phone calls and e-mails to try to reach them—waiting, waiting, waiting—finally hearing their tearful stories. I remembered eerie experiences of being in NYC in the weeks after 9/11. All of the suffering of the bereaved, the subsequent loss of jobs might have been represented in some way. What I got instead was a chunk of metal on view outside our United States pavilion that was far smaller than any one piece I witnessed being hauled away from Ground Zero—no ash, no flyers with faces of missing loved ones, no strange scent in the air of something hard to define but that made one’s spine feel like a Rhodesian Ridgeback’s, nothing that elicited the strange silence that had been NYC streets. I wanted more as a justification for my country’s representation even if it was the year for architecture. I told myself that if it had been the year for art to be represented at the biennale instead of architecture, I would most likely be viewing a more humanistic exhibition that could stand many breaths away from the United States government’s self-consumed ideas about supremacy and clout that, to me, were what was billed under the guise of rebuilding hope for our future. If I had still carried with me the printed out e-mail I had received from my mother (right or wrong in its suggestion), I would have stuck it up inside our pavilion with the chewing gum from my mouth because in just a few words of concern it felt more passionate:

                                      Sent: Tuesday, September 11, 2001 7:43 PM

                                      Subject: Where are you?

                                     > — REBEKAH>

                                     > wrote:

                                     > > Stephanie, In view of today’s acts of war aganist

                                     > > our country, I very much need to know exactly where

                                     > > you are.  Mother

In the end I felt ripped off by my own country.

It was odd, too, that I was at the biennale not as a representative of my country, but for Canada.  All of us were invited to a lavish luncheon at a posh restaurant hosted by the Canadian Embassy to Italy…paid for by Canadian tax dollars. It was a very uncomfortable experience. To make matters worse, I attended another event (paid for by Canadian tax dollars) that took place in a contessa’s home (rented for the evening) with beverages and food served by her personal staff. From the tall elegant windows, drinks in hand, we looked across the narrow canal into the Guggenheim’s darkened windows and spoke about “Peggy’s collection”.  People in tuxes and gowns surrounded me. My faux pas was that I didn’t understand it was a “glowing” event meant for clothing other than the jeans and retro 70’s polyester jacket that I wore. As it stood after receiving many sideways glances, my attire finally went unnoticed when the veiled wife of a Canadian architect who had immigrated to Toronto from the Middle East burst in past one of the contessa’s staff (she had not been invited?!) to find him snuggling with one of his students who was dressed in an expensive gown into which she (perhaps he in a fit of passion?) had cut slits in sexy places that were held together with gold colored safety pins. Oy! The man’s wife was whisked away after her “scene” as people called it and everything settled down to where it was “supposed” to be with a book signing by all of the architects, engineers, and artists who were involved in the Canadian pavilion exhibition, “…a free copy for each of you…”, and speeches…blah, blah, blah. Need I say that I left very soon feeling utterly dismayed with myself? My copy of the book sits out of reach on a high shelf collecting desert dust; its cover is no longer gleaming white.

My accounts are not meant to bash biennales, but to stress that for a very long time I have felt confused and off-kilter against my desires to eventually be a part of one again even in the small way in which I was before, and these thoughts are now further complicated in regard to what I have learned this week of what they have become (or perhaps were then, but did not know the whole of it).  Is it true, as Stallabrass pointed out by numerous examples, that what one wants to think of as a unique honor is really to take part in a watered down art world homogeny produced only upon Western values and desires? Have our truly international (and now transnational) art venues that are supposed to include artists who say something become yet another pulsing vein in the life force of the spectacle? There is no doubt that politics play a role in biennials, but even that seems softened with an eye toward the tastes and expectations of the majority, and worse a elitist, exclusionary, consumerist (?) majority.


      At first, I had no understanding of Julian Stallabrass’ mention of Apartment Art. It seemed that his explanation made no sense of that art as ephemeral when set against an ice wall filled with luxury consumer items that were dug out by the public to eventually destroy the wall. So, I dug deeper. I was surprised to find that barely any mention is made in our American Google search engine; one must attach the name of Gao Minglu to find anything of substance. I was surprised that I had never heard of apartment art until now. It appears to have been a very important response by Chinese artists to government control (legal restrictions on galleries and museums) and traditional museum patronage. “Acclaimed curator and founder of Apartment Art, Gao Minglu, says the movement was made up of ‘art that responded to the moment, the condition of making art in the early 1990s in China.’ What began with artists transforming their apartments and homes into private galleries to compensate for the lack of commercial gallery support, resulted in a full-blown underground art movement. In addition to restricted space, artists were limited to the materials readily available to them. What resulted was a ‘Dada-influenced movement’ that ‘relied on ready-made objects, performances and Zen Buddhism.’[1]

One conceptual Apartment Art artist, Song Dong, began in the late 1990s to perform a daily ritual of writing his dairy with water on a stone. While I have found no documentation to support my thoughts, I believe that his rise in the world of conceptual Chinese artists would not have taken place if there had never been a kind of relief offered up to some Chinese artists via the 1998 Beijing exhibition, Inside/Out: New Chinese Art.  He has exhibited at the Moma (NY), PS1 (NY), SFMoma (California), the Walker Art Museum (Minneapolis), Centre Pompidou (Paris), and in two biennials, Sao Paolo Biennale (2004), Istanbul Biennale (2003). The struggles and fortitude of artists outside of the ever more mainstream Westernized world is always inspiring whether or not their work is labeled as part of an homogenous new art world. Suddenly I find myself back where I started by questioning the biennial culture, selected curators and artists, associated politics and structure, and the oftentimes failed intentions of our Westernized art assemblies.

To me, the most interesting artists in the readings this week were mentioned in Pamela M. Lee’s introduction to her book, Forgetting the Art World. Overall, I agree with her approach of looking at the world’s art and issues of globalization through the lens of “the work of art’s world”. With her eye toward new and important art venues, curators, and artists who are making a difference in how we might view the art in our more globally connected world, I will keep her name as prominent for future reference. I am grateful to have learned about her scholarship. I hope that she will expand her investigations even further beyond the artists she wrote about in her book, which might in turn enable me a greater understanding beyond this vicious circle spinning around inside my head.


[1] Author Unknown. “Apartment Art”. ArtSpeak China, June 28, 2011.

Reading List:

  • Pamela H. Lee. Forgetting the Art World. Cambridge: MIT Press. 2012. Print.
  • Julian Stallabrass. “New World Order”. Contemporary Art: A Very Short History. New York: Oxford University Press.  2004. Pp. 19-49. Print.