Artomatic showcases “challenging” art for D.C. viewers
|July 12, 2012||Posted by Siobhan McGuirk under Featured, News, Print Issues, Stories, Volume 2, Issue 4 (July/August 2012)|
From May 18 to June 23, a group of radical artists and activists took over the former Department of Defense Headquarters in the Crystal City section of Arlington, Va. In a dedicated effort to reclaim the space, they covered walls in graffiti, photographs, paintings, and prints. They built stages to house an array of performers – from poets and punk bands to contortionists and zombie dancers. They repurposed doors to make tables and bars. Heavy-duty keypad locks, previously gateways to “need to know” meetings, became merely curious features of functional furniture.
Yet this was no occupation. It was not even a protest. It was Artomatic: D.C.’s thirteen-year-old, open-entry, non-competitive, semi-regular temporary art show. This year, over 70,000 visitors passed through the doors. Hundreds more volunteered time to organize, manage, and clean the space, and two thousand artists exhibited or performed in the space.
Artomatic began in 1999, with modest aims. Located in the former Manhattan Laundry building, only a handful of artists managed the setup in the exhibition’s inaugural year. Yet, by the time the show closed six weeks later over 350 artists and 20,000 visitors had graced the halls. In subsequent years, as organizers sought out new venues in D.C. and Northern Virginia, Artomatic grew exponentially. It now features musicians, performers, film screenings, and educational workshops on its packed schedule.
The concept is simple: Anyone wanting wall space is welcome, in exchange for three volunteer shifts to help manage the space, and a $110 donation to cover publicity and administrative costs. The result is an eclectic show. A dark corridor, strewn with pink bottles and filled with the tinny echo of a beating heart. A semi-naked man sinking his head into a bowl of plaster and banging fists on the floor. Around one corner, photographs of desolate sierras. Behind one pillar, a still life, rendered in watercolor and traditionally framed. Behind another, fluorescent plastic consumer waste, sculpted into animals stricken by a carrier bag ‘oil slick’.
For the elite minority, including Washington Post critic Blake Gopnik, this enfant terrible is just outright terrible. He called the 2004 show “excruciating”. For the majority, however, it’s a liberating interruption of business as usual. “Art critics are paid to focus on the art, [but] getting tangled up in arguing aesthetics makes it easy to lose sight on the bigger things that matter,” said Rebecca Gordon Stone, who has been variously involved as a director, board member, and artist over the past eight years. She has a clear idea of why the format works: a concentration on artist inclusion. “At the heart of this whole event [is] the idea of growing and strengthening the larger arts community in the area.”
Photographer Kimberly Keyes Stark, who has exhibited at Artomatic since 2007, agrees. “With juried shows, you’re dealing with judges with their own biases. Many have this tendency to select works by artists who are more connected with an elite ‘in-crowd’ rather than on the merits of the work in question,” she said.
“For artists,” added Gordon Stone, “Artomatic is the opportunity to connect with other artists, show their work to tens of thousands of people, and learn from the experience.”
But many of the artists also feel that visitors benefit from the format. “As a visitor to Artomatic, your art will not be pre-filtered for you, as it is at a gallery, market, museum or other art event. Nobody decides what is awesome but you!” explained Victoria Pickering.
As visitors embrace their own tastes, they have the opportunity to fund future works by their favored artists. With no commission fees, artists take home 100 per cent of any sales earning. “If you buy work from the artists you like, then you are helping them survive and make more work,” explained Pickering.
“Artists” and “visitors” overlap and interact throughout the installation. Pickering feels that this communal atmosphere contributes to Artomatic’s special air. “It comes from the complete freedom given to artists and the community they build around their enthusiasm for the arts,” she explained. “The art ranges from absolutely amazing to not-so-good, but even most of the not-so-good art is fresh and full of ideas—there is very little that is stale or boring, and the exhibit serves as a laboratory for new ideas and inspiration.“
In D.C., the Smithsonian behemoth guarantees that ‘high art’ is free and accessible. Yet emerging artists, and many producing “challenging” or “unrefined” work, still struggle for exposure and income. Artomatic offers a much-needed boost to the local scene. Though the undertaking is under increasing pressure to raise funds if it is to continue at its current size. For Gordon Stone, these circumstances warrant a final note of caution. “I continue to believe that Artomatic is a great thing, but I have concerns about the increasingly corporate nature of the organization and wonder how long the event can truly continue on at this size and scale while still being ‘artist-driven,” she said. For now though, she concluded, “Only time will tell.”
Artists exhibiting political work at Artomatic discuss their aims and inspiration:
Heather Bartlett, “Body Politics” (warning: link is nsfw)
“People really connect with Body Politics. We all have body issues. I don’t think I know a human being who doesn’t want to change something about their bodies. Sometimes people miss the point of the project. Sometimes they bring their own light and energy to it. Even if they interact with it in a negative way or say something demeaning, it brings life and energy to a topic that people need to think more deeply about.
We can’t keep letting other people and advertisers tell us what beauty is. We must decide for ourselves what beauty is and keep that sacred.”
Kimberly Keyes Stark, “Occupy the Dollhouse”
“I was really heartened by [the Occupy movement] even though a health condition precluded me from actually sleeping in a tent overnight. In time I visited the other Occupy DC site as well as Occupy Baltimore. I was impressed each time I visited.
Soon after the rise of the Occupy movement, there was a Facebook parody group called Occupy Lego Land, which showed the Lego Minifigs in revolt against the system. So I had an idea of doing my own photographic Occupy parody. I turned to my doll collection to portray events based on what I saw at the Occupy sites in real life.
I think my exhibit has hit a nerve with a general public that is being battered by the bad economy with no sign of relief in sight. When I was there for Meet the Artist night, I got a lot of laughs and praise.”
Andrea Collins, “Free Pussy Riot”
“My entire practice (including my poetry, I started in art as poet) is predicated on the belief that art should do more than just be pretty, and that people want more than just pretty from their art. So of course I think people are always responsive to political work. I believe most people want to do good and don’t have enough opportunities. It is my experience that people welcome the chance to signify their disgust with or belief in causes (like Free Pussy Riot) or larger concepts like peace (I have done several audience-participant pieces about peace).
I have done sanctioned shows, but often do things less-than-sanctioned or in collaboration with other artists. The most recent performance I did before “Free Pussy Riot” was “The Cypher Is Present” at the Emerge Art Fair last fall in D.C. It was an occupation—an unsanctioned, free, audience-participant performance in a room I rented in the hotel where the fair was held–for which I was kicked out of the hotel, which became part of the performance.
Many Artomatic goers view art regularly and have art in their lives on a regular basis, but many people who attend do not. I consider art an essential part of anyone’s life, so I think is should be available where everyone feels comfortable accessing it. And Artomatic is very comfortable.”
Cleve O “Vitriolic Whispers”
“Yes, [I think the public are particularly responsive to political art]. Especially this year, especially now, especially in D.C. My installation, Vitriolic Whispers, was done to recycle thousands of tapes of mean-spirited, right wing talk show hosts into something attractive and interesting. From the comments people have left at the site, I believe I hit the mark.”