The Rochester Improvement Society and the Rochester Young Democrats at RoCo

A while back I got involved with a small group called The Rochester Improvement Society. We basically meet once a month, really informally, and just shoot ideas around. Simple as that.

This month, the "instigators" of our group got together with the The Monroe County Young Democrats and decided to meet at The Rochester Contemporary Art Gallery (137 East Ave.) The idea was to "make art" for the upcoming 6x6x2012 show, to talk about art and the community, and to chat with councilmember Dr. Elaine Spaull, Ph. D..

Right off the bat, I was a bit puzzled to see "Sam's Choice" soda and cookies which come from Walmart or Sam's Club. I wondered if I was a the right event — our Improvement Society always meets at a locally-owned business, so I kept looking at the cookie boxes to see which local bakery they came from, only to find they didn't. Well, okay …

Then it came around to art in the community. It's obvious that nobody in the room knew what art was. Here we were ostensibly creating 6×6 works as a fundraiser for RoCo, and the goal was to bang something out in an hour with arts-and-crafts tools (e.g. non-toxic markers, glue, magazines for collages). I just did a little abstract piece which really was very lousy, but I felt guilty just throwing it out so I submitted it.

I just kind of listened.

Elaine Spaull spoke a bit on the topic at hand. She mentioned the bus garage and how it was controversial, but failed to see why: that it does not improve bus service, that it will be (as a friend pointed out) essentially a quonset hut that will be loud as hell and reek of diesel exhaust, and that it should be built as an intermodal station supporting train service. Instead she kind of shrugged it off and touted that it will have art in it.

She then talked about improving neighborhoods with art. She made a point of mentioning that the goal was to remove graffiti and to install art in its place. Now, graffiti comes in two forms: tagging and street-art, both on their own spectrum of quality. Tagging is a call for attention, filling a need to have a voice and a place in a community. Street-art is a desperate outlet for creativity: lacking a legal outlet for their voice, the street-artist turns to graffiti. Removing graffiti and installing art from somewhere else is just a big "fuck you" to the local community, reinforcing isolation.

I gathered that what she meant by "art" is "pretty things", specifically to differentiate from "practical things" like factories and office buildings. But factories and buildings can look good and be integrated into the urban landscape, fulfilling the need for "pretty things". Art  is more about communicating a message: the story arc of creating, presenting, observing, and interpreting. Especially interpreting: that's really important in art.

The young democrats hungrily consumed her words. If they disagreed at all, I couldn't sense it. All these bright young faces, excited to be part of making a better tomorrow, and all absolutely clueless. It was incredibly disheartening.

And then I understood what it was that bugged me about the outsourced refreshments: it was an incredibly shallow understanding of community. The family who runs Genesee Bakery (1677 Mount Hope Ave.) are my neighbors. By visiting them, I'm visiting my neighbors. And by spending my money there, I keep it in the community — and that's important because it's the transfer of money that is an economy, so sending it away stalls the economy.

So the money they saved with the cheaper snacks was really a burden they placed on  their community, their neighbors, their family, and ultimately themselves.

But they could only see the numbers on the receipt.

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Dogtown, Oh My God

After Ali and I had lunch at Dogtown Hots (691 Monroe Ave.), I headed to The Rochester Contemporary Art Gallery (137 East Ave.) to check out the installation there: Sam van Aken's Audition. Ali and I went to the opening reception last week, but both Thumper and Oh My God were works based on sound, and it was pretty much impossible to fully experience them with all the crowd noise.

I have to admit I was enamored of the idea of Oh My God: a 60-foot-long, 10-foot-high wall of mismatched speakers, impossibly arranged to form a perfect rectangle. I knew from the opening that it sporadically played voices and sounds. I sat in front of it for (what turned out to be) nearly the entirety of its 7-minute loop. The phrase "oh my God" — versions thereof collected from famous and not-so-famous media sources — emanates sporadically from one randomly-selected speaker. And then from another, and another, and so on — gradually playing more and more frequently until building to a cacophonous and overwhelming climax.

As I was letting myself get lost in the experience, I recognized a few of the voices and their sources from popular movies and television. Sometimes I'd recognize a voice that was played earlier being played in a new location. I was also aware of the digital distortion from the variety of low sampling rates and MPEG-styled compression artifacts — a specific kind of harmonic whine that tended to distract me. But certain voices I didn't recognize (save for their intonation), and they brought me specifically to the events of September 11.

In reading the information binder for Oh My God, it turns out that was, in fact, Aken's inspiration. In unavoidably viewing the terrible footage that day over-and-over until he became numb to it, the one thing that rang out was a woman's voice saying, "oh my God" in one of the clips. [In case you don't recall, the World Trade Center was destroyed by terrorists piloting hijacked commercial airplanes on September 11, 2001.]

I was kind-of saddened that the point was so … simple: that this impressive-scaled work, reminiscent of the ideally-packed order of Manhattan's maps and its skylines, was just a reflection of the numbness achieved by repetitive playback of an event by the media by creating numbness to a phrase by parroting its own frequent use in media.

I still want to like it so bad, but I'm at a loss to find any more depth in it. But hey: maybe that's the point too.

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