Free for All

Philadelphia
01.24.07

Left: LURE's Aaron Igler and ICA Philadelphia associate curator Jenelle Porter. Right: Space 1026's Andrew Jeffrey Wright. (All photos: William Pym)


ICA Philadelphia launched its 2007 program with thunderous and near-comical pomp on Friday night with “Locally Localized Gravity.” It’s a massive project that hopes to replicate the quotidian strategies of artists’ collectives––presenting four from Philly, four from elsewhere, and a lone individual artist––in a mega-exhibition and two-month program of over seventy-five ICA-endorsed events, not only in the institution but in homes, bars, and libraries and on street corners. I say “thunderous” because the scene most resembled the hormonal chaos of a rock club, with smashed beer bottles, prowling youth (from hip-hop heads to burnouts to now-ubiquitous freak-folk folks), and frantic individuals on cell phones trying to find estranged friends or avoid ex-lovers. It was clubby, and, man, this club has gotten big. At least a thousand people crossed the threshold over the course of two hours, more than I have ever witnessed here or indeed at any other art venue in five years in this city.

I say “near-comical” because while there was much of importance to discuss, both about the show and, broadly speaking, the local landscape into which it fits, there were no practical means of doing so. I cornered ever-poised ICA director Claudia Gould and asked her if she had any misgivings about approving the exhibition, which was arranged by staff curators Elyse Gonzales, Jenelle Porter, and Whitney Lauder Curatorial Fellow Naomi Beckwith. “None whatsoever,” she replied, as we looked down from the balcony bar on a room so packed that the crowd had begun to whorl and eddy in that wonderful oceanlike way that indicates a critical mass. “Why would I?”

Left: Black Floor Gallery's Elsa Shadley. Left: LURE's Matt Suib.


I wondered whether these opening-night hysterics portended the challenge this show will face, whether discussions at this institution will have a hard time being as intimate and idiosyncratic as they should. During the ICA members’ private walk-through, participating artist Matt Bakkom had treated the preppy young friends to an outpouring of jargon, suggesting they keep “modes of interaction” and “an activated museum space” at the forefront of their thoughts. “I was trying not to be overly prescriptive,” Bakkom told me when we eventually met, “not frighten anybody, not confuse anybody.”

I wasn’t sure it worked. Looking after a blanket bazaar of hand-printed artists’ books, publisher Max Lawrence bellowed to a fellow Space 1026 member, “I have never heard so much shit about ‘commodifying’ in my whole life. Are you telling me art’s supposed to be free?” Perhaps the exhibition’s wall text had led the baying, product-hungry masses swarming around him to look for a quick souvenir of the night’s magic, speaking as it did of resourcefulness and cheap real estate. But cheap is not free. As I sat with Naomi Beckwith on top of the nearest piece of art, Black Floor Gallery’s literal and snottily stark black floor on wheels, the curator opened up. “We wanted to circumvent the images of either starving bohemia or rank commerce that these groups attract, and focused on those artists who find a way for their ideas and themselves to survive.” We had enough peace on our perch for a moment’s reflection. “There’s nothing harder than for creative individuals to occupy a space at the same time,” she continued, without inflection. I wanted to point out that her words applied as much to the pros who organize and typically view museum shows as they did to self-sufficient collectives. Unfortunately, Beckwith had been snared for a crisis discussion about dinner, now thirty minutes overdue and looking like it might not even happen. Wimpy student volunteers from Penn had not been sufficiently trained as name-takers, and streams of undesirables had found their way to the buffet in the back.

But it didn’t really matter. For now, the fact that so many had come together was the thing to celebrate. It had been a truly amazing spectacle. At dinner’s end, Gould made her way to a makeshift dais. Dim candlelight illuminated drained wine bottles, drunk youngsters, and smashed glass (littering the private dinner as much as anywhere else), and Gould told a ludicrous story about the dream she’d had on the plane back from her and senior curator Ingrid Schaffner’s recent scouting trip to India. She’d dreamed that she had been floating on the surface of the moon, and her story went, endearingly, nowhere. I don’t think she was drunk.

William Pym

Left: Man Man's Sergei Sogay with Space 1026's Thom Lessner. Right: Whitney Lauder Curatorial Fellow Naomi Beckwith.