“HERE IN FRONT OF THIS ARCHITECTURAL BLUNDER.” That was the text Marcus Kuiland-Nazario sent me about thirty minutes before our panel was set to begin at this year’s College Art Association Conference. He was referring, of course, to James Ingo Freed’s glass-and-steel entrance portal to the Los Angeles Convention Center, which, frankly, looks like an overscaled Apollo space capsule. Like most convention centers, the interior of the LACC is a sequence of immense volumes that are traversed in minutes, rather than seconds. The escalators go up and the escalators go down, but does anyone truly get anywhere?
Because we’re talking about a gathering of artists and art historians the answer to that question must be: yes and no. It was Wednesday morning, February 21, and the beginning hours of the annual conference thrown by the College Art Association, a professionalizing (and increasingly, advocacy) organization serving art historians, artists, and arts-adjacent folks. After the panel—the other panelists were Leticia Alvarado and Roy Martinez, aka Lambe Culo—I quickly exited the convention center to take my mother to Pasadena for the annual QuiltCon, put on by the Modern Quilters Guild. I would say like mother like son, but do we really need to wrap this up in such a tidy bow?
I came back, because I am being paid to write this column, to see the awards ceremony and keynote lecture (this year given by Charles Gaines). Unlike other opening ceremonies (I see you Pyeongchang) this one did not rely on a fictive group of five children to explain the history and culture of Los Angeles to the audience (but…that sounds like a good idea). Instead, CAA’s executive director, Hunter O’Hanian, and its president, Suzanne Preston Blier, spoke about recent changes to CAA and the annual conference (A new logo! More panels! Pay what you wish day passes!). They also laid out the stakes of making art and writing art history in and around the neoliberal university. Both O’Hanian and Blier “called out” a major tier-one research university recently embroiled in a controversy over removing books from its art library. This may seem like small potatoes to most, but in fact, art books (which are difficult to digitize) are at the foundation of what feeds, drives, and inspires both researchers and artists alike—and so it is nothing less than a threat to our way of life. While O’Hanian and Blier did not name this institution outright, I will, because (trumpets) it’s my alma mater—the University of Texas at Austin. If you feel so inclined I encourage you to email the dean of UT’s College of Fine Arts, Douglas Dempster (firstname.lastname@example.org), to let him know what you think of replacing books in the library with a program for “Innovation, Creativity & Entrepreneurship.” Hi Douglas (insert waving hand emoji)—we still give a fuck.
The rest of the awards ceremony went off without a hitch, and several luminaries were honored—Pepón Osorio, Kellie Jones, Lowery Stokes Sims, and Lynn Hershman Leeson, among many others. Gaines’s keynote concerned art as an aesthetic practice versus art as a cultural practice, and as he dug into the work of Adrian Piper and a group he termed “first generation Conceptual artists,” he laid out the stakes of reading, teaching, and understanding artwork in the twenty-first century.
After the awards I was supposed to go out for karaoke with some friends, but I was too tired, and like sand through the hourglass, so are the evenings of international conferences.
Friday began for me with the panel, “Recipes for Revolution from Feminist Artists of Color.” Convened by Jacqueline Francis and Tina Takemoto the artists and scholars on the panel—Suné Woods, Gilda Posada, and Gina Osterloh—gave some of the most thoughtful presentations I had seen yet at the conference. Instead of only talking about their own work, Woods and Osterloh discussed their works among a grouping of like-minded makers, while Posada described the fallout from community tensions that arose when the Maricón Collective painted a mural centralizing queer/trans love and life on the wall outside San Francisco’s Galería de la Raza. I was also, for the record, trying not to queer fanboy-out as Harmony Hammond took a seat beside me for the duration of the panel. When Posada talked about the defacement of the Maricón Collective’s mural, Hammond let out an audible gasp—and I thought about her own work centralizing the defacement and censorship of books (email@example.com). This is what CAA can do—suture together the work and worlds of diverse audiences through a shared sense of necessity.
Sometime in the middle of the day on Friday, neon-colored CAA bingo cards started to appear on the ephemera table—a long catwalk of promotional effluvia running between the men’s and women’s restrooms in the LACC Registration Hall. There was no attribution on the front or back of the card (dusting for prints did occur to me), but suffice it to say that I felt deeply seen and acknowledged by the squares, which is also to say, I felt deeply triggered and attacked. “Statement” glasses? Check. Architectural tunic sans cowl? It’s my new uniform. Carrying a different tote bag than the one everyone got for “free?” Wouldn’t leave home without it. “Statement” necklace? Not applicable… yet. Running on the diagonal were various forms of suffering: crying in the hallway, crying in the bathroom, crying through the hotel room wall, and crying post-interview. A friend asked “Who knew there was so much crying at CAA?” A rising tide of tears lifts all boats.
You know what else gave me life? The promise of a new Yoko Ono poem—which was to be unveiled at an event that also included sitdown interviews with Cathy Opie and Judy Baca (conducted by Helen Molesworth and Anna Indych-López, respectively). Squee! When Hunter O’Hanian (“A full, luscious, silver mane,” BINGO!) introduced Ono’s poem, he ensured the room was very quiet. Then, over the loudspeaker, Ono’s pleasant and piercing voice spoke thusly: “Touch.” That was it. And in a near-parody of what everyone else in the fucking world thinks we do on a daily basis we dutifully clapped and looked around thinking, “That was it?” Of course, Ono’s poem was a reminder that some artistic strategies still have the capacity to provoke and confuse. And seriously, bravo! But any lingering confusion dissipated when Molesworth and Opie took to the stage. Their banter was easy, and when they discussed taking a photograph down from their first joint venture, the 2011 exhibition “Empty and Full” at the ICA-Boston (the show was my first Artforum review), Opie remarked: “We were being good responsible lesbians and it shocked us.” Lesbianism, and the vicissitudes of identity, and of living in LA, were part of what Indych-López and Baca discussed as well, even though nearly a third of the audience left before they got started. Baca described LA as a brown city, and gave insight into her early performance, painting, and photographic works where she appeared as a pachuca from Pacoima.
The conference ended, as most do, with a whimper, on Saturday, as attendees, staff, and vendors began to pack up and make their way home. Book vendors were suddenly selling their wares at cut-rate prices, or just leaving them on the ephemera table for free. The next day, in what I can only call a post-CAA hangover, I got up and met my mom in Pasadena for the last day of QuiltCon. After lunch with some new quilting friends, we walked around the convention center, taking in the exhibition of prize-winning quilts. Tucked away, in a corner of one of the exhibit halls were quilts made by “youth,” almost all of which were expressly political. Here are the names of black men, women, and children gunned down by police, thread hanging from the lines of their names; a quilt about gentrification; and another wherein the maker mourns “the loss of what could have been my older brother,” in a design representing the black body at the center of juridical and social tensions. Kids are not having it, and I’m glad to see it. A greater sense of activist continuity, for me, was built in this ad hoc exhibition of quilts, because holding down the other corner of the room were sections of the AIDS Memorial Quilt. It was a sobering bookend to CAA, a space where sometimes it’s hard to remember why what we do matters. Such hand-wringing questions were not being asked by young folks taking up the sewing machine as a microphone, or by family members (biological and queer) mourning their losses. It was clear what they had to do, and so it must also be for us, with or without a cowl.