Timeless Goods
NR Magazine, Online

The photographer Cary Fagan wants us to put down our phones for a while and disconnect from the endless stream of activity that it draws us into. At a moment when over a fifth of the world’s population is under lockdown in the face of global pandemic, the idea of shutting out the last bastion of human interaction – that slab of technology that allows us to remain connected to loved ones and friends for the foreseeable future – seems a rather bold ask. But bear with Fagan; he wants us to take a break from reality and work on a puzzle; to study each piece in the process and to embrace the experience that brings.

As social lives and daily activities are put on hold indefinitely, doing a puzzle is undoubtedly one way to pass the time, and it’s something that a lot of people have cottoned on to. An article in the New York Times reported that the demand for puzzles has exceeded Christmas-time figures. Certainly, then, the puzzle business couldn’t be more lucrative – but this isn’t a new venture for Houston-based Fagan. timeless.goods, the avenue through which Fagan’s puzzles are stocked, started back in September 2018. The moniker can be unpacked as thus; ‘not only a good; it’s timeless.’ Emphasis on the enduring legacy of Fagan’s puzzles is important: these were not cobbled together for the sake of distraction in a moment as tumultuous as global pandemic; they were envisioned as an act of considered thoughtfulness. By encouraging us to disconnect from the world around us, Fagan is inviting us to reconnect with the world again.

The impetus for these puzzles makes sense when considering Fagan’s wider oeuvre. A photographer by trade, Fagan is also something of a multi-hyphenate working across multiple mediums. Sure, his work as a photographer has brought about collaborative efforts with Solange, A$AP Rocky and Kanye West, but Fagan’s wider creative output is worth considering too. This includes the chair stacking works; Fagan takes up the idea that chairs have a story to tell and that, ‘chairs are people if you think about it’. Through chairs are people, Fagan experiments with the curation and the display of chairs to offer a wider investigation into communication between people; the concept may be abstract, but it reveals something about how people come together to work collaboratively. For one, the chairs are people Instagram account is steadily gaining momentum as followers submit strangely anthropomorphic photographs of chairs in the wild. Through timeless.goods, you can purchase a puzzle titled ‘Italian Chair’; a golden stool basking in the warm sunny air of an Italian backstreet, maybe.

There is a desire to move offline that permeates throughout Fagan’s work – whether that is demonstrated through the timeless.goods puzzles, or the photographer’s preference for analogue film. Fagan was included on the 2019 Dazed 100 list, which remarked that his work is a ‘pushback from our increasingly digital worlds’ – even if we’re inevitably bound to engage with it online. Digital connections are, realistically, an inescapable part of life today; not only has the digital brought us closer to our loved ones during global pandemic, it has also connected Fagan with his audience. One post featured on the timeless.goods Instagram feed notes that the process of completing one of the puzzles (an image of foldable chairs stacked up against a wall) was like a ‘one-to-one experience’ with the photographer – breaking down ‘every element of his photograph [to] see what he sees’.

Getting to know the photographer and his photography better is part of the idea behind timeless.goods. The concept was the answer to a question Fagan posed himself; ‘How can I turn my photography into more of an experience?’ It’s a way for Fagan to both give ‘something fresh’ to his audience and to connect with them ‘without words’, though he acknowledges that the idea isn’t necessarily an original one. Nonetheless, looking at the options available on the timeless.goods site begs the question of how common a puzzle with the rear-end of a beaten up car constrained by large chunks of snow is. The bestselling puzzle on timeless.goods is Fagan’s 2017 portrait ‘Three’, with three figures stood together, their identical costumes only made different by its colour – one green, one yellow, one red.

For a lot of people familiar with Fagan’s work, the portrait is recognisable for its inclusion in The New Black Vanguard: Photography Between Art and Fashion exhibit at the Aperture Gallery in New York towards the end of last year, shown in conjunction with Antwaun Sargent’s book of the same name – a profile of 15 of today’s most important emerging photographers. Yet, for Laila Williams, the ‘Three’ puzzle meant something else; as the figure in red in the photograph, she had not only been able to see her visage included in the exhibition, but also been able to piece together Fagan’s image as part of a family activity. The puzzles are, Fagan explains, an ‘intimate experience shared with the viewer and the image’.  

Fagan wants us to ‘focus on the details of each image: studying where each piece will fit’. The goal is to stimulate the mind and rebalance focus. The #disconnectchallenge, as Fagan calls it, isn’t merely a case of testing your restraint from your phone, it’s a test of patience, with puzzles available in up to 2000 pieces. It’s a question of perseverance, too; the puzzle ‘Idle’ features a figure clad in a red latex bodysuit, equating to a number of very similar looking pieces. Ultimately, Fagan’s puzzles are about reconnecting; reconnecting with our minds, with our relationships with others, and with the importance of our visual surroundings. At a time of international uncertainty and upheaval, Fagan hopes we can find some sort of balance and self-reflection through the activity of puzzles. ‘It has challenged me to focus on different avenues of my creativity,’ Fagan notes, ‘My focus hasn’t been in photography and that’s okay. Maybe this time is about evolution.’

April 2020

Women of the Bauhaus: Beyond the Warp and Weft
Decorating Dissidence, Bauhaus Legacies

With 2019 marking the centenary of the Bauhaus, founded in 1919 by Walter Gropius, there has been ample opportunity to revisit and re-examine the impact and legacy of the school. Built on Gropius’ vision for a radical place of learning for art, design, and later, architecture, the school has had a profound impact on twentieth and twenty-first design. Through its association with the design of many iconic cantilever chairs, the use of block colour and sans-serif typography, the Bauhaus embodies the essence of modern design. Likewise, individuals associated with the school, such as Kandinsky, Breuer, Mies and Moholy-Nagy have become so ingrained in design theory and everyday life that their full names need no mention.

Lesser known and celebrated, however, is the output of many of the Bauhaus’ female staff and students. Though Gropius’ vision for the Bauhaus was supposedly based on arts education for all, this was not the case: women, he believed, were better suited to the decorative arts according to their inability to think in three dimensions like men. Just as the women of the Bauhaus were relegated to the more ‘feminine’ arts of weaving, ceramics and toy making, they have been noticeably absent from the ways in which the school’s legacy has been historicised, despite the fact their work within the weaving workshop and beyond, was transformative and fundamental to the school’s success.

There has been a noticeable shift, more recently, to recognise the women of the Bauhaus and to provide the space to critically engage with their production, as last year’s Anni Albers retrospective at the Tate Modern did, and as the Bauhaus 100 celebrations this year have consciously sought to do. New perspectives have emerged that recognise the value, the skill, and the complexities involved in weaving as a mode of production – so it remains to be asked, how did the work of the weaving workshop get left behind in the story of the Bauhaus? For, in many ways, it would seem as though the diaphanous qualities that can often be found in weaving have justified the threadbare histories that have been told of the Bauhaus women.

Crucial to the retelling of the Bauhaus women’s story is the fact that many students arrived at the school with expectations far beyond the decorative arts. When Gertrud Arndt, who had worked as an architect’s apprentice, enrolled at the Bauhaus in 1923, she hoped to further pursue her interest in architecture. On finding that the subject was not then offered, Arndt was moved into the weaving workshop, with other avenues closed off. Had architecture been available at that time, Arndt’s situation would not have been much different; when architecture was later introduced in 1927, female students needed not apply.

Yet, Arndt thrived at her trade and her work was recognised at the time; a photograph of Gropius’ office in Dessau taken by Lucia Moholy, for instance, shows a rug designed by Arndt adorning the school Director’s floor. Of course, however radical the Bauhaus espoused to be, it was nonetheless a product of a period in time that, particularly in the aftermath of war and national economic devastation, was attached to a traditional understanding of gender roles – despite the proliferation of the sexually-liberated, unconstrained and professional figure of the Neue Frau who ran rife throughout the German press in the 1920s. Nonetheless, situating the gender politics of the Bauhaus within wider contemporary confusion over liberation and equality in Weimar Germany does not justify Gropius’ reluctance to value the skills of female students. Rather, it highlights further contradiction between attitudes to women’s roles at the school.

It is possible to pinpoint a defining moment in the contrasting histories of Bauhaus men and women by looking back to the ways in which the legacy of the Bauhaus was shaped. The school’s iconic status has been projected through photography. This is not without deliberate consideration: the continued influence of the Bauhaus on art, design and architecture owes itself to Gropius’ own careful preservation of the school’s image through iconic photography. The Bauhaus 1919-1928 exhibition held at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in December 1938 – January 1939 was instrumental in both forging and, subsequently, sustaining and furthering, the school’s international renown. It was through photography that the Bauhaus was brought to an American and English-speaking audience.

Yet, credits attributed to the photographer responsible for many of the images on show, Lucia Moholy, were omitted; nor was Moholy aware, at that time, that the glass photographic negatives she presumed lost to the flight from fascism had been taken without permission by Gropius. Though Moholy would later receive recognition for her work as one of the instrumental photographers of the Bauhaus, many of her glass negatives were smashed due to the nature of their fragility.* Gropius’ actions reflect his disregard for women at the Bauhaus. The materiality of Moholy’s craft bears an uncanny resemblance to the stories of female students and staff at the Bauhaus, and the ways in which their roles at the school have been (un)documented over the past century. Along with Moholy’s missing negatives, the impact of the Bauhaus women was lost to history, whilst photographs of iconic design pieces remained and saturated design culture. 

The industrial production of high quality design for a mass audience was one of the guiding principles of the Bauhaus. Incidentally, it was in the weaving workshop that the Bauhaus was able to achieve this goal; fusing creativity, innovation, and, most importantly, profitability, through the production of their designs and labour. The technical possibilities of weaving with synthetic materials were also advanced by the weaving workshop; by Anni Albers who, as part of her diploma project in 1929, incorporated cellophane into fabric in order to craft an acoustic-proof wall covering for the Bundesschule Auditorium in Bernau, Germany; by Gunta Stölzl who innovated investigations in dyeing processes and increased weaving’s viability as master and, later, director of the weaving workshop; and by Otti Berger, who undertook experiments that challenged the limits of fabric design and achieved considerable industrial success. Perhaps tellingly, many of the Bauhaus weavers found success after the closure of the school and, therefore, outside of the fabric of the story of the Bauhaus’ legacy. Both Stölzl and Benita Koche-Otte led successful careers within the textile industry, whilst Albers’ collaborative work for Knoll Textiles demonstrates a successful synthesis of the Bauhaus vision for mass-produced high quality design.

And yet, over the last century, the far-reaching and long-lasting innovation and production of the Bauhaus weavers has come second to legendary status of the school, despite the fact its doors closed for good in 1933. Though the stories of many of these women have disappeared with almost no trace, there is a resilience and subversiveness to the Bauhaus weavings that extended far beyond Gropius’ vision of the ‘beautiful sex’ as decorators and decorations. Beyond the surface, the Bauhaus weavers’ work crafted resilient and subversive masks, both figuratively and literally. In the series Maskenselbstporträts, Arndt photographs herself in a series of disguises, using mesh, lace and other fabrics to transform herself into different versions of ‘woman’. Through their manipulation of material and textile production, the Bauhaus weavers were able to utilise the Bauhaus to their benefit. To paraphrase Anni Albers, it’s not ‘just these threads’, after all.

*See Robin Schuldenfrei, ‘Images in Exile: Lucia Moholy’s Bauhaus Negatives and the Construction of the Bauhaus Legacy’, in History of Photography, 37.2 (2013), pp. 182-203.

January 2020

For Freedoms
NR Magazine, Vol. 7

By definition, a super PAC is a political action committee that is able to raise an unlimited amount of money to influence the outcome of political elections in the United States. Yet, For Freedoms, a super PAC registered back in January 2016, is somewhat unconventional in its intentions and approach. As the first artist-led super PAC, For Freedoms was created by Eric Gottesman and Hank Willis Thomas to encourage greater political engagement through art – and to engage people in complex conversations that have become simplified into binary concepts. For Freedoms has made an impression on both the world of politics and art since it was registered. In 2016, the super PAC opened their ‘headquarters’ at the Jack Shainman Gallery for a takeover exhibition there – and have since been hosted by MoMA PS1 for an artist residency in 2017 to coincide with the first 100 days of the Trump administration. Their exhibition at the Jack Shainman Gallery provoked a national discussion about police brutality after Dread Scott hung a flag at the exhibition headquarters, whilst their ‘Make America Great Again’ billboard in Pearl, Mississippi caused controversy for its depiction of Trump’s election catchphrase imposed on an image from the Bloody Sunday march of 1965. Through their use of advertising as a super PAC, their background as artists, and their commitment to creating change, this project by Gottesman and Willis Thomas hopes to open up necessary political and cultural conversations. Speaking over the phone, Eric Gottesman talks through the motives of For Freedoms, the role of advertising, art and propaganda, and why we should come together, regardless of political agenda.

NR MAGAZINE: Where did the idea of forming a super PAC originate?

ERIC GOTTESMAN: Over the course of several years, my friend Hank [Willis Thomas] and I, had these conversations about art and politics. Both of us are artists, we both address politics through our work in various ways - I should say, other people talk about the politics of our work. But both of us are interested in the overlap of art and society, and so over the course of those conversations, we often talked about doing something that directly engaged with systems of politics. We talked about maybe having an artist run for office, but eventually, decided to start the super PAC in the fall of 2015, after talking to a number of lawyers about how to do go about it – so we did really before the 2016 election started in earnest.

NR: Something I was actually going to ask is whether the political climate in the run up to the election was a factor in forming the super PAC.

EG: No, not really - it came before that. It was less about any specific candidate or campaign, than it was about the way political discourse happens in the United States. The oversimplification of complicated situations and political solutions often leads to the factionalization, and people retreat to notions of nationalism that are extremely simple but not necessarily the best. So we wanted to see if we could expand the political discourse to encourage or allow people to talk with more nuance about complex issues.

NR: Do you think that the culture of politics today reflects advertising, because of this simplification?

EG: Very much so. This was something we were very interested in, as a super PAC is basically a political advertising agency. We decided to take on the most egregious part of the problem – which is that money filters through organisations and into our politics, in order to create extremely simplified forms of advertising that is supposed to shape how to think and how to vote. We wanted to shift that up and play with that idea.

NR: By buying advertising space for billboards, newspaper, and online, can your political advertising be interpreted as a form of propaganda?

EG: I think it can be, it usually is. Advertising has got much more complex and savvy – often times, you’re being advertised to without knowing it. It doesn’t just take the form of propaganda; it now also takes on the form of ‘culture’ in certain ways. But I also think there’s a pedagogical difference between propaganda and art. Propaganda works behind an argument, whilst art offers dialogue. Propaganda has a certain kind of insistence that advertising also has, as opposed to art’s openness.

NR: How can For Freedoms stimulate critical engagement when political discourse is reduced to this culture of advertising?

EG: That’s exactly what we’re trying to figure out! So far, this has involved trying to merge artistic and political discourse, bringing political content and conversations into art spaces, using our access to these spaces as artists – and vice versa: we’re trying to find ways to bring content out into the public, that we produce as artists. So, we’re bringing politics into art and art into politics through various means. We are also holding a series of town hall meetings and conversations, often in conjunction with exhibitions that we curate. And then, for next year, we’ve got our 50 state initiative, where we’re going to have a presence in all 50 states in the lead up to the 2018 election.

NR: The idea of town hall-style meetings, feels as if it is taking communication back to a pre-internet era, back to before everyone interacted online, to having that physical meeting with your community. In that sense, are you trying to bring people back together?

EG: That’s an interesting point, I hadn’t really thought about it like that. One of the things we thought a lot about was to try to ‘make dialogue great again’. I don’t think we’re doing it out of nostalgia, but we are trying to inject a form of humanism into the modes of dialogue that we use now. I think the way in which we communicate on social media is fantastic, as we are much more connected in a certain way – but the trade-off is that it demands that we use short hand to encapsulate messages and conversations we want to have.  There’s nothing wrong with that form necessarily, but I do think that we need to be able to have deeper, broader conversations about things that go beyond 140 characters.

NR: And there is the danger of communicating with only those who share what you want to see.

EG: That too - and we see that a lot right now, which is one of the things we’re really trying to work on. The art world also has that echo chamber effect, so we’re trying to figure out how to access all parts of society. How do we reach a wide range of people that might be interested in helping us build a movement around building a better political conversation, even if we don’t share the same political agenda?

NR: What is the incentive for people to come together in public spaces despite opposing views, in the interest of shaping the future?

EG: We already do this: we’re consuming the same culture, and as a result of that culture, we form our (political) identities. I think there’s this notion that, only certain people will be interested in art, and only certain people will come to a museum and participate in something like what we’re doing. The assumption is that cultural production only lends itself to one set of opinions – that you agree/disagree, you’re a democrat/a republication, etc. A lot of these binary concepts are much more complicated, so when you ask why somebody with a different set of ideals would want to have that dialogue, I think it would be because we want to better understand, and hopefully to encourage an atmosphere that allows people to appreciate those different views.

NR: Whilst we’re consuming the same culture, places like art institutions can be off-putting to people who feel alienated from them. If there is a way to make these places appeal to a broader range of people, can that instigate better dialogue and a sense of community between different groups of people?

EG: Absolutely. I’m one of those people that feels very alienated by art, and I do think For Freedoms is as much a rebuke of the art culture and the art world, as it is to the world of politics. Art institutions are already political: they make decisions about who they include and exclude. In order to address that, we need to insert conversations about who’s included, and who’s excluded. These are essentially political questions that are at the centre of our political structure. If we insert these questions into the museum, hopefully we can shift what is defined as art, and what is not – and change who is defined as the art viewer.

NR: Do you think the problems with the financing of super PACs in a political context, are issues that also need to be addressed within the art world?

EG: As an artist, I look at the art world as being this enormous archive of capital that determines what has social value in our culture and so, there are two ways to respond to that. The first, which is how I have responded for much of my career, is to think: “fuck that! I don’t care about that, and I don’t care about those rich people! I’m just gonna do my thing and work in my way, and hopefully at some point after I die somebody will recognise my brilliance and that will change the world.” That’s one way, and the other way would be what we’ve done with For Freedoms, which is pretty new to me to be honest. The way we have done it with our super PAC is to confront the art world, and to claim a space by participating in this world of extreme wealth that governs and shapes how art is valued. For me, the real issue is figuring out how to shift the system so that wealth doesn’t necessarily determine culture, and so that artists are recognised for their power, and are able to utilise the power they possess. Art is used in every society, whether it’s through propaganda or commercial wealth, and so what we’re trying to push for is for our society to value the role that artists play in shaping, not just culture, but how our society works.

March 2018