Wednesday, February 26, 2014

New History Projects in the Works

On my plate for early 2014: two new projects in the works, revitalizing my constant drive to dig deeper into stories of struggle, justice, and the political fringe.

company scrip from a coal mine in Logan, West Virginia

I've been invited to join the group forming a new Museum of the West Virgina Mine Wars down in Matewan, West Virgina. Matewan was the backdrop for the skirmish which soon led to the Battle of Blair Mountain (Sept. 1921). I've just started working with a lively group of Logan County residents, historians, miners, and activists to bring together what will hopefully be an invigorating museum in Matewan itself. I'll be visiting the site later this spring to do some heavy brainstorming and get started on renovations, and I'm very excited by the possibilities.

I'm also picking up again on a trail I let slide a couple years back: digging for the story behind the forced-at-gunpoint excommunication of twenty-five Italian immigrant families from the Guffey Hollow coal mine in Westmoreland County in Western Pennsylvania in the autumn of 1901. The "eviction" of these families followed on the heels of the anarchist Leon Czolgosz's assassination of President William McKinley, which sparked a nation-wide sweep of judicial and vigilante crack-downs on the American Left - especially anarchists, which the Guffey miners were accused of being. I haven't set to really digging out a lost history in ages, and it's invigorating to start writing again and eventually put out a small zine/booklet - whether or not I ever find out what really happened at Guffey that September night.

one of the few pieces of evidence I currently have of the Guffey Hollow incident, from The Washington Post, September 18, 1901
PS: I'm back in conversation with Stuart Anderson about our languishing penny-crusher project... finally looking to start the actual fabrication late in 2014.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Presentations & Renovations

I knew 2013 would be this way: November looms, the house is still in a perpetual state of renovation, and it's getting cold again. The big garden bed has been dug out (thanks for the help, Dad) with next summer's garlic planted, and now I'm doing the research to get our old wood stove installed in the garage studio before winter sets in. With the fire going, I can hopefully finish organizing the workshop... and with the workshop more or less in swing, I can get on with making future work.

Meantime, I've got some presentations upcoming that I'm excited about. October 31, I'll be over in Indianapolis at the 2013 National Preservation Conference. I'm presenting on behalf of the Howling Mob Society, in a panel titled "Art, Heritage and Quality of Life: Lessons from the Venice Biennale" - with me on the panel are Graham Correil-Allen (New Public Sites) and Richard Saxon & Stuart Hyatt (M12 Collective). The panel will be moderated by Mimi Zeigler.

On the heels of Indianapolis (Nov. 4-5), I'll be headed to Lewisburg, PA, to do a series of in-class workshops and presentations with students at Bucknell University on behalf of Justseeds. With me will be the multi-faceted Marshall Weber of the Booklyn Artists' Alliance.

Below is a rendering from a proposal I sent out this summer, involving charcoal rubbings of state historical markers. In the rubbings, the original, sparse and state-sanctioned texts will be further redacted to highlight their oft-problematic phrasing, effectively editing the already heavily-edited, yet authoritative, accounts of regional historical events which usually downplay the social origin and oppression that leads to popular revolts and state violence against the populace. I hope to get started on these in the Spring...


Sunday, September 15, 2013

Justseeds and AFL-CIO

Justseeds cohorts Favianna Rodriguez and Roger Peet put together a series of campaign-specific images for the AFL-CIO this month, to be printed as offset posters and distributed to union members and associates. They pulled pre-existing designs from Justseeds members and tailored them to work for various current organizational efforts for unions under the AFL-CIO umbrella. Above is my design from the Justseeds "Uprisings" project (original here), contextualized for a hotel workers initiative.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Making "Crowdsourced" Bandit Signs

photo by Paul Heckbert
A couple weeks back, I participated in "Crowdsourced", an exhibition organized by Robert Razcka at SPACE here in Pittsburgh. Robert has been doing these time-restricted projects for about ten years now, wherein artists have somewhere in the range of 8 hours (a modern, First World industrial work shift, give or take) to hammer out a project within the exhibition space. These (mostly) annual projects are quite fun to be a part of - Mary Tremonte and I collaborated on one of Robert's shows in fall of 2010. This time around, for "Crowdsourced", the core directive was that participating artists must interact with people who came into the gallery in the generation of their projects.

 I worked from a trope I've been touching on for awhile now: bandit signs. Primarily used by the independent real estate business, bandit signs are typically obnoxious, poorly designed rectangles of vinyl-on-corrugated plastic nailed high on utility poles in most American cities. Across the country, municipalities hate them - and most citizens despise them as well. They advertise quick fixes for a myriad of our most base anxieties: housing "solutions", debt absolution schemes, selling off your gold or jewelry, pay-day loans, finding you a date, helping you get skinny, work from home rackets, etc. Posting the signs is almost always illegal, but the frequency with which they proliferate typically outmatches any city's local resources for taming their relentless generation. Online companies that churn these out can almost guarantee you'll get enough response from them to make up for their cost and your effort, even if they are continually removed by the city or sight-line vigilantes.

There's something I enjoy about bandit signs, if anything because they are at least some form of trying to get information into the public sphere by circumventing legal methods for doing so. Granted, they are almost always advertising something that gnaws at the foundation of communal stability and individual happiness. Yet, I regularly find myself envisioning ways that standard sign language can be repurposed while maintaining the look and feel, the vernacular, of an already agreed-upon way of doing things.

I also make a lot of signs in my day work, so I've got the tools at hand, should I (or anyone else) need them. For "Crowdsourced", I brought those tools to the gallery. I dragged in a vinyl plotter and it's attendant PC, a big box of corrugated plastic sign blanks, and some rolls of adhesive vinyl. I spent eight hours working in the space on ideas sourced from emails to cohorts earlier in the week and from people who walked in the door willing to work out an idea (that may or may not include some terrible clip art) and make an actual sign from their concept. That evening brought with it one of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust's popular Gallery Crawls - ostensibly a celebration of art in which attendees are ramrodded at capacity into each of the Trust's temporary downtown exhibition spaces, with kegs of beer flowing inside like cloying wellsprings amongst the local art. It's quite a circus if you're on the operational side of a Crawl, and I felt afterwards like I had run through something of a social gauntlet. From within this maelstrom of free beer, loud music, and shoulder-to-shoulder rivers of people, I fabricated some bandit signs with a few willing participants. I nailed most to the wall, and a few with specific references to downtown were stuck up in the gallery's massive front windows. When the exhibition comes down in another month, it's a good bet that these signs will be released from the gallery to find a place in their natural habitat...

In the end, I worked through some great ideas, some ideas I didn't fully understand, many ideas I unfortunately couldn't fabricate because I ran out of time, and a couple that I certainly wouldn't have made on my own! In retrospect, I underestimated the capacity for a random person to catch what I was going for and immediately generate their own idea based on that concept. It was, however, an interesting exercise, and the response from participants was overwhelmingly positive. Often, the tools to make the visual "landscape" that surrounds us in cities are completely arcane - I learned this closely when I used to teach screenprinting to youth at a local museum. If you have access to such tools, and place them in front of people alongside a willingness to be open to their ideas as you demystify the fabrication process, it can be wildly generative for everyone involved. For "Crowdsourced", most of what happened were inside jokes and general hilarity, but it's got me thinking about more directions this could go from here...

Scott Turri at Art Hopper has a nice review of the "Crowdsourced" exhibition. In Atlanta, John Morse took a particularly thoughtful approach to the bandit sign tactic through haiku. And, in Philadelphia, Huggie Butterworth has been appropriating pre-existing bandit signs in a way that is not only essentially ridiculous, but a welcome neutralizing of the signs' original content.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

A Time of Other Focus Points



Working on building out a new home (that's the backyard garage/soon-to-be-studio pictured above), after living in the same house for over eight years, has been consuming my time and creative energy throughout the winter. This won't wane soon, and posting about flooring installation doesn't really segue with the other work I update about here. It's been a country minute since I wrote an update - mostly I've just been uploading tangential imagery to Tumblr, which I'm still having fun with despite my sneaking suspicion that most people are only on Tumblr looking for porn. Anyhow, here's an update, some goings-on since January:
  • The Howling Mob Society was featured in the  U.S. Pavilion at the 13th International Architecture Exhibition - la Biennale di Venezia, Italy last autumn. I don't have much information about the exhibit, or how it went down, but I do know that the focus was on creative infrastructure projects like signage, community gardens, and whatnot. The show is being exhibited in short-form in Chicago this spring, but I don't know if our project will be highlighted or not.
  • Meantime, I'm in the idea stages of working on an exhibition design about the same Howling Mob project for an upcoming exhibition for the Center for Book and Paper Arts at Colombia College of Art in Chicago in June: Word on the Street: Image, Language, Signage.
  • This March, I spent a week in Milwaukee working with fourteen Justseeds members and allies on a collaborative project at UMW's Union Gallery during the Southern Graphics Conference. Uprisings: Images of Labor was mostly an amazing experience, as we turned the gallery into a production facility for screenprinting large posters and did a parallel-to-the-SGCI series of our own free presentations and workshops. This whole project was geared to highlight our strengths, much different than the more experimental collaborations we've done in the past. Slideshow of images from that week is below...
  • I released a couple of new prints on Justseeds - one a slight re-working of an older letterpress print, and one a digital print version of the Macho B billboard I painted for a Justseeds exhibit during the Pittsburgh Biennial (and re-worked for the Justseeds Migration Now! portfolio with Culture Str/ke).  I also just released the print I worked on from the Uprisings exhibition. I'm in the beginning stages of hashing out a Celebrate People's History poster about the Luddite uprisings in England (1811-13), more on that as it develops.
  • Firebrands, the book I worked on with Bec Young and the rest of Justseeds, is still available in print, but we're looking to release an e-book version soon.
  • I've begun outlining/researching a pamphlet/zine on the history of Indigenous peoples in the area surrounding what is now Pittsburgh. My basic intention is to create something of a primer for understanding the history of European colonization of this area, as any institutional presentation of Indigenous history here is typically relegated to whatever relationship there was between original peoples and either the French or British colonists during the Seven Year's War.
  • I've been brainstorming how to restart the penny-smasher project, a perennial back-burner idea that I would love to bring to fruition sooner than later... meantime, one morning when I really should have been doing something productive, I instead made a running list of my own smashed penny collection. No photos of each yet, but coming soon. Funding ideas for realizing this project are always welcome!
  • Mary Tremonte and I worked locally with the Shadbush Environmental Justice Collective on some anti-hydrofracking graphics for their newest newspaper project. Mary did a two-page centerfold splash, and I did a large full-page poster for the back of the paper. Both are meant to be hung in street-level windows, wheatpasted, waved around by angry people on the sidewalk... whatever works in the moment. You can read more about the project and get copies or bundles of the new paper from Shadbush here.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Guns vs. Butter exhibition



For the month of December, 2012, I presented an exhibition at Future Tenant in Pittsburgh that I put together along with Josh MacPhee. "Guns vs. Butter" was the first collaboration between Justseeds and the Interference Archive, and it's also the first time that Interference has lent a body of work out for an exhibit. Josh pooled together a range of historical anti-war prints and posters from the collection at Interference, and I interspersed them with newer anti-war print work from Justseeds, including the Justseeds collaborative portfolio with Iraq Veterans Against the War and Booklyn, "War is Trauma". The show "contextual(ized) current socially-motivated print graphics alongside a history of posters as an integral element of popular grassroots movements against war, colonialism, and military occupation." Check out the slideshow above for a tour (of sorts). Special thanks to Bec Young for help pulling the show together on the gallery walls!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

New Scrimshaw project...


This summer I started teaching myself a form of the traditional craft of scrimshaw, which by basic definition is any sort of carving of bone or horn. Usually the term refers to the practice of sailors on whaling ships whittling designs into whale teeth or baleen in their idle time (then rubbing ink or lamp black into the carvings to highlight them), but the practice spans regions and cultures globally. I'm particularly interested in the incarnations of scrimshaw on powderhorns in the Northeastern U.S. during the Seven Year's War - primarily a product of downtime during the colonial exploits of French and British troops that generated a unique folk art and aesthetic particular to a time and region.

The first horn I worked on is a sketchbook of sorts, and includes the original German iteration of my last name as it was brought to Eastern Pennsylvania by the Mennonite Heinrich Schlieffer in 1743. I also worked in some Pennsylvania German design, flowers and hens, from a spice cabinet that I've had since my childhood.