Johanna Blakley

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Archive for “art”

Re-Imagining Memoir: Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home

FunHome

Even though it had been highly recommended to me repeatedly, I didn’t get around to reading Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Fun Home until after I saw the musical at the Circle in the Square on Broadway. It’s rare that I retain enough interest in something to read the book after having seen the movie or the play, but I knew I would this time. The musical, which grabbed five Tonys, was such a fresh, original take on memoir, with subject matter so foreign to the Broadway stage, that I knew I would enjoy, at the very least, mulling over the differences between book and play.

I was especially eager to dig into the book after I read a fantastic interview with Lisa Kron by Laurie Winer in the LA Review of Books. Kron was the playwright for Fun Home and I was really intrigued when she claimed that about 75% of the play doesn’t appear in the memoir (what?!) and that the book didn’t contain any scenes:

“There are no scenes in the book. There are no scenes! There is no dramatic action, there are no sustained scenes. There aren’t even really characters. There’s Alison at this age, at this age, and at this age. There are fragment[s] of scenes in different locations.”

I just couldn’t fathom what that meant, and I must, say, after having read the memoir, I’m still not sure what she’s talking about. Either her notion of what qualifies as a “scene” or a “character” completely diverges from mine, or (and this possibility entrances me) her play so deeply informed my reading of the memoir, that I was unable to recognize the lack of scenes or character. Had Kron baked into my mind the material I needed to bridge the gaps between plot fragments and character revelations? It seems like I would need a time machine to know (or a device like the one in the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.)

But then I remembered Scott McCloud’s brilliant graphic book, Understanding Comics.

comicscenes

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New Tools for Measuring Cultural Engagement

NEA_Art_Works_logo

I was very pleased to be invited by the National Endowment for the Arts to participate in a lively symposium addressing perhaps the most important issue in the arts these days: how do we justify public funding for the arts?

For those of us who frequently attend arts and culture events, the question seems silly. Doesn’t everyone realize that humans are hard-wired to respond to compelling stories and visuals, whether they manifest themselves as sculpture, video games, concerts or novels? Isn’t it clear that music and movies can bridge the most profound political divides and move hearts and minds?

As we see arts programming melt away in cash-strapped public schools, we have to acknowledge the awful truth — that arts and culture is considered a luxury, not a necessity, and justifications for their value must be proven rather than assumed.

Both the NEA and the UK’s Arts & Humanities Research Council, which co-sponsored the symposium, position themselves as agencies harnessing the power of art, culture and leisure to improve the lives of citizens and invigorate and strengthen communities. The problem, of course, is proving that their funding strategies actually achieve these often hard-to-measure goals.

Measuring Cultural Engagement: A Quest for New Terms, Tools, and Techniques summarizes a two-day session that brought together a wide range of researchers, using both traditional and new-fangled techniques, to describe and measure the myriad forms of cultural engagement that take place in all types of physical and virtual spaces. I’m hoping that this report will jump-start an international effort to revisit our presumptions about what counts as cultural engagement (Instagramming a photo from a museum, for instance) and taking advantage of new technology to better measure that engagement. Arts and culture organizations should feel more confident about the possibility of measuring the impact of their work, not only to fundraise but also to make the crucial course-corrections that all creative enterprises must make when they are committed to achieving complex goals.

You can read another blog of mine about the Symposium here and you can follow the conversation on Twitter: #NEACVP

Experimenting with Space & Reinvigorating Modernism

GambleHouse

I’ll be joining artists, critics and curators for a two-day conference about experimental art installations in modernist house museums. Anyone who follows me on Instagram knows that I was completely smitten with the Competing Utopias installation at the beautiful Neutra VDL House. It was a brilliant mash-up of East/West Cold War aesthetics and ideals that revealed how powerful and intellectually venturesome an art installation in a historic home can be.

And so I’m really excited to be involved in this upcoming conference October 4-5, 2014.

Invention: Contemporary Artists and the Modern House responds to the curatorial shift in the maintenance of house museums, in which directors are supporting increasingly transformative art installations that both challenge and celebrate the modernist landmarks. These collaborations with artists point to alternative preservation strategies, which move away from the conservation of historic homes as static objects and instead affirm the importance of human occupation and transformation. The conference will host a series of conversations between house museum directors, curators, artists and architects to reveal the curatorial motivations and artistic processes behind these interventions.

I’ll be joining Mark Allen, the incredibly creative guy behind Machine Project, and Ted Bosley, the Director of the Gamble House, for an intimate conversation about Machine Project’s playfully irreverent installations and performances at the historic Pasadena home. Be sure to check out the entire conference schedule (Oct 4-5), which takes conference goers to the marvelous MAK Center on King’s Road (built by Schindler), the Neutra VDL house, and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock House.

All events are free to the public. To register for the conference, visit the registration page.

Inspecting Indian Vogue

VogueIndiaCover

As I was shedding my last bunch of rupees at Indira Gandhi Airport in New Delhi, I quickly snagged a copy of Vogue India to read on the plane. I was curious to see how different it felt from the American version, especially after spending two weeks crisscrossing Northern India.

One thing I’d been warned about before arriving is that women on the street do not – I mean DO NOT – wear the kind of revealing clothing that you see in Bollywood films. Head to toe covering is the standard; even short sleeves are pretty rare. Even when it’s hot. Scorching hot.

Billboards and TV ads in India reflect the bodacious Bollywood ideal, but I can’t recall seeing anybody dress like that in even the glitziest restaurants and hotels in Delhi.

Much of the recommended clothing in the editorial portions of the magazine also defied street conventions, including shorts, short skirts, form-fitting or whisper thin dresses (a big no no, I was told), and long skirts (OK) with equally long slits (absolutely not OK). There was also a gorgeous swim suit spread, but I had to wonder: where in India could they be worn? As far as I could tell, Western-style hotel swimming pools would be the only acceptable place.

Similar to American Vogue, the Indian version featured profiles of successful women, including a comedienne, a radical novelist, and a slough of Indian art collectors in Dubai. The issue had a very global feel – it was, for instance, the first place I glimpsed Adidas’ fresh new World Cup garment collection, which they concocted in collaboration with The Farm Brand, a Brazilian fashion label.

I wasn’t surprised by the insane number of jewelry ads; women in India are often not allowed to have bank accounts or real estate assets, but the jewelry is often all theirs (check out this NPR piece about Indian women’s obsession with gold). Read the rest of this entry »

Fashion & Originality on the TED Radio Hour

TEDRadioHour

Guy Raz interviewed me about the culture of copying in the fashion industry in what he called “maybe our best show ever.” During the TED Radio Hour, we discussed the cult of originality and the fashion industry’s constant creative incursions into the archives of fashion. The show also includes Steven Johnson on where ideas come from; Mark Ronson on sampling in the music industry and Kirby Ferguson on the ubiquity of remixing. Check it out and let me know what you think!

Tracking “Culture”

culturetrack

I’ve been ODing on data about the arts and culture sector lately, participating in an event at the NEA and another at Disney Hall last week (you can watch the video here). I think that the arts are seriously undervalued in the U.S. and so I’m always looking for data that helps us better understand how and why humans are attracted to certain melodies, visuals and stories, and what they think they’re accomplishing when they settle into a cushy seat to soak up an opera, a ballet or a  concert.

At Disney Hall, a packed house heard top line results from Culture Track, a 13-year tracking survey of arts and culture audiences in the U.S. There’s a huge amount of data here: the 2014 survey (you can download a report) includes responses from over 4,000 people in all 50 states who are “culturally active” – they already attend some array of museums, theaters, music, dance or opera programs.

I’d say the big take-away for me is that arts audiences are not particularly loyal to arts institutions any more – they’re loyal to their own taste. Instead of subscribing to a museum or a theater, they prefer to pick and choose from the options available. Arthur Cohen, who presented the findings, described audience members as “culturally promiscuous:” they’ll have a good night at a theater and then never call for a second date.

I think that new media plays a big role in this sea change. People who use the Internet (and a vast majority of this group does) have become accustomed to seeking out what interests them rather than sitting back and being told what they might like. And so one thing you see in the Culture Track report is that attendance is down, people are going less frequently, but they are visiting a wider array of cultural offerings.

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Measuring the Impact of Art

audience

Last week I attended a high-caliber symposium co-sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the UK’s Cultural Value Project. They brought together a dizzying array of researchers (demographers, cognitive scientists, arts policy wonks, “recovering” academics, etc.) to discuss how we ought to measure participation in arts and culture on the local, regional, national and global scale.

“Participation” and “engagement” are key metrics for arts institutions and their funders. But the inquiry often ends right there. I think the vast majority of people in the arts – including artists and administrators – take it as a given that art has a beneficial effect on society. I happen to agree with them. Wholeheartedly. But many powerful people in this world – including those who hold the purse strings – are not necessarily convinced. Funding for the arts is paltry compared to expenditures on science, where, lo and behold, we have a lot of convincing evidence about the importance it holds for humanity. Read the rest of this entry »

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