Old News

John Haber
in New York City

The Last Newspaper and Free

One reads all the time about the death of newspapers. Often as not, one reads it online.

Circulation and profits have fallen, while newsrooms have seen massive layoffs. Chains have expanded, but fewer and fewer survive. Should one expect the last newspaper any time soon, and should one care? As a blogger who reads the papers religiously, but mostly online, I hesitate to say. Should one mourn the death of an informed citizen or celebrate new voices in new media. Is it the end of democracy or a rebirth? Hans Haacke's News (New Museum, 1969/2008)

How about business as usual? It may seem that way at the New Museum, where two shows track artist responses to news media old and new. "The Last Newspaper" warily celebrates and derides the papers—and throws in a few of its own. "Free" hopes to bring that story up to date and online. It makes sense that the latter opens and closes later. Both, however, too often come off as old news.

No news is good news

Consider a thought experiment. It might make a good video game or an app for your iPad. Charmingly enough, it comes just after the Modern calls a show "On Line," as two words and without a virtual reality in sight.

Suppose technology had ground to a halt in 1975. No Internet, no YouTube, no Photoshop, and a few cable channels, but no FOX News, and Rupert Murdoch has his hands off The Journal. New media mean Nam June Paik, late Warhol, grainy films, and a few early experiments by Bill Viola and Gary Hill. But alienation has advanced right up to 2010—and beyond. Uninformed independents waver, while voices from all sides blame both parties for their exclusion. They blame especially the mainstream media, meaning in our little experiment little more than The New York Times.

What happens next? Instead of blogs and Facebook groups, one might have teach-ins in the graduate student lounge. Or one might have a show at the New Museum. With "The Last Newspaper," one can have both, and it gives new meaning to "the remote." From outside on the Bowery, one can see aging stacks of newspapers and a coat rack with Obama masks. Every so often, if one is lucky, someone wearing a mask will wander by, reenacting William Pope.L's 2000 Eating the Wall Street Journal—much as Clifford Owens in performance will enact his directions to act African American. It will not be the last such stack on display, not by any means, but it may well be the last one sees or hears of the sitting president.

Upstairs, elaborate charts by Jeffrey Inaba and C-Lab display coverage of the weather—since, after all, newscasts care about little else. (Wait, did I remember my umbrella?) On video, Angel Nevarez and Valerie Tevere probe criteria for "newsworthy" when it comes to New York Times obituaries. (And here I was more worried whether a presidential speech slamming the opposition would make the front page, rather than Islamo-fascism, death panels, and speculation about how it all plays in Peoria or the Beltway.) Blu Dot sets out bright blue "prototypes for self-assembly office furniture," to give us peons a say. Actual peons might not so readily associate the modular space of modern cubicles with freedom.

They are just three of nine nonprofit "partners," from community groups and academia—two alone from Columbia University. One, the Slought Foundation, displays theorists discoursing on Immanuel Kant's Perpetual Peace, like an academic conference session that, sadly, I just happened to miss. The tiny alcove off the narrow grand stairs has a "retreat" for reading Kant's essay, but with its pages largely crossed out or erased. (And here you thought Kant was difficult enough to read.) The other partners group together on the third floor, at desks staffed by young eager faces eager to talk. As FOX might say, we rant; you decide.

Two of those projects, Latitudes and Netlab, end in weekly newspapers, and compilations will become the exhibition catalog. At the end of opening day, one free paper was still covering the 1977 blackout that gripped New York City, while the other was scrounging to fill its pages. Oh, and did I mention art? It may seem superfluous, but twenty-six other artists take over the walls and two more museum floors. The curators, Richard Flood and Benjamin Godsill, shun chronology or themes, perhaps in the interest of democracy. In fact, the hanging looks downright random, to the point that the art blends into a single yawning front page, but it may help to think of how the work unfolds in time.

The paper trail

As Flood and Godsill point out, newspapers in art go back to Cubism, although one might include genre painting as long ago as the 1660s. In Adriaen van Ostade's Man Reading, part of a series on the five senses, a newspaper stands for a rising class that values relaxation and curiosity along with labor—and Paul Cézanne painted his father reading as well. Robert Rauschenberg uses newsprint as simultaneously emblem and texture, and it is no accident that Jasper Johns makes it the basis of painting the American flag. However, the New Museum is not aiming for a history, for artists who probe issues behind the news, or for the slippery boundary between art and text. It does not include Michael Rakowitz, for whom Arabic newsprint represents other lives, the journal archives of Mickey Smith, or Jenny Holzer, for whom the barrage of headlines has a cruelty all its own.

Rather, "The Last Newspaper" asks what happened to the newspaper. These artists see the front page as a battleground, with those who own the channels of communication the victors. It starts with Judith Bernstein in 1967, when marking up the news intensified her anger at racism and war. It takes a chillier turn with the "Pictures generation" of the 1980s, when appropriation meant a greater detachment and a greater certainty about everything but art. For Sarah Charlesworth, papers with everything but the photos erased imply repetition and anonymity, not to mention the actual erasure of a reporter's life by the Somoza regime in Nicaragua. With Hans Haacke, a single printer turns out copy relentlessly and unthinkingly, not unlike actual news feeds from newsrooms to Twitter—or indeed like much of Haacke's career.

Adrian Piper's rage turns inward, from events to an assertion of identity. She, too, covers newsprint with drawing, but for a march of black faces that, no doubt, did not appear in print. Identity and appropriation come together as well for Adam McEwen, with a blown-up profile of a track star whose chromosomes cast doubt on her gender. For Rachel Harrison, the power struggle implicates the art world, with Sotheby's ads inserted into news of the Middle East. Maybe the granddaddy of art in crisis, Robert Gober, bundles still more issues, this time hand-crafted but compiled from the real thing. One had better cherish his irony, too, because humor here is in very short supply.

Last in time comes another turn, toward the glib and familiar. Artists have felt freer not just to impose on the news, but to impose themselves. Fans of the boom years will recognize the usual suspects. Dash Snow uses the tabloids to document the fall of Saddam Hussein. (Well, okay, I fell into the exhibition's vocabulary, where I should have written of his documenting the cheerleading for war.) Then he smears on some glitter, just so one knows that this was Dash Snow.

Repetition alone counts as irony. Pierre Bismuth merely redoubles a newspaper's lead photo, and Aleksandra Mir has assistants redraw The New York Post. Mike Kelley replaces front-page photos with wilder and woolier ones from high-school yearbooks, Thomas Hirschhorn draws out adolescence by staging a debutante ball with mannequins dressed in images from the news, and Kelly Walker takes detachment personally by screening a brick wall onto the page. Rirkrit Tiravanija settles for writing "The Days of This Society Is Numbered," where even bad grammar is somehow a blow for democracy. Wolfgang Tilmans assembles his "study center" from more old articles in display cases. Need I say that they focus on "carnage," a "grim virtual reality," and "what is wrong with redistribution"?

For once, the New Museum pretty much returns to Marcia Tucker's vision, and that is all and all a good thing. "The Last Newspaper" contains way too many bundles, but it does not cost a bundle to mount, and Tucker had a soft spot for the earnest and obvious. Yet her spirit is also a serious limit, even when art makes headlines, and I cherished the few artists who showed me something strange or had a heart. Luciano Fabro washes the floor each day and covers it with newspaper to help it dry, while Emily Jacir asks Palestinians to place personal ads seeking Jews, with funny and even hopeful results. Mostly, though, I just kept hearing a voice in the elevator, courtesy of Jacob Fabricius, speaking again and again of "old news." Unfortunately for him and me, he is right—even if I left with newsprint on my hands.

Free of charge

Depending on when you go, "Free" may not be free. When I arrived at the New Museum, in fact, it was about to become free in exactly three minutes. Another long wait for Windows to boot up? A clear violation of net neutrality? In the meantime, I could check out the stack by the window, part of a show upstairs on "The Last Newspaper." Or I could browse the gift shop for a good book.

"Free," curated by Lauren Cornell, claims to explore "how the Web has expanded our cultural space." In place of a catalog, it has a Web site edited by Ceci Moss of Rhizome. It draws on an essay by Seth Price, which calls open-source material "a more successful instance of public art than a monument tucked away in an urban plaza." Yet the show, through January 23, feels like yesterday's papers. No, I was not seriously asking that free Thursday evenings extend forever, but everyone involved seems to have stumbled on the Web or even new media maybe twenty-four hours ago. Price's essay itself dates from 2001, about a century in real time, and it displays on the wall like a less than rare book.

Ryan Trecartin, for one, invites others to upload clips to his Web site. (Comment today 10:23 AM: he must not have noticed YouTube.) Hanne Mugaas's shelves hold kitsch purchased on eBay, like a toy dog leaning over a toy fountain, while Amanda Ross-Ho mined the same source for her photos of contraband. (Comment today 10:29 AM: sorry, but Clement Greenberg wrote "Avant-Garde and Kitsch" seventy years ago, and border guards seized contraband even earlier.) Liz Deschenes unfurls a large sheet called Green Screen as, she swears, a pun on "blue screen." (Comment today: 10:40 AM: even Microsoft haters may have trouble remembering the blue screen of death.)

Others seem never to have discovered the computer. Andrea Longacre-White, Harm Van Den Dorpel, and Clunie Reid all use rephotography or screen prints simply to capture illegibility. Aleksandra Domanovic has DJs base techno tracks on intros from Yugoslav nightly news that look wrapped up in the 1980s. I have no idea what the audio comedy of Alexandre Singh in the style of Molière has to do with the present, other than the nondescript found objects on pedestals that serve as its cast. Lisa Oppenheim's The Sun Is Always Setting Somewhere Else (New Museum, 2006)As a line goes, "Isn't that the real tragedy of our modern age?" Maybe yes and maybe no.

"Free" here comes in quotes anyway, quite apart from the quotes surrounding an exhibition title. For all the promise of shared spaces and popular culture, these artists fear an all-seeing eye. Jon Rafman finds it in Google Street View and Trevor Paglans in NASA space shots. Martijn Hendriks finds it in Web users themselves, as they comment on Saddam Hussein in his cell. ("Who took this video supposedly?") Joel Holmberg snidely plants it in Yahoo Answers, where he posed dilemmas about space, sex, and control.

Happily, artists here have done wonders before in navigating the space between analog and digital media—including Deschenes and Jill Magid—and they will again. Lisa Oppenheim comes close with her low-tech Afghan sunsets, in shots taken by soldiers and now held up against American skies. Others everywhere are turning to computer art, blogs, and social media, and no doubt new media and nonsites have changed everything. I know, because I get daily emails from a discussion group that tells me so. Sometimes I even believe it. Just do not go looking for evidence at the New Museum.

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jhaber@haberarts.com

"The Last Newspaper" ran at the New Museum through through January 9, 2011, "Free" through January 23.

 

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