July 27, 2011KR BlogKR

Materials Wednesday: regulators, regulate

Next week’s Materials Wednesday will be the last, and I want to zoom out for a minute and talk about what I learned from the past two months. As an intriguant to such, I will reproduce the sole, individual response that I got about the blog series from a ‘reader,’ which came right in the middle of June. Keep in mind that I solicit reader comments in every post — this is the only one I got:

hello, Good day, this Mr Cory Hicks and am inquiry into your company about Raw Materials?And i will to get back to me with the types,sizes and prices of them so i can proceed with the quantity i will be ordering.And i will like to know if you do Accepts major credit card as the method of payments,And try and include your contact details when getting back to me , so i can give you a call as soon as possible, looking forward for your assistance, Thanks, Cory

Now, by all rights Cory should have been the augur of a long depression. These posts don’t exactly write themselves, and I have a day job that I should be working on, to say nothing of a dog, significant other, video game habit, etc. etc. — the crushing silence (made all the more crushing by spam’s cheeriness) should have made the enterprise seem futile. But it didn’t seem futile, I in fact had a kind of expectation that I wouldn’t actually receive any finished products from readers — and not just because Facebook has made blog comments less common (as Tyler Meier helpfully pointed out) or because there’s no clear profit in posting original work to someone else’s blog.

No, the reason I’m content here with Cory is that I was lucky enough to be taught that there is a difference between enjoying a piece of art and enjoying how it feels to be a piece’s artist. I wanted to share art that you would enjoy in a way that would provoke you to make more — but at the same time, I wanted to let you in a little bit on what it is like to be me (this is, after all, a blog). These two goals are antagonistic (the former invites reaction and commentary; the latter, not so much). I’m pretty sure my attitude about this arises from the time I experienced the difference between Seeing Moses and Being Moses.


I mean Moses Nornberg — a visual artist and sculptor from my hometown of St. Louis. Moses is hard to explain or describe, so I’ll just show you a picture of this 1991 Chevy Blazer that he gutted, cut to pieces, and rewired until it is one enormous set of speakers. This is not Photoshopped, it’s real, it’s sitting in St. Louis right now:

Moses does a lot of different kinds of work, mostly with found materials. He invited me along one day because he was thinking about doing some smaller pieces (as you can imagine, getting the Speakercar from gallery to gallery is fairly involved) — specifically, he wanted to go downtown and take pictures of gas regulators, which in St. Louis are usually custom-made to fit whatever now-abandoned warehouse from the 30s that they were originally intended to serve.

It was the best day. Downtown St. Louis, especially at midday during a hot summer, is a ghost town: the owners of property don’t usually care enough to build fences or provide security, so we more or less had our run of the place. We talked about photography, the aesthetics of asymmetrical piping, and what has happened to the city — when we stopped for cokes, we happened to be in line behind the rapper Fabolous. The whole day was kind of a blur of chainlink fence, riding with the windows down, and utterly sticky trees. My take-away lesson was: Moses’ job is to move (drive, usually) across aesthetic and cultural boundaries in a search for interesting and engaging things to look at. Also, being Moses is Miles Davis-level cool.

So I was a little bit surprised when about a year went by and I never saw any finished regulator photographs (I thought maybe I could get one to put on my wall for a drastically reduced ‘friend’ price). Why abandon the project? My answer to the question — his might be different — came from looking at the pieces he does finish and produce. Only part of Moses’ work has to do with identity, cognition, vision and experimentation. Part of it has to do with things like spending two years individually polishing and painting 23,000 9mm shell casings to make an enormous American flag:

This is the un-fun part of being Moses, but it is a part that helps produce the best pieces. It’s probably true that there are a few people who woke up one morning and thought, man, I should customize a car so that it’s just speakers — but to the best of my knowledge there is only one who got up, drank a cup of coffee, and taught himself to use a circular saw. What we see when we see finished pieces is not the record of that dedication and repetition — we don’t experience what it was like to buy buckets of spent shell casings from a sketchy dude in mid-Missouri — we see, instead, the result of that dedication. Much art is like this; One Art took years to write, and Whitman went through somewhere between six and nine whole-hearted revisions and republications of Leaves of Grass, which is curious because some of the poems make a pretty strong claim to have arisen directly from nature. The length and intricacy of these processes of revision and refinement is not cool: it’s anal retentive. As Monty Python pointed out, it’s certainly not a spectator sport.

What I liked about the gas regulators was the way I encountered them — realizing that they’re art, finding them, navigating the city in order to find a spot to shoot them from — and none of this would have been particularly apparent in the finished piece. Making that experience apparent, like I did above by telling the story of the day, would distract from the gas regulators as objects, as something to look at. In a similar way, these entries have been as much about encountering, sifting through, accepting and rejecting poetic “materials” as they have been about the materials themselves — I’ve been trying to tell the story of the process. That story might influence your own process — I certainly took tips about how to make my own art from seeing Moses work — but it’s not likely to inspire you to jump in and do the work part (the unfun, anal, repetitive shell-polishing) that I do with the precise kinds of things that interest me.

That’s okay. The story of the process, and the experience of it, is valuable in its own right. It can result in you making art somewhere down the line, in the future, after you internalize this or respond negatively to it, after you measure all the speakers and cut the holes in the car. That’s why the lack of audience participation didn’t keep me awake at night: ars longa. But in the short term, this particular series is probably best ended with me finishing what I started by making my own poems. For me to do all the wandering and musing, and you to then polish all the words is a cheap way for me to see art I like without having to make it.

As such, we’ll finish next week with Products Wednesday. Cory will of course be welcome to buy anything he likes.