This morning my barber Ray, who’s from Russia, explained why he wasn’t so concerned about the protested parliamentary elections in Moscow. “Putin’s been doing this for 8 years. He knows how it works and since he’s been Prime Minister, things have been good for Russians. How many people did they say were protesting? 50,000? Out of how many people that live in Russia? You’re always going to have unhappy people.”
I pressed him a little bit: “People were upset because they thought the elections were rigged.” He answered that “all elections are rigged. I feel like every country, they know who they want to win. They just have elections to make the people feel like they have some voice. Even in America maybe. Putin’s a KGB guy. He knows how to fight the terrorists and keep the country safe.”
Ray is convincing in that friendly way of barbers, where every utterance, no matter the topic, carries the same non-chalant, self-assured tone. Where any position, as long as it sounds good or funny, is just agreed upon. And so I shook my head in agreement at his reasoning about Russia. After all, he’s been my barber for 5 years now and it wasn’t worth arguing – if there even was an argument to made. Because maybe all elections are rigged. Politicians like Putin may not be any more or less corrupt and power-hungry than those trying to challenge him. Of Mikhail Prokhorov, the billionaire industrialist and owner of the soon-to-be Brooklyn Nets basketball team and who this week announced he would run against Putin for president, Ray dismissively said, “he just wants to be in the history books.”
Ray holding court at his chair could probably cut my hair blindfolded. He is a virtuoso of his work and an expert of everything uttered while he performs it. At the end of every session Ray takes out his mirror to show me the back of my head and with exaggerated pride exclaims, “see, nice and clean. Now you can put yourself in your museum. Just stand there and everybody will look at you.”
I’ve been collecting press releases from art spaces for the past six years, taking them home or to the office after an afternoon of seeing shows in Chelsea, the Lower Eastside, Bushwick or wherever. I dutifully 3-hole punch each one of them and stick them into a binder in case I need to refer back to the name of an artist, or to remind me of a noteworthy show. Many of these press releases are crumpled or folded, dingy with pocket lint.
In spite of its flimsy, cheap substrate (usually photocopied onto letter size paper), the press release is durable and easily produced by galleries that operate at a high speed, churning out month-long shows in an art world calendar that’s absolutely packed with them. First and foremost, these texts aim to catch the attention of art critics and their editors. And because of that, the language skews towards a kind of pop academicism. Much of this writing style, derisively referred to as “artspeak,” has been thoroughly debased by the very critics they hope to attract as being meaningless and unnecessarily opaque. The writing is formulaic, and worse, amateur art theory they argue. In many of these releases, artists “problematize” or “interrogate” subjects.
But looking back on texts from 5 years ago, there’s a certain charm to the whole ritual of writing and producing press releases, especially in the almost outdated formality in announcing that, for instance, “Greene Naftali is pleased to present an exhibition of “Yellow Movies” by Tony Conrad, a legendary New York underground filmmaker, composer, and artist.” I saw this show in January 2007 and reading this text now makes me think of the profound rebelliousness of Conrad’s gesture to, as he states in the release: “dismantle the authoritarian boundaries of film culture…”
Press releases get emailed out to critics and editors in advance of a show’s opening, but most galleries also make them available for free in a self-serve stack at the front desk. And though this writing can easily be found on gallery websites with full color photos, I still like having these papers around without images, just naked words on a page trying to describe, elaborate, elucidate, convince and sometimes hide the intentions of artists.
For a show by Douglas Boatwright in 2006, the defunct Silo gallery states in its press release: “Although seemingly elusive and tangential, Boatwright’s work is focused in its concentration on sensuous light and aesthetic pleasure. One work could serve as both introduction and summary, a multi-layered projection onto the gallery’s curved wall consisting of the text: ‘I know this to be true.’ But the authoritative-sounding statement literally wobbles. The words reach the wall through a stencil that acts as an intermediate screen and hangs by threads in front of the light source, a projection of found footage and home movies.”
This is language anticipating the experience of art and trailing in the wake of that experience. But 5 years later, I can at least read this old document and faintly remember having seen this work, wondering what it was about.