Oh, 2017. If anything can be said for you, it’s that you gave us plenty to worry and think and write about. Reviewing the year’s top stories on Walker Reader—both those we liked best and those that you, our readers, responded to most—it’s clear that we were obsessed over the past 12 months with exploring art’s relevance in times of contention; tackling difficult subjects (including critique of the Walker and institutions like it); posing questions, big and small, of our culture; and celebrating incisive voices that cut through in a chaotic year in these United (or “united,” as Patrick Martinez’s neon sculpture would have it) States, and beyond. As editor of Walker Reader, I want to thank you for reading and sharing—and to wish you a happy and hopeful new year.
Now, in no particular order, our top 15 essays, plus five runners-up.
The year started out with a new president-elect, and many of us swallowing hard about what that could mean. In preparation for the ushering in of a new kind of politics, we asked more than 25 arts professionals—from artists Hank Willis Thomas, Chlöe Bass, and Thomas Hirschhorn to curators Thomas Lax, Victoria Sung, and Lucy Lippard—for readings that might prove instructive in the coming years. Published on Inauguration Day, it was supplemented by two Artist Op-Eds. In one, LA-based artist Gary Simmons revisited a 1992 work which still has deep resonance today: a pair of pristine white boxing gloves bearing the words “EVERFORWARD” and “NEVERBACK” lettered in gold thread. In the other, artists João Enxuto and Erica Love considered activism within (and directed at) cultural organizations, asking, “What will the relationship between art museums and their publics look like following recent global events like Brexit and the US elections?”
SEARCHING FOR THE NEW NEW WORLD
Postcommodity’s contribution to our ongoing Artist Op-Eds series was a high point of 2017 for Walker Reader. In a year that later saw the indigenous collective show at documenta and the Whitney Biennial, Postcommodity delivered a powerful and poetic reflection on issues surrounding the US/Mexico border—the subject of their celebrated 2015 site-specific installation Repellent Fence—including the linguistics of Uto-Aztecan languages (from which the name “Mexico” derives), the slipperiness of the term “Native” (and “nativist”), and the year 2043, when whites are projected to become a minority in the US.
The op-ed’s online launch was partnered with a series first: a launch party for its pamphlet version, including an artist talk with all three collective members, Raven Chacon, Cristóbal Martínez, and Kade L. Twist. The piece had several spin-offs throughout the year: Minneapolis-based author Louise Erdrich, in the audience for our artist talk, wrote a wonderful piece for Walker Reader about Postcommodity’s documenta sound installation; the collective contributed to our September piece on DACA (see below); Art in America invited the trio to write a new iteration of the op-ed for its October issue; and the Walker acquired one of the 10-foot scare-eye balloons used in Repellent Fence (it’s now on view in the exhibition I am you, you are too).
PICTURING THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE
The most popular Walker Reader story of 2016, by far, was design director Emmet Byrne’s interview with Eric Timothy Carlson, the artist behind the cryptic and captivating symbols, texts, and images for Bon Iver’s album 22, a Million. Ditto for this year: 2017’s most-read story also aimed to decode Bon Iver’s unique visual vocabulary—in particular, the enigmatic photography associated with Bon Iver’s 22, a Million. The man behind it is Cameron Wittig, the Walker’s former staff photographer and the creator of album cover and promotional photos for an array of artists including Poliça, Andrew Bird, Lizzo, and Volcano Choir. Invited to both document the recording of 22, a Million at Justin Vernon’s Eau Claire studio and to create imagery to promote the album, he was given wide creative latitude—save for one key caveat: “I was told to not show [Vernon’s] face.” He rose to the challenge. “After watching and listening to the band add manipulations to the sounds of instruments and voices I started thinking I could do a similar thing visually.” The result: images (some made in collaboration with artist Crystal Quinn) altered in various ways—through collage, digital filters, crumpling, and even fire.
ARTISTS RESPOND TO DACA
In September, Donald Trump announced his plan to rescind DACA, the Obama-era program that protects from deportation people who came to the US as children of undocumented immigrants. If Trump’s six-month phase-out comes to pass, an estimated 800,000 young immigrants will be affected. To better understand the human cost of the decision, we invited 10 artists with close ties to the border—including Mexico City–born artists Jorge Almada and Pedro Reyes to creators based in LA and beyond, including Ken Gonzales-Day, Patrick Martinez, and Star Montana—to share their reactions. One, director Natalia Almada, responded through film, sharing footage she shot with children she met along the US/Mexico border in 2004. A mother herself (her son was born in San Francisco a month before the 2016 election), she wonders:
Did these children make it to the US? Did they become Dreamers? Are they living in fear? Are they reliving that day when they were apprehended for the first time?
We paired this piece with a reflection by artist and UCLA law student Emmanuel Mauleón. Born in Pueblo, Mexico and raised in St. Paul, he shared his perspective on the role of art institutions, including the Walker (where as a high schooler he was part of the WACTAC teen council), in better serving as a place where—as Ralph Ellison put it—“the interests of art and democracy converge.”
Relaunching the Walker’s design vertical The Gradient in June, designer Ryan Gerald Nelson compiled an “Encyclopaedic and Evolving Spectrum of Gradient Knowledge” as a way of understanding the nature of the department’s publishing platform. From Allen Ruppersberg’s Colby Printing Co. posters to gender fluidity, infrared thermography to physiological color change in cephalopods to Tauba Auerbach’s RGB Colorspace Atlas (2011), this engrossing (and continuously updated) post examines the in-betweenness of the gradient—and The Gradient.
WERNER HERZOG UPDATES THE MINNESOTA MANIFESTO
When we launched our redesigned website and the newly rebranded Walker Reader in June, we wanted to do something timely—and possibly historic. So we turned to Werner Herzog. In 1999, the famed filmmaker delivered his Minnesota Declaration on truth and fact in documentary cinema on the Walker stage, just prior to a public dialogue with Roger Ebert. Noteworthy for its explication of Herzog’s notion of “ecstatic truth,” this was the manifesto that sparked books and citations galore. We asked Herzog to write a response to the Trump administration’s coinage of the term “alternative facts.” He responded with a six-point addendum to his original statement. Complementing this new writing, Crosscuts (our Moving Image vertical) published video of Herzog reading his declaration in 1999—the first time it’s appeared online. Then we commissioned four thinkers—critic Ben Davis, Whose Streets? filmmaker Sabaah Folayan, artist RaMell Ross, and journalist Eric Schlosser—to respond to the question “What is truth in an age of altfacts?”
INCLUSION, THE ART WORLD, AND NATIVE AMERICAN VOICES
The Walker’s presentation of a traveling Jimmie Durham retrospective—an artist whose claims of Cherokee ancestry have been challenged—raised many questions, both at the Walker and in the contemporary art field. Why is Durham the artist—or, at least, one of very few artists—selected for a major touring retrospective? Why isn’t more art by Native Americans collected, contextualized, and presented by major institutions? And why is there so little representation—both within the staffs of contemporary art institutions and in the art press that covers them—of Native American, First Nations, and indigenous peoples?
To address these questions, I partnered with Minneapolis-based artist Dyani White Hawk (Sicangu Lakota) to convene a Skype discussion with curator Kathleen Ash-Milby (Navajo Nation); artists Jeffrey Gibson (Mississippi Band of Choctaw) and Luzene Hill (Eastern Band of Cherokee); and educator/artist Candessa Tehee (Cherokee Nation). The rich conversation—presented in audio and text formats—offered possible solutions, for institutions, art publishers, and collectors, and within Native communities.
AN ANTI-MANIFESTO FOR ARTISTS
With the same no-BS style he exhibited in books like Fast Food Nation and Command and Control, investigative journalist Eric Schlosser used his commission related to Herzog’s Minnesota Declaration to call out the famed documentarian—and to make a more urgent point about the role of artists in Trump-era America:
All of these [artistic] manifestos express an element of truth. None of them convey the truth. And like Lessons of Darkness, they contain varying proportions of hot air and bullshit. […] These days, the difference between cinema verité and documentaries with actors and narration seems trivial. The stylistic choices of artists pale in importance beside the lies and deliberate misinformation being spread every single day for power, control, and profit.
GODSPEED, GRANT HART
Artist Chris Larson—whose 2016 Walker exhibition Land Speed Record was a collaboration with Hüsker Dü drummer Grant Hart—offer a brief yet poignant remembrance of his friend following Hart’s September passing at age 56:
Grant was always pushing the norm, twisting and sculpting it into something beautiful, rough, and unpredictable. One day at my studio in St. Paul, Grant came in with a dead bird in his hand that he had found on the steps leading into my studio. Without saying hello, he asked for paper and a can of spray paint. He took the bird, laid it on the piece of paper, spray-painted the bird, then held up the paper showing me a beautiful silhouette of a bird flying away…
JAZZ CALL AND RESPONSE
For one of Fourth Wall’s most popular pieces of the year, former Walker music programmer Chuck Helm interviewed Dave King, drummer for the Bad Plus, about the jazz trio’s Walker collaboration with guitarist Bill Frisell (Helm also went the other way: interviewing Frisell about working with the Bad Plus). Playing with “a voice in jazz history that changed the game” was monumental, says King: as a Twin Cities high-schooler, he and his future Bad Plus bandmates were often in the audience for Frisell’s many Walker gigs.
MEL CHIN’S INVISIBLE AESTHETIC
Just as the Queens Museum announced a major 2018 survey of Mel Chin’s career, the Houston-based artist returned to the Twin Cities as keynote speaker for Public Art St. Paul’s 30th anniversary celebration—affording Walker Reader a chance to revisit Chin’s important Walker-sponsored environmental art project, Revival Field (1991). Former Walker curator Peter Boswell, recalling Chin’s 1990 Viewpoints exhibition and the NEA funding battle that nearly claimed Revival Field as a victim, recounts Chin’s famed phytoremediation project, its truly cross-disciplinary focus, and its impact on later works by Chin.
JOHN ASHBERY CROSSES OVER
John Ashbery left us in September at age 90, but the poet’s words will be well-remembered around here: his commissioned verse, printed letter by letter in metal type, spans 16 lanes of traffic high above Interstate 94 at the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. To commemorate his passing, the Walker Archives shared with us audio of Ashbery reading the poem on sculptor Siah Armajani’s Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge at the Walker in 1990.
PAUL CHAAT SMITH ON JIMMIE DURHAM & AMERICANS
Comanche critic and curator Paul Chaat Smith visited the Walker in August and used his time on stage to share the thinking behind Americans, an exhibition he curated at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, and to address the controversy surrounding his friend, artist Jimmie Durham. This week, Los Angeles Times writer Carolina Miranda included the talk in her year-end list of “pieces of writing that moved us this year,” noting that Smith’s address—one of our most-read pieces of content of 2017—was “both lyrical and profound.”
WHAT IS AN ART SCHOOL?
Kicking off his series on art pedagogy, Daniel Atkinson interviews Sam Thorne, director of the UK’s Nottingham Contemporary, on historic and emerging art schools—from the Bauhaus and Black Mountain College to the Dutch Art Institute’s Roaming Academy and Thorne’s own Open School East.
IT’S NOT JUST SIZE THAT MATTERS
Joining Claes Oldenburg’s Pop icon Spoonbridge and Cherry in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden this summer was Katharina Fritsch’s ultramarine blue Hahn/Cock, but as Victoria Sung writes, it’s not just a shared sense of outsized scale that unite these artworks—both artists have used public sculpture to address the politics of gender: Oldenburg, noting London’s “phallic obsession” in public sculpture, proposed converting Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square with an automobile gearshift; with her sculpture (originally designed for an empty plinth in the same London square), Fritsch, writes Sung, “replaces the man-in-combat and equestrian convention with, quite simply, a large cock.”
IL TRENO DI JOHN CAGE
Continuing our series of posthumously published memories from Walker director emeritus Martin Friedman, we ran a compelling tale of his trip aboard John Cage’s “happening on wheels,” a musical “prepared train” that traversed Italy in 1978.
WHAT CAN MASCOTS TELL US ABOUT MUSEUM BRANDING?
Considering everything from Ronald McDonald and the Sleepy’s chain of mattress stores to merchandise at the Met and its own graphic identity for ICA Philadelphia, design firm Other Means parses the role of branding in cultural institutions.
TUNDE ADEBIMPE ON “AVOIDING THE COSMIC SIDE-EYE FROM PRINCE”
In conversation with Chris Cloud, TV on the Radio’s frontman discusses developing his multimedia performance A Warm Weather Ghost in the months following Prince’s death.
Usually, bathroom signs get little attention, but that changed in February when Donald Trump revoked federal protections that allow transgender students to use public school restrooms that match their gender identity. Walker accessibility coordinator Julia Anderson’s post (and accompanying Instagram post) on our new all-gender bathroom signs went viral.
“SOME NEW SPLINTERING”
Anger and hope coalesce in performance artist Okwui Okpokwasili’s powerful (yet brief) Inauguration Day post in reaction to the 2016 US presidential elections.