“What kinds of institutions could be better positioned to gather diverse groups of people around complex dialogue?” Deborah Cullinan, CEO of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, surfaced this question—in reference to art centers—in the inaugural edition of Soundboard, the new multi-author tool we launched in March 2018 (see below). It seems a fitting way to launch a recap of the best of Walker Reader in a year that started with a powerful six-part series on revolutionary Cuban cinema by Latin American scholars and concluded with the return of our year-end lists series, The Year Acccording to..., which, in our biggest edition ever, features viewpoints on 2018 by 24 artists from around the globe, from Citizen author Claudia Rankine to Filipino Australian performance artist Justin Shoulder. Scanning over all 243 stories we published in 2018, I’m struck by both the wide range of topics, backgrounds, geographies, and artistic disciplines represented and the wealth of insight and intelligence on display. In celebration of both Walker staff authors and the many commissioned guest writers we’ve invited to use our platform, I’d like to share my subjective list, in no particular order, of my favorite Walker Reader moments of the year.
LAUNCH OF SOUNDBOARD
It’s only through a multiplicity of voices, I believe, that contemporary art museums can be truly contemporary. So one of my favorite moments of the year was the launch of Soundboard. Inspired in part by the New York Times‘s late, great “Room for Debate” feature, it gives us a way to tackle pressing questions in art and culture through a diversity of voices using a single interface: just click a headshot to refresh the text for each writer. The first edition featured five thinkers weighing in on a question on many minds in the art world this year: what should art museums consider when artists they support are accused of wrongdoing? Our “Museums & #MeToo” piece was sparked by allegations of sexual harassment against Chuck Close, an artist with close ties to the Walker. Soundboard 2.0 offered a quartet of writings, guest edited by Nicole Killian, for our design vertical The Gradient, looking at what a queering of design education would look like. Our third edition invited four artists with close links to the immigrant experience to consider news coverage of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy when answering the slightly-loaded question, “What can art do that journalism can’t?” The project feels so perfectly on mission for a questioning—and publishing—art institution like the Walker.
CRITICAL CONVERSATIONS IN THE ARTS
Education director Nisa Mackie’s trio of interviews—two with fellow museum educators, one with an art historian and author—stand out for their prescience and transparency. As art institutions learn from controversies around Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmet Till at the 2017 Whitney Biennial, sexual harassment allegations against artists, and Sam Durant’s Scaffold, museums need to unflinchingly learn from mistakes. Here, Mackie talks with the Whitney’s Kathryn Potts about the museum’s 10-year evolution of its education department into an artist-centric, community-connected, and issues-based initiative (“I think my biggest takeaway from the Dana Schutz controversy,” says Potts, “was actually that if you don’t have a diverse group of people around the table, you aren’t seeing the whole picture.”) In her second conversation, with PAFA’s Monica Zimmerman, Mackie asked about the Academy’s response to sexual harassment allegations against Chuck Close: it kept its Close photo show up, but created a companion exhibition—supplemented by community outreach events and interpretive materials—that dealt with related issues of “power, gender, race, sexuality, and access.” In a third interview, Mackie spoke with critic and author Aruna d’Souza about her book Whitewalling: Art, Race, & Protest in 3 Acts—or, rather, about the next conversations museums need to face in addressing white supremacy and being more representative of and welcoming to the communities they serve.
UNLICENSED: DESIGN + BOOTLEGGING
The Gradient, the Walker’s popular design vertical, launched an ongoing series investigating the intersections of design and bootlegging. As Ben Schwartz wrote in introducing UNLICENSED, “Debates about homage, appropriation, and theft—which previously felt comfortable in the academic context of the art world—are being reimagined in the worlds of corporate branding, social media, and the creative industry as a whole. Bootlegging has become fetishized within creative fields as an aesthetic in and of itself, influencing everything from underground record labels to DIY T-shirts, publishing ideologies to acts of high fashion détournement.” The series was inaugurated with Schwartz’s interview with Experimental Jetset, the Amsterdam-based studio that created what’s arguably the most bootlegged design of the new millennium, its John & Paul & Ringo & George T-shirt.
This is how curatorial writing should be: relevant, engaging, intelligent (without breaking into International Art English). Curatorial Fellow of Visual Arts Jadine Collingwood breaks down Siah Armajani’s Seven Rooms of Hospitality series, starting with a powerful and tragic news item—the death by suffocation of 71 asylum seekers in a box van abandoned by its driver on the side of an Austrian highway in 2015. Collingwood eloquently unfolds the political, conceptual, and philosophical underpinnings of the series, which includes Room for Asylum Seekers (2017) and this small, 3D-printed plastic replica of the truck. I hope Armajani’s work—and Collingwood’s incisive essay—get even more exposure as Follow This Line heads to the Met on February 20.
“A difference between learning and knowing is little more than asking questions without the entitlement of an answer, and honoring the vulnerability in saying and hearing, ‘I don’t know.’” In his Artist Op-Ed—the series’ twelfth, published in April—experimental filmmaker Sky Hopinka digs into that vulnerability, parsing the contradictions in his identities as a filmmaker, an Indigenous person, the oppressor, and the oppressed. Like his video work, Hopinka’s prose is ethereal, slippery, circular at times, as if underscoring his thesis—beware of certainty. About identity, about authority, about art.
TROLL PALAYAN: AMBER NEWMAN INTERVIEWS CLARA BALAGUER
Walker readers probably know Clara Balaguer well by now: in 2014, she and partner Kristian Henson contributed to the Walker’s annual year-end list series, and in 2017 she and Henson discussed their social practice platform, the Office of Culture and Design, as well as their publishing imprint, Hardworking Goodlooking, during an Insights Design Lecture. In May, designer Amber Newman added to the dialogue, catching up with Balaguer in a wide-ranging interview that covered everything from her deep research into pro-Duterte trolls in her native Philippines to the role and responsibilities of designers outside the North/Western mainstream to considerations around brands aligning with social movements. One of my favorite parts, Balaguer’s challenge to designers critical of the typeface used on “I Can’t Breathe” shirts worn by NBA players in solidarity with the family of Eric Garner in 2014:
For the Comic Sans, design-educated haters looking for political relevance, an exercise: Use Comic Sans, Curlz, Brush Script, Papyrus. Understand why people respond to it. Accept that social constituencies (not clients but constituencies) have made a choice that should be respected instead of ridiculed. Show what can be done to harness prejudice into a different language altogether. Challenge yourself to dismantle what the (Ivy League?) man has told you is ugly, uncouth, primitive, savage. Finessing popular voice into a missive of power, an aesthetic of revolution, doesn’t mean you have to dumb your design education down. It means you get to throw out the notion that the populace is dumb, that popular concerns can only lead to (design) populism, and that the formally educated have all the answers.
With legendary vocalist, performer, and filmmaker Meredith Monk returning to the Walker in Fall 2018, I faced a conundrum: given how many video interviews, catalogue excerpts, chronologies, and reviews we’ve published to commemorate each of Monk’s many Walker visits over the decades, how could Walker Reader contribute new, engaging ideas about an artist who’s been so extensively written on? In the end, I went with a traditional format, the interview, but hopefully the timeliness of the central question made it stand out: in these tumultuous times, how does this celebrated artist stay balanced, and how does her work address this instability? In it, Monk discusses the #MeToo movement in light of her own decades-long experiences as an experimental artist in a male-dominated field, her awareness about history’s cycles, and how she uses her wordless vocalization to respond to our current climate of “poisonous limitation and compression.”
Now is the time to destroy the old guard, and make way for a new generation of design. Graphic design has the ability to define our visual landscape, influence culture, and improve products for people but we need to address the issues of politics and prejudice in our profession and start combating them.
In June, Oakland-based graphic designer Erik Carter submitted an opinion piece to The Gradient that questions design’s relationship to capitalism and designers’ responsibility for the future of the field and the world. A reader favorite, it’s been viewed nearly 20,000 times—the most-read new piece of the year.
I’m cheating with this one, as the Walker is merely hosting existing content created for LOOP, the print jazz magazine artist Jason Moran launched in 2016. But I’m thrilled Walker Reader has partnered with Moran to help amplify his vision and the voices of issue one’s contributors—including Matana Roberts, Greg Tate, Cassandra Wilson, and Jamaaladeen Tacuma. As Moran says in the intro video we shot for LOOP, the magazine looks at jazz culture from an African American perspective, serving as an outlet for “another kind of story that might get told in a ‘real’ jazz magazine.” Look for issue two, in print and online, in the coming months.