Added by GF Wahlquist on September 21 2010, at 3:48 am
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  • In an interesting bit of synergy, USC's Roski School of Fine Arts recently presented projects by Michael Parker and Ryan Garrett, each of which in their own way grasps at notions of progress and utopia, albeit in their own unique way.

    Parker's "Intentional and Accidental" is an exhibition in three parts. The first, Brother Arnold Watches, involves the artist and Arnold Hadd, the youngest of the three living Shakers, collaborating on recorded audio commentary tracks that accompany two films about the Shakers. The first, Dan Graham's Rock My Religion, 1984, traces the history of rock and roll back to the community, offering an extended meditation on the relationship between pop music and religious life in American culture. The second, Ken Burns' The Shakers, 1984, is a video essay typical of Burns' oeuvre. Listening to Brother Arnold's thoughts on Rock My Religion was an interesting exercise in examining the way that seminal pieces of contemporary art are observed by those otherwise familiar with them, but the commentary on Burns' documentary was of particular interest to me. As a former evangelical, I often notice myself cringing at coverage of the subtleties of that particular subgroup done; there's an obvious distance between the lived experience of a religious community and its representation by "outsiders." In one notable section, Brother Arnold explains that a so-called "expert" trotted out as a talking head in Burns' film was completely unfamiliar to him. The project as a whole creates a multilayered examination of the representation of utopian communities from both the inside and the outside.

    Second, Parker presented a book that juxtaposed historical texts dealing with the notion of utopia (which, the artist reminds us, is a term that began in the work of Thomas More as farce, literally meaning "no place") with journals of the artist's own travels to various utopian enclaves. One of these utopian enclaves practices Watsu, a fusion of massage and hydrotherapy that offers a more individual, rather than political, experience of utopia. The practice is also on display in the gallery in a hypnotizing video by Parker.

    Finally, Parker constructed a pineapple-cum-disco-ball-turned-sweat-lodge, which hosted saunas throughout the duration of the exhibition. The piece is emblematic of much of Parker's work - generous, good spirited, unironic and optimistic about the ability of art to function as communal experience. As a general proposition, the critical turn in contemporary art often holds subjects too far at a distance. Parker, on the other hand, uses the research behind his work to generate experiences for participants, offering the opportunity to learn not only through observation but also through participation.

    The two projects by Ryan Garrett, presented under the heading "Causes and Errors", deal with the idea of utopia, albeit in a more oblique way. The first, The Council, is a set of 15 hand-sculpted busts of of the members of the Los Angeles City Council. With a nod toward the work of Daumier, the busts clearly deal with satire and caricature, literally bringing the often faceless bureaucracy of government down to scale. The second, of the Relative Frequency of Occurrence of the Causes of Breaking Plate Glass Windows & Antisocial Behavior in Warwickshire, England, departs from a book written by Charles Babbage of the same name. Widely acknowledge as the father of computing, Babbage had a notorious hatred for the lower classes, children, street musicians, and pubs. Babbage listed the causes of of broken windows in the titular town to aid in the issuing and payment of insurance policies, but also as part of his own personal agenda to close the pubs and ban street musicians. Garrett has constructed a book that features text describing the cause of each broken window, coupled with images of the broken windows themselves constructed of clay by the artist and subsequently photographed.

    Both projects deal with the representation of the problem of governance, which often occurs on the micro level, as with the windows. Photographing the models of the windows, as opposed to presenting them as objects, is a particularly adept move, emphasizing the always-already-abstract nature of "problems" or "issues" in a bureaucratic society. Less the connection of this with the idea of utopia seem farfetched, the project is also a nod to Wilson and Kelling's "Broken Window Theory." Wilson and Kelling, at the dawn of the Reagan eighties, postulated that if a window in a building was broken and left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows would soon be broken. Steeped in social Darwinism, the idea ultimately caught on, leading local governments to force property owners to promptly repair any broken window in the attempt to drive down crime. Garrett's work reminds us of the downside of the quest for utopia - the growth of disciplinary structures and policing, the criminalization of the banal, and the connection between techniques of management and notions of political teleology.

    (All images courtesy of the artists.)