Art Complicates Life

An Ex-Ode to the Corporeal Conversation: A Salon for the Suit—A Boutique for the Conversation

At the Contemporary Arts Forum.

by Molly Freedenberg

The first time I saw the new exhibit in the Contemporary Arts Forum Norton Gallery, I felt as though I’d stumbled into someone’s living room or studio—circa 1762. Hand-sewn clothing samples were draped over antique furniture while a woman in cropped pants, a billowy blouse, and a fitted vest sat in an upholstered chair drinking wine from a cut-glass tumbler. Except for the laptop computer on the desk, the large-screen television on the table, the iSight camera projecting a square onto the opposite wall, and a gallery employee wearing a dress made of bubble wrap, it could have been the 18th century.

So, what is going on right now at CAF? The first in a series of salon-themed shows, An Ex-Ode to the Corporeal Conversation: A Salon for the Suit—A Boutique for the Conversation is actually an art installation that deals with some very contemporary themes, including interactivity, the eroding distinction between art maker and buyer, labor rights, consumerism, capitalism, the textile industry, technology, the culture of the mall, masculinity, and all the places where these ideas intersect.

The exhibit was created by J. Morgan Puett and Iain Kerr, a duo of East Coast artists who collaborate under the cumbersome title, That Word Which Means Smuggling Across Borders, Incorporated. The “word” they refer to is “coyote,” but Puett and Kerr didn’t want to reference the desert animal directly, or the people who traffic Mexican immigrants to the United States. Those references would be too simple. And Puett and Kerr don’t do simple.

Instead, the name refers to the concept of crossing, denying, and disrespecting borders. It’s an aesthetic philosophy organized around blurring the lines between physical places and conceptual camps, and around crossing the imaginary boundaries that separate artists from their subjects.

Ex-Ode is thus a multifaceted, interactive experiment, rather than a straightforward exhibit. The idea is to create a retail store appropriate to a re-imagined mall, and to sell pieces there for a re-imagined suit of clothes. Customers are meant to enter the store, look at the clothing samples (which don’t resemble any clothes you’ve ever seen), and lounge about on furniture upholstered in baroque fabrics, all while helping themselves to wine or whiskey. In order to be fitted for the odd clothing, visitors must interact with the artists, who are projected live via digital videoconferencing onto the gallery walls.

Of course, “clothing” is a loose term for these strange strips of fabric. Although based on that ubiquitous male status marker, the three-piece suit, the pieces aren’t just isolated suit components. Instead, the artists have used the “language of the suit” and the “vocabulary of the tailor” to create something entirely new.

Puett and Kerr have devised an algorithm based on numbers they assigned to various significant objects, ranging from concepts and shapes in architecture and literature to the blueprints of the first museum in which they showed this piece. They then drew patterns based on the algorithm’s outputs.

“We did not put any of our personal design or prejudice into this garment,” said Puett. “This garment made itself, with our collaboration.”

Each piece was then tailored by hand, and priced according to how much the seamstress would want to be paid to make the same piece again—this as a comment on labor practices and the questionable morality of mass production. The process of being fitted for the garment—a ridiculous one, since the pieces come only in one size and are put together purely according to one’s own imagination—is a commentary on the historical relationship of the tailor to his customer, one built more on illusion and intimacy than any necessity. In addition, being fitted this way via videoconferencing not only blurs the boundaries between Santa Barbara and Pennsylvania, where the artists are located, but also erodes the distinction between the artist and the viewer, in a related riff on reality television and its role in contemporary culture.

That alone is enough to make your head spin. But there’s so much more. No prop in the gallery is without meaning. No action or interaction is used just for its aesthetic value. Take any element of the installation, from the three-page-long title placards to the specific hooks on which the clothing hangs, and Puett and Kerr have a complex, detailed explanation for it.

This is part of the reason why the exhibit works better in theory than in practice. On a surface level, the space is confounding. The decor is unremarkable, and the clothing samples look like random shapes. It’s unclear at first that the large sheets hanging from metal arms are diagrams of the algorithms that determined the clothing shapes. The instructions are so text-heavy that they are daunting to even glance at, much less read. As for the interactivity itself, the technology and the time difference proved more problematic than was expected. On opening night, there was a time delay with the iSight camera and a problem with the microphone, so real-time conversation was impossible. Still, the overall effect works. Ex-Ode is confusing and thought provoking, surprising and a little disconcerting. Everything is vaguely familiar, yet it is hard to know what to do with it in this new context. One can’t tell where life ends and art begins—which the artists say is exactly the point. The piece is a living, breathing, expanding experiment that’s wholly dependent on personal experience.

“It’s a way of imagining everything as collective and collaborative and interactive,” said Kerr. “You’re never the originator … that’s pure patriarchal arrogance.”

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