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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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