Tiny Creatures started out as one thing and then became something else…
From Big Deal Tiny Creatures, DIY Gallery, Xpectre, 2011
From Open Letters Monthly:
Young artists are hungry for company, for confirmation of their talent and a sense of four walls around them, and they’re hungry for partners in their rebellion against the world. Often there’s already a scene against which ingénues and arrivistes alike rebel and which, in secret, they long to own.
Critic and theorist Chris Kraus walks us through the birth and dissolution of one such scene in the first and best essay of her new collection Where Art Belongs. The scene is Tiny Creatures, a gallery and music space which bubbled and popped in Echo Park during the height of the Bush years. It’s the burning excitement and newness of this scene that Kraus wants us to understand and it’s this she communicates best. We meet Janet Kim, an ex-born-again salonnière who wills shows and concerts into existence and serves as the storm’s eye that every loose collection like Tiny Creatures requires. Until Kim’s arrival, the art scene in LA was composed of a “cluster of fiefdoms ruled by a handful of MFA programs,” as glossed in Kraus’ 2006 novel Torpor:
The LA art world … is free of arcane references and ambiguity. There are no alternate hierarchies of glamour here. Those who work outside the gallery system are simply losers. Any artist any good will be professional. All it takes is social skills and an MFA from the right school.
Kim is clearly a hero for Kraus because she challenged all that. Drawing art from the basements and files of local musicians (who also “did art”), Kim curated shows of “drawings, collage, and ephemera.” The vibe was low-fi and handmade: snapshots, ready-mades, posters:
At [Tiny Creatures], friendships would reach an ecstatic pitch and then fall apart. Artists would spend entire months producing ‘zines full of interviews and reviews that on the one hand sought to mythologize each other’s work, but at the same time questioned the whole idea of art careers built upon “gateway drugs to success” and “authenticity.” The group was never wholly on-message. Causal drug use would blossom to crippling habits and some of the artists would be arrested. “It just started out as one thing,” Kim recalls, “and then it became something else.”
Among the other collectives described in the book is The Bernadette Corporation, a loose group of downtown New York artists who “adopt[ed] their name as ‘the perfect alibi for not having to fix an identity’ at a moment when branding was the buzzword in fashion.”
The BC Corporate Story, The Bernadette Corporation, 1997
The members of this collective style themselves upscale, creating installations of real fashion photographs minus the product names, for example, or one-time-only installations of an entirely original “epic poem” (“you look at a lot of poems that are published,” explains the poem’s co-author “and it could be a really excellent poem with burning great sentences, but what you really see is, where was it published? And then somebody’s name at the bottom”). As Kraus writes, “Bernadette Corporation were quick to see identity as a fallacious term usurped by capital—and so they sought to undermine it from within.” This is art that supports the theory that all of our personal relationships take place within the capitalist sphere and are beholden to that sphere for their existence. Every work of art, therefore, is a critique of capitalism from within—every piece of criticism too—though it is wise to avoid “programmatic critiques and their implicit, misleading ‘solutions.’” Hence Kraus’ overwhelming concern with cachet: if you don’t have it, you don’t exist. If the poem isn’t published by a famous poet in a major magazine, then who cares?
All art is now conceptual, defined by its stance in relation to other art and its place in the market. It would be more fruitful and interesting at this point to ask how an image transcends other images, or even more to the point: How can the market be used to do what art used to do?
What art used to do is not explained. Its historical role in promoting the ideologies of its owners or of advertising their prestige is not what Kraus is concerned with, at least not in these essays.