ARCADES PROJECT will debut this Friday, a one night only event on The Commons that is part of Gallery Night and Spring Writes, but is also something else entirely. Calling itself a curated art marketplace, the venture promises to bring together regional book arts, art books, small presses, editions and multiples in touch with art gallery browsers and buyers in a fun and dynamic way. The group will host gallery installations and exhibitions as well, art works for show and enjoyment but not for sale, in addition to one-time performance art and film screenings. All of the work displayed or on sale is positioned at the intersections between text and image or art and shopping. Two of the co-founders, David Pollock and Danielle Winterton, spoke with Post Editors to explain more about the vision for the project that they have been collaborating on with critic and curator Wylie Schwartz and visual artist Karen Brummund.
Luke Fenchel: How did you come with the name Arcades Project? Readers will want to know: does this have anything to do with Arcade Fire?
Danielle Winterton: No, nothing to do with Arcade Fire. We are drawing from the Parisian idea of the Arcade, an 1800s luxury art marketplace. The name Arcades Project is a reference to Walter Benjamin’s lengthy unfinished work of scholarship about the arcades and his attempt to portray the “true history” of Paris in the 1800s. This was the period of which Balzac wrote: “The great poem of display chants its stanzas of color from the Church of the Madeleine to the Porte Saint-Denis.” The arcades are a center of commerce in luxury items. In fitting them out, art enters the service of the merchant.” In set-up and execution, we have been most interested in “the poem of display.”
Fenchel: I saw that book on your coffee table once and thought it was a prop.
Winterton: I’ve read parts of it, but not all. Since it’s unfinished, it’s like reading notes. You can browse the text in the same way we would want visitors to feel free browsing our art market merchandise.
David Pollock: We’d like visitors to approach Arcades Project in the role of the flâneur, defined by Baudelaire as a creation of the modern city, an individual who roams the urban landscape with the sole intention of observing it and taking it in. Benjamin redefined the flâneur as a disengaged witness who strolled the passages of the 19th century Paris arcades. From Benjamin’s perspective, this figure did not participate in commercial transactions with buyers and sellers, but rather acted as a tourist of the marketplace. Most of us today occupy hybrid roles as consumers and flâneurs; we enter the marketplace primarily as consumers, but at the same time, however, we browse, we take in, and act as aesthetes.
Fenchel: Can you give us some background on Benjamin and explain more about how his work informs your Arcades Project?
Pollock: Walter Benjamin can be considered among the first of the ‘post-Marxists’ or ‘neo-Marxists.’ Basically, he was concerned with issues of commerce and production, the development (and eventual dissipation) of capitalism, and the way it impacted class stratification. Unlike Marx, however, Benjamin had an interest in art, in culture. In classical Marxist theory, the base describes the functions of an economy, relationships between workers and employers, and so on. But the superstructure (and this is what Benjamin was concerned with) includes culture, art, the big abstract ideas that, from a Marxist point of view, are going to be greatly impacted by what happens at the base. Benjamin’s perspective can be understood by taking two factors into account: On the one hand, you have the development of mechanically reproduced art like films, photographs, and to some degree even classical visual arts that are reproduced to look exactly like the originals. He was also interested in Nazi propaganda, particularly in the mode of mass media and the way it could convey an ideology. This intersection between political ideology and mass produced art really interested Benjamin.”
Benjamin re-evaluated Marx’s ideas. This had to be done because Marx was offering a prognosis in his writings, but you have to stop and say, where are we? Is what’s happening consistent with what we thought? In the same way, I think it’s necessary to look at how Benjamin’s readings hold up today. Few would doubt that ideology is being conveyed through media, but we have to wonder if it’s as simple as it was in the mid-20th century. Ideologies such as communist, capitalist, fascist certainly exist to some degree, but they don’t hold the same weight they did 70 years ago. I mean that, you know, in the Western world at least, there is a lot of bleeding among ideologies, so these neat, singular agendas are not really relevant. At the same time, we certainly have ideology. So how do we now dissect mass media as Benjamin would have liked? Or is that not even possible?
Fenchel: So how does this inform your Arcades Project, specifically?
Pollock: We’re choosing to look at the book as a reproduced art object. By placing it in a context with visual arts, such as posters, films, kinetic mobiles, we want to assign it equal value. The increasing irrelevance of the bound book puts it in an interesting position. It’s completely demystified, the object itself. And there is a cult of the book, no doubt, so it’s not going anywhere. As a writer and publisher, I’m interested in what’s going to happen to it, how it will be used, and how we will perceive it or appreciate it. There are a lot of questions to ask regarding the role of the book if we’re to apply some of Benjamin’s ideas about the impact the dominant ideology on mass produced art. When the book becomes art, how is it going to act as a function of ideology?
Fenchel: Why do you think small presses are particularly important?
Winterton: We don’t mean to assert that small presses are more or less important than medium-sized or large presses, only that for small press practitioners, literary journal publishers, and limited edition book artists who love their craft, visibility and distribution are a real obstacle in terms of reaching viewers, readers and buyers with their products. It’s great to be able to market your book on the internet, but physical books are meant to be seen, touched, and browsed. Distributors require a minimum press run to consider your press, which the smaller presses can’t afford, and more visually oriented book artists aren’t interested in, given that they are crafting limited edition titles. Not to mention the fact that in many communities, bookstores themselves are becoming a scarcity.
Fenchel: Why display small presses alongside of art objects?
Winterton: It seemed to me, prior to envisioning the Spring Writes Arcades Project, that there really is no good method to distribute small press and art book titles in a way that is meaningful and aesthetically exciting to readers. The attempts I’ve seen to showcase small press titles generally take a book fair catalog approach. They want to showcase everything that’s out there and the result is a hodgepodge of different interests with no real consistency, which can be overwhelming to visitors. Each vendor and represented press at Arcades passed through an application process and was chosen by us because of attention to craft and quality of product. Showcasing small press titles as art works and showing them at an art exhibition allows enhanced visitor interaction with them. You might think of this as something like an “Open Studio” event for independent book artists and small presses. Our hope is that this experiential interaction will lead to strengthened connections between the region’s small presses, writers, readers, and buyers, and hopefully, a stronger regional independent and art book press market wherein twice a year vendors will be able to reach audiences with new work and new projects.
Fenchel: How have the four of you worked together during the process of developing Arcades Project?
Winterton: One thing we all agreed on was that we wanted the event to include Ithaca, but also extend beyond Ithaca in drawing from talent and exhibited work. As such, this is more of a regional event than an Ithaca event: we have artists, editors, and small press publishers coming from Rochester, Buffalo, Binghamton, Trumansburg, and more. Each of the co-founders and curators bring a different set of interests and area of expertise to the project. Karen is a visual artist, Wylie is a curator and critic, David and I are writers and small press publishers with a strong interest in visual arts, and as such, we want to bring small press titles, if not into the realm of visual arts, then at least alongside it for an enhanced browsing, connection, and hopefully buying experience. However, the entire process has been democratic: we all worked together to choose the vendors, presses, artists, and exhibitions that will be present at the inaugural event.
Fenchel: Any last thoughts?
Pollock: One of the things our Arcades Project is doing, which, I think, is something that Benjamin saw in the original Parisian arcades, is that it is acting without a ‘manifesto’ or definite goal. The structure of our event isn’t designed to react or to progress. Instead, it’s a series of functions (commerce, performance, etc) that the visitor can experience, and she hopefully will find it thought provoking, but there is no idea or ideological message to be taken from the experience as a whole.