Author Archive for: jgates

Sweet Sixteen

12 Jun 2009
June 12, 2009
The Wedding Couple

The Happy Couple on Our Wedding Day

Sixteen years.

After sixteen years of marriage certain things fit perfectly. Two artists, we started with an artists’ wedding and each year we’re reminded of this beginning. It’s a day to remember our coupling but also who each of us is. We both want to get back to making art.

We’ve been going to the same restaurant for the past seven years to celebrate. Because of the restaurant’s database, they always remember which anniversary we’re celebrating and our menus are printed with a celebratory “Happy [Fill in the year] Anniversary.” They always take us to the same area of the dining room where there are three tables-for-two set in a triangle. Some years we dine alone. With young children it’s wonderful to be adults and not just parents. And we marvel how facile we are when slip into adult conversation. And there’s always wine. I make a play for the sommelier, describing at length the flavor and finish we’re looking for. It is my finest hour as a wine connoisseur. Well, I know what we like—we’re a very compatible wine couple.

If there are others at the other tables we may converse with them, sharing our celebratory events. If not, we’re happy to be alone.

This year, the couple on our left was already seated when we arrived. We could tell she was celebrating her birthday. But it was obvious they only had eyes for each other. The table on our right was still unoccupied. There was a chance we’d meet someone interesting.

Finally two gentlemen were seated. My wife and I continued talking with each other. When our entrees arrived one of the men looked over and commented on our food. A good conversational opener. I’ve used it myself over the years. We were happy to engage.

They were in town for the weekend, up from southern Virginia. Hampton Roads if memory serves me. He was a lapsed Catholic priest now in local government and the other he was retired. They loved DC. Easy to get to, they’d spent the day traversing the Smithsonian on the Mall. I, of course, felt it my duty to wax poetic on the American Art Museum. Not on the Mall, often people will miss the splendor and history of the Old Patent Office Building where the museum is housed. I know my lines (it’s my job). It was easy to make a visit there enticing. They were leaving the next day but would make sure they went before taking off.

I asked Mr. Lapsed Priest how he felt about Father Alberto Cutie, who had just left the Church after breaking his celibacy. “When I left the Church we wanted to get far away.” “Far away from his former parishioners,” his partner added. So we moved from Michigan to southern Virginia. And then he chuckled (not a laugh, it was definitely a chuckle).

“The first weekend in our new home we went to church. As we were leaving someone tapped him on the back and said ‘Aren’t you Father Smith?'”

You can never get away from your past. That evening, that was just fine with us.

Handling Hotel Bathroom Origami

03 May 2009
May 3, 2009

I have just returned from the GEL Conference in New York—a fantastic opportunity to listen, meet, and interact with many wonderful and fascinating minds. Remind me to tell you about the game Werewolf: a parlor game on the surface, but one filled with intrigue and issues of trust and paranoia. But I digress.

The purpose of today’s post is to introduce you to a new series of photographs I’ve been taking over the last few years. Of course, you know that I’ve recently gotten back to my love of photography. So, today I’d like to publicly present my ongoing series: Hotel Bathroom Origami.

Why would any one want someone else to touch the toilet and tissue paper and the towels in our hotel bathroom? A rhetorical question as it seems to be more and more the norm as I travel around the world. Every time I arrive at my hotel destination, my first stop is usually the bathroom for a pit stop. But with the Swine Flu consuming us (or at least our germaphobe tendencies), who wants anyone handling anything we touch to our noses and unmentionables? To say nothing of wasting paper just for the sake of presentation. Really!

Werewolf has nothing on the scary paranoiac (yet oddly beautiful) Hotel Bathroom Origami.

On Creating a New Stock Photo

25 Apr 2009
April 25, 2009
New York Stock Exchange

Commentary at the New York Stock Exchange

On a trip last week to New York for a series of meetings I suddenly discovered the New York Stock Exchange was located directly on the path between my hotel and meeting site. This “discovery” was hard to miss with a huge American flag draped across the front of the building and tourists holding up their cameras for a similar photo op (even at this early morning hour).

My time in Washington has trained me to look for initial signs of heightened security camouflaged as benign architectural flourishes. Bronze-colored “stones” subtly blocked would-be terrorists’ attempts to ram the front of the building. From there my senses noticed more overt measures: guard dogs sniffing along the front of the façade, stockbrokers showing their IDs to uniformed security, and the older gentleman, nicely dressed, loudly maligning the virtues of the new Obama Administration.

While tourist-photographers tended to document the huge flag, I, always looking to make a statement, went for the more ironic version of this snapshot. (The next day there was a new pic to take. Reports that advertising budgets are drying up must surely be premature.)

Confessions of a Long Tail Visionary

26 Mar 2009
March 26, 2009
Long Tail

Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail: Products that are in low demand or have low sales volume can collectively make up a market share that rivals or exceeds the relatively few current bestsellers and blockbusters.

Chris Anderson, editor of Wired magazine, popularized the term The Long Tail to describe a strategy for businesses that sell large numbers of items, each at a relatively low volume. Despite fewer sales per item, according to Anderson, such businesses can make big profits if they reach many, many niche buyers.

In the last few years, the Smithsonian American Art Museum has been looking at our museum’s online information in the same way. Our Web statistics showed that the number of visitors to our top ten sections paled when compared with the total number of visitors for all other pages, even though only a few people viewed each page. The challenge: how could we make it easier for our online visitors to find things of interest even if that information is buried deep in our site?

Anderson recently spoke at the Smithsonian 2.0 conference. Organized by the Smithsonian’s new Secretary, G. Wayne Clough, the seminar brought digerati from across the country to discuss how the Institution could make its collections, educational resources, and staff more “accessible, engaging and useful” to our visitors with the help of technology. A few weeks ago, American Art’s director, Elizabeth Broun, continued the discussion by holding an unprecedented all-day staff retreat to discuss the use of social media within the museum.

• • •

Museums are changing. Like many other organizations, our hierarchical structure has historically disseminated information from our experts to our visitors. The envisioned twenty-first-century model, however, is more level. Instead of a one-way presentation, our online visitors are often interested in having a conversation with our curators and content providers. In response, many of us at American Art have been looking for ways to engage our public by designing applications that promote dialogue. By encouraging user-generated content and by distributing our assets beyond our own Web site and out across the Internet, we hope to make our content easier to find. In doing so, we are trying to fulfill our long tail strategy. In order to succeed we will need to approach our jobs differently.

While the traditional visionary makes connections between the big pictures, long tail visionaries look for connections between the small pictures. I am hedging my bets at the grassroots level. And at this level I, along with my coworkers, play a number of roles.

Read more →

On Forming a More Perfect Union: Art and Discourse Chat

22 Feb 2009
February 22, 2009
Trees with Mormon Temple

Trees with Mormon Temple, 2009, ©Jeff Gates. Click on image for larger view. Yesterday, as I was driving the DC Beltway I suddenly saw the spires of the Mormon Temple above the leafless branches of Rock Creek Park. With no other man-made structures around, these steeples have always reminded me of the Morlocks’ towers rising above the growth of 802,701 A.D. in George Pal’s 1960 adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine.

I’d always wanted to make a photo that evoked this feeling. And this clear winter day was a perfect time to do so. Bringing the image back to my computer I wanted to enhance the primeval feeling of the woods with the distant man-made construction. I created a slight vignette around the center of the image and reduced the color in the woods, reminiscent of 19th century photographs. I left a bit of color in the center branches at the foot of the tree to draw your eye in.

My latest hobby is photography, which is pretty ironic since I used to teach the subject and considered myself a fine art photographer a few years back. Using that word to describe my interest isn’t really too much of a stretch. Merriam-Webster defines it as “a pursuit outside one’s regular occupation engaged in especially for relaxation” and Word Net says it means “a spare time activity.” The word amateur has come to mean “less than professional.” But its original meaning was “lover of.” All aptly describe photography’s place in my life these days.

With a full-time job and a fuller-time family, it’s hard to fit in much more except for the occasional couch potato TV and Netflix sessions. Yet, the enjoyment I get from not only taking the photographs, but the post-visualization of the final image (that is, the after-the-fact manipulation of the photo to elicit just the right feeling) is worth my less-than-ample free time. And, more over, getting it out there –posting it on the Net and connecting with viewers– actually gets back to my original interest in photography. I love both making images and talking about them. I really enjoy the interaction.

When I was a teenager I had pen pals all over the world. From Japan to Czechoslovakia I looked forward to hearing about other people’s lives. In 1992 I had a one person exhibition of my work at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Every day I’d go over to the museum and listen to people comment to their friends as they looked at my photographs. And every once in a while I’d reveal myself, engaging them as they talked. I was never the stereotypical artiste, sequestered in his studio, unable and uninterested in engaging the public. Back when I was teaching art and photography many students would often take on this stereotype as their own: “my art should speak for itself: if you don’t get it it’s not my job to clue you in.” This always shocked me for I always felt just the opposite. I wanted to share and talk about what I was doing. And the best part was when a viewer would interpret my work in a way I’d never thought of.

In 1988 I founded ArtFBI (Artists for a Better Image) to study stereotypes of artists in contemporary culture. I wanted to see how this old artist paradigm would mesh within the burgeoning post-modern one. Sherrie Levine shocked the art world in 1979 with her series After Walker Evans, a direct reproduction of photographer Walker Evan’s work with her name as the artist. It was no longer just about the sanctity of the art object. It was about the discourse generated by the process of making art and its function in society. Flickr and other social media platforms like Twitter are updated versions of my younger interests. (And, in searching out online examples of Levine’s work to show you I came upon this Flickr photograph of Kristina Gibbs’ reproduction of Sherri Levine’s reproduction of Walker Evan‘s photograph.)

I’ve been happily involved in this process for most of my life. In 1996 I wrote about New Roles for Artists in the Information Age. Back then I was a teacher. But now my day job at the Smithsonian American Art Museum has evolved to fit my interests perfectly. A good part of my work –actually it’s written into my performance plan– is to search the Net for interesting ways to place our artworks into new contexts and connect with new audiences.

While many of us at the Smithsonian have been working behind-the-social-media scenes for quite a while, suddenly it’s exploded into a flurry of activity. A few weeks back we invited a number of Net digerati to take part in Smithsonian 2.0, a discussion about moving all the Smithsonian’s interesting “stuff” out of our nation’s attic and onto as many networks as we can. This week the American Art Museum is devoting an entire day with all its staff to discuss this. Our aim: to get it out “there” for pleasure, discussion, and for you to use as you see fit. This is no small task for a museum complex born and, in many ways, still in the 19th century.

So, it’s not surprising that I’m using what little free time I have to continue doing what I’ve been doing for years: constructing images about our lives and introducing myself to you to engage in some chat.

Maybe this is more than just a hobby.

A Presidential Portrait in Cupcakes

14 Feb 2009
February 14, 2009
Obama Lincoln Portrait

Portrait of Barack Obama and Abraham Lincoln in Cupcakes Click image for larger view.

Fridays are supposed to be light days with anticipation of the upcoming weekend filling workers heads worldwide. Yesterday, was anything but as our anticipation was redirected to the cupcake portraits being constructed at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, my home-away-from-home every weekday. Zilly Rosen and her group had prepared 5900 vanilla cupcakes and were carefully placing them in just the right places to reveal a duo portrait of Barack Obama and Abraham Lincoln –a combo St. Valentine’s Day and Presidents Day homage (that’s the word we use in art museums for this kind of thing).

The process was being broadcast live over the Net with thousands remotely watching. (As the portrait nears completion today you can still view it live.) I got the chance to see it first hand as the faces slowly were revealed. When you looked at the work directly it was hard to see Obama’s and Lincoln’s faces. However, looking through my camera viewfinder, the smaller image reduced the size of the “pixel/cupcakes” and the images became crystal clear.

The family’s heading out later today to see the final portrait and, at about 5 pm EST, we’ll all get to sample a bit of Presidential history. Ummm, cupcakes. My ten year old can’t wait.

Update: I have uploaded my best photographs of the installation and “de-installation” (i.e. eating) of this Presidential portrait to my flickr photostream.

© 2001-2015 Jeff Gates ISSN 1544-4074