I am sitting at a computer, conducting search after search using the terms, “___ percent of people.” We started at “1 percent” yesterday morning, and today, at around 3:00 PM, we’ve made it to 75. There are six of us, including the artists Jennifer Dalton, Lauren Was and Adam Eckstrom. We search, type, print, compile, and then, write the found text on the gallery wall. The work is grueling and repetitive, so we trade roles frequently, except Dalton, who is “really in the flow” of the research and able to sit for hours, focused on the daunting task at hand.
The original plan was for a single statistic to represent each percent, but the artists talked the evening prior to installation and decided to include as many different “facts” as it took to fill each 16.5 foot line. This required, quite literally, ten times the amount of work than was originally planned. We stare at our screens, wading through news (real and fake), facts, opinions, misattributed quotes, clickbait, and memes, uncertain of the degree to which our results are affected by SEO, Adwords, and targeted content based on our browser history.
The resulting wall drawing, “Statistics of HOPE,” is the last of the labor-intensive works to come together for the exhibition of the same name. The handwritten statistics sprawl across 16 feet of the back left walls of the main gallery. One hundred rows of fine white script, flecked with orange percentages, form four foot high block letters that spell out “HOPE.” HOPE hovers in the background, a spectral introduction to the one-two punch impact of this ambitious project, on view now through May 13, 2018 at 601Artspace.
Two years of discussions, research, and fabrication went into the show, a collaboration between Ghost of a Dream (Was and Eckstrom) and Dalton. Statistics of Hope echoes concerns both Ghost of a Dream and Dalton investigate in their own practices. Ghost of a Dream has been mining the concept of the American Dream since the collaborative’s inception in 2008. The material detritus of our collective attempts to get lucky form the backbone of their practice. Lottery tickets, playing cards, Hollywood tropes, and art fair detritus are the raw material for intricate works in video, sculpture, painting and installation that dazzle with a seductive beauty that almost distracts from their genesis in cultural machinery meant to sow and capitalize on seeds of false hope. In Jennifer Dalton’s drawings, sculptures and installations, she collects, organizes and evaluates cultural information according to her own personal criteria. The breadth and depth of research in this collaborative exhibition, as well as the use of surveys, data gathering, and input/participation from the public, reflects the central role of information-gathering, factual and otherwise, in Dalton’s practice.
The fruits of their collaboration, Statistics of Hope, is a timely and generative exploration of this fraught moment in American politics, culture, and society. All of the work is research-based and participatory, engaging the viewer on intellectual, social, and visual levels, while asking them to examine their own experience and point of view. This is not a show about hot-button issues like firearms, reproductive rights and immigration, although these topics do make appearances. It’s more like a multivalent thermometer, asking viewers to pause, check in with themselves, and take their own temperature with regard to more universal concerns like death, love, money, happiness and fulfillment.
The backdrop against which this temperature-taking occurs is by no means neutral. There is a carnival atmosphere afoot. The main exhibition space is carpeted with remnants sourced from the soon-to-be demolished Trump Plaza hotel and casino in Atlantic City. Wild patterns converge at a point beneath the casino-style game table that forms the centerpiece of the show, drawing viewers into the action, while evoking the manipulative strategies employed in commercial design and marketing. At the opening, children and their parents flocked to the gaming table to try their hand at the colorful games of chance, alongside more usual suspects–black-clad “collector types”–seduced into forgetting about art world pretense and playing along for a moment.
The word “play” is important here. “To play” is the childish surrender to the pleasures of recreation, of course, but more knowing types might “play along” and even “play the game” to get ahead. Then there is “play-acting,” which I can’t help but relate back to our casino-building, bankrupting, commander-in chief, who has built a career in industry and now in politics, based on his extraordinary ability to “play-to” the public. Of course, Trump is only the most recent example of a growing trend in America to elect actors and entertainment personalities to serve in political offices. Reagan, Schwarzenegger, Jesse “The Body” Ventura and–fingers crossed, we can all look forward to “Oprah 2020.” The sharp irony of this verbal and conceptual slippage echoes throughout the exhibition. Are we having fun, enjoying American “past-times,” or are we simply “passing the time,” as the omnipresent clocks that line the wall leading into the gaming area tick away the moments ‘til doomsday?
These clocks, which lead into the main gallery, are readymades that have been playfully modified by the artists to represent a statistic instead of the hours of the day. The hands tick along, emphasizing the flow of time despite the omission of the standard used to track it. It’s a funny play on the convention of financial institutions displaying the time in trading centers around the world to draw attention to their position within the vast and powerful network that is global capitalism. Right now it’s 10:15 AM in Beijing, and also, two people’s houses were just foreclosed on. That the one fact can hardly be separated from the other is just one manifestation of the candy-coated anxiety that pervades the exhibition.
In “How Much…?” a cluster of standing lamps, also from Trump Plaza, have been fitted with dimmer switches. Visitors to the show are invited to raise and lower the wattage of each lamp according to how they feel about a question posed on a plaque beneath the bulb. The resulting field of lights, shifting in intensity as viewers interact with it, is a poetic image of the collective consciousness in process of formation–an analogy for the universal, if challenging, process of deciding how we feel. “Will our country get through this?,” asks one plaque. “How much are you doing to help make that happen?,” is the pointed question of its closest neighbor.
My favorite piece in the exhibition is “Livin’ the Dream,” a shuffleboard that wryly substitutes money-making opportunities for artists with the usual point system. Land on “Sell an Art: $5K,” or “Visiting Artist Panel Discussion: $200,” and add it to your monthly income, if you’re lucky. Within the macrocosm of statistics that the artists bring together, this more personal point of focus illuminates the connection between the artist and other undervalued laborers that contribute to the US economy. All of the collaborators hold “day-jobs,” which sustain them financially while they produce art, in this case for a non-commercial art space (ie. there won’t be any direct sales here). Eckstrom, in particular, has long had a side hustle as an Art Handler, which, in addition to providing income, gives him access to the castoffs from blockbuster art fairs that find their way into Ghost of a Dream’s studio. There is a similar tie here–a “sketchy” connection with the work crew that gutted Trump Plaza made it possible for the collaborators to get their hands on the carpeting and lamps that feature in “Statistics of Hope.”
This connection between the Art World and the blue-collar workforce is rarely acknowledged. It’s just not sexy to collectors and institutions who prefer their acquisitions frosty with mystique rather than straight up. But the reality is that a lot of unglamorous labor goes into making art, directly or indirectly (see “side hustle”). By drawing attention to the precarious nature of the life of working artists, Statistics of Hope bravely acknowledges that the art world can also be seen as a venue for the exploitation of the ubiquitous 99%. Which brings us to 3:00 PM on a Saturday, three-quarters of the way done with the wall drawing, and in awe of the fact that we will actually finish by the end of the workday. It could have been done more easily, and a skeptic might question whether it needed to be done at all. But we were all happy to be there working–putting in the time to make something that felt bigger than ourselves.