Sunday, July 27, 2008

A Report from the Phantom Zone: Watching the Alphas

I watched a documentary on monkeys the other day.

During the course of the documentary, scientists taped a group of monkeys interacting and noted the hierarchy that developed in their society. The scientists then classified each monkey according to their rank in the social hierarchy. So there were the alpha monkeys who were in charge, more submissive beta monkeys, monkeys that were ostracized, etc. The scientists would then separate an individual monkey and show them videos of the other monkeys.

A most fascinating behavior emerged:
Given the choice of eating their favorite foods or watching the alpha monkeys just going about their ordinary lives, the beta monkeys would always choose to sit and just watch the alpha monkeys. The scientists determined that it was not that the monkeys were analyzing the alphas in order to emulate them or to some how find a weakness to overthrow them and eventually become an alpha because the act of watching the alphas did not seem to alter the monkey’s behavior once they were returned to society.

The monkeys were just compelled to stare blankly at those who held a higher rank in society.

This behavior makes sense because if every member in a society was dedicated to trying to become an alpha, then there would be constant fighting and the society would loose the survival benefits of living in a group. Each member of a monkey society must understand their place and accept it without significant conflict while acknowledging the ones who hold highest rank in the society. So, staring makes it easy to determine who has the highest rank without conflict. The alphas are by definition; the ones that the most amount of members feel compelled to stare at.

This phenomenon of watching the alpha monkeys has given me a new perspective on a great deal of human behavior. Ever wonder why people seem so interested in just watching Lindsay Lohan or Paris Hilton go about her daily life? Maybe humans also have a compulsion to just stare at the alphas of our society in the same way as monkeys. No one looks at the magazines or “news” coverage of the alphas of our society in order to logically analyze how the alphas achieved their rank and then follow suit. No one wants to read about how J Lo became famous so that they can study how she did it, copy her path and eventually become an alpha as well; people just want to stare at a picture of her shopping. Usually the stare is filled with the volatile mixture of admiration and jealousy that the English language does not have a word for, but it should.

This last week I saw a lot of the alpha stare mixed with admiration and jealousy because my wife and I drove to the Hamptons to see the Scope Hamptons art fair.

There it is.
Just mentioning the word “Hamptons” evokes the subtle and sublime combination of admiration and jealousy in most Americans (including in those who frequent the Hamptons.)

A summer retreat for the most privileged of the New York elite, the Hamptons represents the place where the alphas get together to determine who is the most alpha of them all. The thing that a lot of artists don’t seem to understand is that you don’t have to be an alpha to go to the Hamptons. The Hamptons are not a gated community, so anyone can just go there! For $27, there is a bus that directly connects the Hamptons to New York City. The Scope Art fair is $15. So for about $45 and one days worth of time, anyone can have access to the exact same art that the alphas have access to. Don’t get me wrong, not everyone can afford to lose $45 and one day to see art, but my point is that you don’t need millions of dollars either.

The next thing that people don’t seem to understand is that the people working at the art fairs are the some of the nicest people in the art world. True, they are there to sell work, but at the end of the day, they are all involved in the arts because they love art and talking to people. Everyone I met at Scope Hamptons was friendly and eager to talk about the artists they had brought to the fair. The people from Eli Klein Fine Art spent a half an hour talking to me about their artist when they knew full well I wasn’t going to buy anything. They just love their artists’ work! What artist doesn’t want to go talk to a major gallery owner who just loves art? Same thing at Rhys Gallery and a dozen more galleries from all around the world that I visited.

Regardless if you are an alpha, are intimidated by alphas, hate alphas, or have that weird admiration/jealous for the alphas of our society, Scope Hamptons is a great place to visit and the fair is great, laid back venue that I recommend you visit next year.

Stare at the Lohan while she does nothing

Another alpha monkey for you to look at
(note resemblance)

The Hamptons

Inside a Hamptons "McMansion"
Buy it for $20 million
Rent it for $1 million for the summer season

Or just take this bus to the Hamptons:

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Phantom Zone: Failing @ Skowhegan

I love eavesdropping at the gym.

There must be something about the testosterone or the endorphins at the gym that acts like truth serum. Suddenly, when pushed to a point of exhaustion, people give-up on social restraint and start saying what they really feel.

Interrogators don’t need to torture anyone; they just need to put people on the treadmill for an hour. I once heard the most macho guy at the gym blurt out that he really liked Miley Cyrus’s latest album while he was blatantly staring at his partner’s ass (all of this was while they were spotting each other during squats.)

I was at the gym the other day and there was this guy doing bicep curls with the rubber-coated weights that people usually use during aerobics classes. There’s nothing wrong with this, but it looked really easy for him. The gym’s trainer walked up and asked him why he was using such a low weight.

Then, the strangest thing happened; he answered with the truth:

“Yeah, I know I should be using more, but I really don’t like it when I set a goal for my self and can’t make it. So I use these weights because I know I will succeed and then when I leave the gym I feel really good about myself.”

“Well, if you’re not working the muscle to failure, then you’re not really doing anything. There’s really no point in coming to the gym at all …” the trainer replied.

“Ooooo, I really hate that word, ‘Failure’. I can’t stand failure. I don’t even like the word. So please, leave me alone. I’m not using the equipment in a way that will hurt me or anyone else, so please keep your advice to yourself. If you want to fail everyday, that’s fine, but I couldn’t live with myself. I’m a winner.”

What struck me as interesting about this is that I have heard so many artists say the same thing in one way or another, but they say it in their studio rather than the gym.

How many artists do you know who have been doing the same thing for years and won’t risk doing anything that might fail?

I think we should begin treating the studio like a gym.
If your not going to the studio to work yourself to a point of failure, then why are you there?

Risk is good.
Failure is good.

This weekend I visited the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, one of the world’s most prestigious artists residency programs. If your don’t know about Skowhegan, there is a lot of information on their website. One thing I did not know about the program is that it is a place that is both for artists and run by artists (much like Big Red and Shiny). My friends Steve Locke and Avantika Bawa were there as an administrator and a participant respectively and they both said that one of the best things about Skowhegan is that it is a place where people are encouraged to take risks and try something that may fail. Skowhegan is an artist residency that, unlike many other residencies, does not have an expectation for anyone there to produce work, none-the-less pressure to produce “good” work.

No wonder Skowhegan is such a sought after artist residency; it is a place where failure is allowed and in one sense, it is even encouraged.

Why aren’t there more places like Skowhegan?
Obviously, art school is not a place where a positive notion of failure is encouraged because at the end of the semester, everyone is evaluated in one form or another.

Failure at art school is rewarded with exactly that: Failure with a capital “F” written on a transcript.

I know for a fact that Big Red was started with the same sensibility as Skowhegan: A place for artists, by artists, where failure is encouraged.

If you have a chance to visit or attend Skowhegan, I encourage you to do so. It is filled with smart people and it will change your art practice. And if you’ve ever wanted to try writing for Big Red, but were afraid that you’d fail: Just write/do something and send it to the editors.

Failure is ok, that means your doing it right.
Just trust me.

Watch a video of our trip

Skowhegan Participants working in fresco in the Fresco Barn (photo by Katja Mater '06)

Steve Locke

"ask me again"
2005, oil on canvas, 60 inches square.
Private collection.

Avantika Bawa installation @ the Contemporary in Atlanta

Miley Cyrus

Some guys at the gym failing