Family Circus

Los Angeles
03.12.09

Left: Artists Andrea Bowers and Catherine Opie. Right: The convention-center entrance. (All photos: Lauren O'Neill-Butler)


NEARLY TWELVE THOUSAND PEOPLE were naturalized a fortnight ago at the Los Angeles Convention Center; meanwhile, four thousand were sequestered nearby in the dimly lit lecture rooms, present for the College Art Association’s annual conference. It was easy to get lost in the shuffle: Descending the escalators, I spotted ecstatic new citizens holding tiny American flags and frazzled art historians in casual-smart garb prowling the floors and pushing their way out into the upper-seventies heat, where vendors hawked picture frames, certificate holders, and street meat. The latter group wore name tags around their necks (some with official ribbons), and chest gawking was a popular activity.

Most conference-goers seemed to be lodging at downtown hotels, many at Fredric Jameson’s favorite, the Bonaventure. A good number seemed also to be there without cars and dined at nearby chain restaurants like a throng of Rotarians (the ESPN sports club seemed a common spot), while buses shuttled them to and from destinations. Over two hundred sessions were offered, from the obligatory panel on Felix Gonzalez-Torres to “My So-Called Second Life.” There were also tours, film screenings, and receptions at night, if one didn’t get her fill during the eight-hour days at the convention center, while satellite talks at USC, MoCA, and the MAK center turned the conference into a citywide event.

I arrived on Wednesday, in time for “The Aesthetics of Counterculture,” a panel organized by Adam Jay Lerner, the new director of the MCA Denver, and the University of Colorado’s Elissa Auther. After Amy E. Azzarito’s illuminating talk on the Libre commune, I stuck around for a paper on West Coast light shows by Simon Fraser University’s Robin Oppenheimer. “If you got ’em, smoke ’em—sorry I can’t provide,” she quipped to start, and I was beginning to think the experience would turn out pleasurable after all. I was quickly proved wrong: Although this panel veered away from art objects as such, it included typical CAA highs and lows, with the lows (abstruse language; too slowly or, worse, too quickly delivered papers) bringing to mind grueling graduate school seminars.

Left: Artists Stanya Kahn and Drew Heitzler. Right: Art historian Irving Sandler.


It makes sense that CAA, like any academic conference, replicates educational structures: Sessions, like classes, are held at intervals: 9:30 to 12:00, 12:30 to 2:00, and 2:30 to 5:00. Those fond of endurance art might stick around all day; after a few hours I was ready to go. Thursday proved to be the most salient, at any rate, not only for the thousands becoming citizens in the West Hall but also for the 450 eager minds packed into what was clearly the blockbuster session: “What is Contemporary Art History?” Following a round of intriguing opening remarks, the panelists, all from California schools––Pamela M. Lee, Richard Meyer, Grant Kester, and Miwon Kwon––mostly preferred to discuss (what else?) teaching, primarily the professionalization of their students, courses, and dissertation topics. It wasn’t long before I wondered what might be transpiring next door at “Attention Must Be Paid,” featuring artists Sharon Lockhart and Lynn Hershman-Leeson, but exiting this session, amid the many people parked in the aisles, proved to be more difficult than the usual touch-and-go act one learns to develop at the conference.

Serving as a response to CAA in general, and perhaps that didactic session in particular, was Our Literal Speed’s version of a paper, which they delivered on Friday. “Timid and opportunistic, our generation of critics and historians have bred an aversion to experiment,” offering instead, they noted, “minor texts” and “minor ideas.” Switching between two speakers, OLS fervently and yet vaguely argued that contemporary art historians continually attempt to achieve the “first-est with the most-est.” This thought resonated nicely with a talk between Andrea Bowers and Catherine Opie on Saturday, during a day of free panels organized by the Feminist Art Project. When asked about her students, Bowers mentioned that she was more interested in a “familial model of health” than metaphorically killing the generation before or creating competition––a novel idea, to be sure.

Fleeing downtown, I finally went to look at some art, but not before stopping at the CAA book fair, where I discovered the latest catalogues and art journals, all at slash-and-burn rates, the sellers looking to get the hell out of Dodge. That night, Circus Gallery opened “Put On,” a group exhibition featuring some of the artists who had participated in the CAA panel “The De-Centered Practice,” including X-TRA’s Shana Lutker, Paper Monument’s Dushko Petrovich, and artists Drew Heitzler and Tyler Coburn. Outside, in the crepuscular light, I didn’t see too many familiar faces from the conference halls. Beers were slurped, cigarettes were smoked, and we thought, as one artist put it, “CAA? What’s that?”

Lauren O’Neill-Butler

Left: Art historians Noah Chasin and Hannah Feldman. Right: A view of the panel “The Aesthetics of Counterculture.”


Left: Thomas Lawson, dean of the school of arts at CalArts, with Afterall editor Stacey Allan. Right: Art historian Darby English.


Left: Art historians Liz Kotz and Katy Siegel. Right: Artist Shana Lutker.


Left: Artist Annie Sprinkle. Right: Critic James Bae and Paper Monument editor Dushko Petrovich.