Weiwei & Chicago | Arteidolia

Tola Brennan Writing

Ai Weiwei

I recently went to see Ai Weiwei’s large exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum and the single word I would use to describe it is underwhelming. I appreciate his stature as an activist, however I found his work rather uncompelling in this show. For anyone at least half aware of contemporary art, Weiwei is a household name. His character is unforgettable with his scraggly beard and continued humor as he resists suppression by Chinese authorities. I remember appreciating the cleverness of a piece from his time in New York, a raincoat with a condom. It poetically spoke to sexuality and protectiveness both in a symbolic and literal way. More recently I knew him for his iconic photo triptych of dropping a Han dynasty vase. And then even closer to now, his imprisonment by Chinese authorities while his excellent sculptural work was on display at the Tate. I was heartened by the global support that undoubtably contributed to his eventual release. My final recollection of Weiwei before seeing this exhibit was his embarrassingly silly music video which inadvertently satirized his imprisonment by being so unbelievably cheesy. This was my context for experiencing his show.

While there were some other pieces (both the raincoat and triptych mentioned were on display), the show strongly emphasized his reactions to the 2008 Szechuan earthquake. Other works echoed this theme of direct political involvement, including a room documenting the possessions of a displaced activist as well as a documentary showing the life of a man living with HIV/AIDS. Perhaps my mood at the time influenced my reactions, but though they may be critical, I find them relevant for this article. In short, I found little difference between this museum show and the contents of my Facebook feed on any given day. The pieces emphasized in this exhibition served basically as journalism trying to function as art. Both his works and the many articles I find on Facebook serve to document and raise awareness of a variety of injustices in the world. His pieces tell me about an earthquake while my Facebook feed tells me about Gaza, the conflict in Ukraine, the rising Islamic State, police brutality. In so many ways, they do the same thing. His content is presented through objects which offer little until the explanatory paragraph is read on the wall. Articles present their content through paragraphs on blogs. It felt incidental that I was experiencing this as art in a museum. It felt almost arbitrary. Both my Facebook and his show offered almost the same thing in different packages.

I don’t meant to sound cynical, but I feel as if Weiwei could have simply directed me to a blog and achieved many of the same things. Obviously, the earthquake is specific and the audience of a museum is assumedly different, but on a more fundamental level I felt so many parallels. Yes, these are important issues, but did it make for a compelling exhibit? I would say no. It seems almost conservative and old-fashioned to voice this sentiment, but I feel as if there’s something valuable about artwork which engages with political issues without simply becoming a mirror and voice for it. I think it’s still possible to do this, but Weiwei crosses a line where I feel like his work is too easily digested, its meaning too quickly discerned, its function too quickly absorbed. In this way, it becomes journalism wearing a different face. This does not mean that I want to trivialize the role of journalism, in fact it is easily one of the most meaningful forces in the world today. However, in this iteration, it seems almost a waste of time. I encounter tragedy, death and destruction everyday as I work through the many atrocities being reported. Weiwei points to a relative blip in an ocean of newsworthy horror.  I recognize that artwork takes time to create, but that the earthquake took place almost six years ago gives it a questionable relevance. While the contemporary art world can be a culture of refined ethical negligence, that Weiwei breaks this is certainly admirable, nonetheless I found his exhibition rather boring. His fame certainly influences this interpretation, but overall I was surprised to find myself feeling that the role he has played over the past years has become redundant to the point of monotony.

 Judy Chicago: Early Works

Due to its permanence, Chicago’s epic work, The Dinner Table, is both the thing that is identified with her career and what makes her commonly known as the feminist artist. It’s a wonderful surprise then to see her earlier work which offers a much greater complexity to her story. While its message is immense, The Dinner Table fails to be particularly aesthetically impressive. Since this work is often all someone will learn of her oeuvre, it’s easy to be dismissive of her as one-dimensional. This is, however, entirely not the case. It’s fascinating to work through this exhibition which in some ways offers a prehistory to The Dinner Table.

First we see some of her early minimalist sculptures. They are beautiful, colorful and playful and reflect her dalliance with and challenge to her predominantly male contemporaries. They could almost be mistaken for a McCracken or a Judd except that they are more dynamic and less self-important. While she preserves the simple geometric shapes and highly polished surfaces of the time, her works are angled and colored in a way that shows her difference and her daring. Simply put, they are more interesting and fun, not in a trivial way, but more a suggesting of whimsy and enjoyment of form often absent from her peers. Imagine Andre making a “fun” piece… Exactly. This direct reference seems to fade and we see a few pieces which show her engaging with material more for beauty alone. On pedestals there are rounded pieces of transparent plastic with cloudy fields of color shining through from the bottom. This creates a dreamlike colorful wash with amazingly intelligent iridescence and poetry. Nearby a series called The Lifesavers, which mimic the shape of the popular candy, albeit enlarged, multicolored and perfectly drawn on large acrylic sheets. Again Chicago shows her immense formal talent meeting an evolved sense of color and cleverness. These works suggest pop art while still retaining a strong palpable sense of purpose and identity. The later room of this show features a number of large acrylic abstract pattern works on acrylic which have the simple, elegant grandeur of a Martin while still firmly resting in the human realm. There are almost color-field works but their uniqueness makes them stand out.

It seems that soon after this phase, Chicago filled out her identity and stopped feeling the need to prove her worth in more conventional ways, turning then to performance art and eventually to the iconic Dinner Table. While seeing her prior steps did not make me enjoy The Dinner Table any more aesthetically, it certainly compelled me to give it much more attention for its merits as a truly exceptional piece of empowerment and untold history. While I didn’t spend so much time with the work itself, I read every single word of the many paragraphs which document femininity, female deities and archetypes as well as significant women from pre-history to the twentieth century. While The Dinner Table and Chicago’s earlier work still seem somewhat disjointed, beginning to understand the story that led to its creation gives her destination as a feminist art icon so much more meaning, and so much more depth. Chicago is not an artist who made one piece, she’s a great sculptor who went through many phases and periods and deserves the recognition she receives, and a whole lot more.

First published in Arteidolia

Tola BrennanWeiwei & Chicago | Arteidolia

Lygia Clark: The Abandonment of Art | Arteidolia

Tola Brennan Writing

Lygia Clark’s ouvre evokes the word subversive. Why? Because her work reminds one why the word is meaningful at all. When it’s more familiar today as a commodified grab for attention, subversive, like so many other modalities, has been absorbed into a blasé sludge of buzzwords. But Clark truly subverts. She both tests the lines of art and psychology (the more obvious legacy of her later interactive works, which is helpfully narrated by the museum’s curators) and, more subtly, she describes a narrative of steps by which to arrive there.

I focus on this second subversion because it demonstrates nearly a century of art history. It is subversive today because in many ways aesthetic objects and the attitudes of viewers have changed little. Lygia truly follows the breadcrumbs farther than most of her contemporaries, and since her work arrives at performance, perhaps one day that really avant-garde thing you really have to check out called a “happening” (it’s sooo cutting edge!) and “have you heard about Alan Kaprow???” can be replaced by Clark’s work as the apparently timeless source of interactive performative work.

This refreshing shift in emphasis is both heartwarming and comically embarrassing to watch. That’s because this show sits in a context in which the formerly ignored innovators of the 20th century are one by one being trotted out by curators thrilled to refocus the lens. Suddenly women artists sit in the spotlight. The somewhat recent Kusama show at the Whitney is a previous iteration of this trend. I’m overjoyed to see it happen, yet I cannot help but be sensitive to the contrivance of it. The Guerrilla Girls were not such a long time ago, and there’s something that smells slightly of collecting political correctness brownie points.

These incidentals aside, how is Clark’s ouvre subversive? It’s all about the steps. She begins by mimicking the contemporary classics of the day — the first work in the show is a knockoff cubist work, immediately after is a Kandinsky/Mondrian knockoff. Influenced by architecture and her mimimalist Neo-Concretist peers, she plays with simple geometry. Until she finds the organic line and the nested frame, she’s working through decades of aesthetic history.

Then there’s the break. After reaching the tropes of sixties contemporary art, the cut lines become folding spaces and she begins the series of Bichos, at once firmly moving into sculpture, creating a flexibility antithetical to prevalent flat and static geometry, and finally, by inviting the participant to meet the work. The demand for reverence (care of one Mr. Greenberg) becomes prop and toy. Clark writes, “When asked about how many moves a Bicho can make, I reply, ‘I don’t know, you don’t know, but it knows.’”

This hint of animism in her description perhaps foreshadows her next leap, which is to lose the hard edges of the Bicho in favor of the sinuous and lyrical curves of the Trepante series, which are frequently draped on trees and people (in the exhibit they are presented clinging to natural wood). At this point the aesthetic object as occupying a discrete space ends and the viewer stops being a passive afterthought (here she truly diverges from contemporary tradition). The sensorial with the poetic begins in earnest with Caminhando, a meditation on life and its decisions as voiced though a directed physical act. As Clark says, “This notion of choice is decisive — within it lies the experiment’s only meaning.”

As the art is left behind so too does the poetic become unneccessary as it is replaced by the laser beam focus of decades of precise minimalist artworks. The specificity provides meaning, and the majority of attention can then rest purely in sensuous relationships. Household objects, strange costumes and contraptions, group involvement — in all these moments of her later work, the stiffness of the art context is replaced by joyous group participation.

This narrative is subversive because it subverts literally; as water can be redirected, so she pulls into her world. She shows the journey from a static modernist visual language all the way to what basically amounts to ritual devoid of a cultural context to cushion it. Today it would be ahead of its time. Today we watch a video of her rubberband net being used and we see video art – an object atarms length. Today it is still performance, and it’s done by professionals with graduate degrees who vie for most humorless bored — seeming person ever in front of an audience. Lygia’s work is subversive today because, excuse my presumption, basically no one sees this exhibit and makes a rubber band net, then takes ittoo some secret grassy field and actually experiences the Lygia Clark exhibition. She asks us to sincerely engage with our senses in simple and profound ways, but we don’t hear her. We are busy looking at art.

First published in Arteidolia

Tola BrennanLygia Clark: The Abandonment of Art | Arteidolia


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The Meaning

I’ve finally arrived at the amount of crazy where I can talk to no one like it’s no big deal. I’ve been talking to my phone a lot, and it records my voice so that I’m speaking to no one is justified somewhat by the fact that I’m making an audio journal. The training wheels are off and now I talk to empty space like whatever. I talked about stuff in my life for a while to my room a few days ago and yesterday I went to this little hidden beach in between the fancy hotel and where the bridge starts and talked to the bay and the wind and the seaweed and the rocks that they definitely put there. I said some stuff about me, about how I’m doing, and I tried to make it mean something. I said some nice stuff, totally, but the way I said it was just sort of flat, like I was reciting something. For me it’s proof again that the literal meaning of words is modulated heavily by the intonation and that is created by something more basic and essential. I hesitate to say feeling because…

The Bluff

I’ve had a narrow standard for deception. I have almost never lied. I thought I was doing well in that regard. Dishonesty, I realize now, has little to do with whether one refuses to or avoids telling an outright untruth. Lying literally can easily be the honest way to go, honest in service of what is really best. It just doesn’t do to have brittle castles for rightness. People don’t know what I am. People don’t know who I am. I don’t know what I am. Not knowing is something that people will use against you over and over. People generally know and if you don’t then you’re either stupid or need helping. Never mind all those inspirational quotes from renowned people from all over history who say to keep an open mind. Taking that seriously is for chumps. I can’t help that I wonder about things, and see ambiguities, holes in finalities, grey areas. What I can help though is the part of myself that feels the need to show that. Today, what is called for is the bluff. I will pretend I know because doing so is more honest to what is best for me than dwelling on the veracity of details. The unsubstantiated, the sketch. Paintings in the realist tradition start this way. Therefore folks in the realistic tradition should avail themselves to the same liberties. The spectrum must be filled then by all those feelings that give credibility to the bluff. Can they be bluffed?

The Theatrics

It’s definitely so that I’m a little scared of the theater. Imaginary feelings, up close and lived by people, the actors. I want this world where feelings are allowed without being saddled up like horses and paraded, made to carry things. The authenticity is under the magnifying glass. When I was living in Chicago, a man approached me saying he was stranded downtown and he needed money for gas, just a gallon of gas. I took him for his word, and as we walked down the street I turned out that he could really use three gallons of gas and something to but it in and that at least ten dollars would do the trick and of course, let me have your phone number and yes I’ll make sure I pay you back. Real feelings, false words. Evil, or just doing what needs to be done? My naive self back then was hurt to be used, used because I wanted to people in a world where people wouldn’t lie, manipulate the well meaning for what ended up being $18. Now, if this happened, I might still give this man the same money; for the talent, for the show.

The Real

Shameless pretending, talking to rooms without people, justifying actions. Realness, a perspective. The realness, the fakeness. The naive in me wants to say that it’s like taking an elevator and you can see the one, the other, overlapping. Be convinced and it all comes crashing down, those facades of nothing. Whatever rises up, from underneath. Is there really a need for more?

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The Armory Show Wrap-Up | Resolve40

Tola Brennan Writing

Stepping into the Armory Show, one is greeted by the fixtures of the vacuous contemporary art void. Far past its prime, myriad referents and quotations litter the uniform exhibition space. The perks of practice mean that the objects have grown sharper and more delicate in their grasp of refined meaninglessness. Interestingly, the ancient giants of mid-century innovation are sparse- only three modest Chamberlains, an easily missed Andre, a surprisingly unsuccessful Agnes Martin and, of course, the supreme visibility of Warhol whose wallpaper experiments are yet again worshipped. The theme of current historical idolatry has found new roots in yet another reenvisioning of Monsieur Marcel Duchamp, suggesting that later decades have been thoroughly looted for ideas. Of course, this does not mean there were not knockoffs both sly and blunt.

Here are a few of the most obvious.

This Piece by Vibha Galhotra:
Vibha Galhotra

I know that you may be slightly skeptical on this one. I mean, what makes it unacceptable to hang a thing from the ceiling?

This piece by Felix Gonzáles-Torres:

It’s a knockoff! It’s a knockoff!

This Piece by José Davila:
Jose Davila

And this classic work by Donald Judd:
Donald Judd

Nothing underhanded here! It’s a classic “inspired by” situation. Perhaps the artist means to suggest that the clean modernist minimalism embodied by Judd’s classic work has been taken as a commercial product and therefore should be represented as it would be by Warhol with labels abounding and then finally it must fully conform to the expectations of found object art by being made of cardboard? What profundity you suggest fine artist…

This Piece by Mathieu Mercier:
Mathieu Mercier

And all of Mondrian:
all of Mondrian
Thief! Primaries are off limits!

And now, for something completely different…

So, despite the anticipated cheap shots and clever creative dead-ends, there were some pieces which struck my fancy. Jane Hammond at Senda had this beautiful map of Madagascar:

Jane Hammond

Somewhat ironically, a Damian Hirst piece used real butterflies to make a formal composition, while this opted for a tasteful reconstruction. It’s beautiful, colorful, mysterious and it makes me wish all maps were colored in butterflies (or whatever the local flora/fauna might be) and painted with such glittery delicacy.

The incredible Rhona Hoffman continues to prove that an eye for quality has little to do with age, as she highlights some fascinating work by Susan Hefuna (which I was too busy oogling at to photograph) and this piece I couldn’t not include by Jacob Hashimoto since it’s masterfully constructed, fully of visual dynamics, complex pattern work and I’m pretty sure it’s saying “hi” intentionally:

Jacob Hashimoto

While there wasn’t anything particularly interesting about it, I still respond to well developed material explorations like this one by Leslie Wayne:

Leslie Wayne

Obviously anything with a crinkly, plastic looking texture and beige pastel coloration is going to make me think of Eva Hesse just a little bit and that this person gets to present a thing like this in the first place owes an awful lot to Richard Tuttle who really established that you can put evidently random shit on walls and have it be great art. Love that guy (sometimes).

And despite it’s Stella-derivative status, I kind of liked these flat ones by Mary Ramsden:

Mary Ramsden

Or did I mean to say they look like Mary Heilmann? Regardless there’s some major pastiche business going on here, but okay. Not getting mad. It has a nice little geometric and angular to flowy and natural rhythm going on with the one on the far right really holding down those lines and the pink lady on port-side giving off a nifty puddle vibe.

And while we’re enjoying flat color painting that acts like graphic design was invented yesterday, let’s not forget the equally enjoyable Albers-knockoff:


Like what if you opened up Josef Albers in photoshop and then scaled those shapes!!! Wow, yeah. Totes putting this goody in the art fair!

And now, for the real positive.

One of my favorite works has to be this magical blending of realities and scale by Ryan Foster at the Richard Heller gallery from Santa Monica:

Ryan Foster

Lacking conceptual content and functioning simply as a pretty painting, the inclusion of pieces like this gives me hope that there is a place for nice-looking colorful things that exist first as visual exubance and inventiveness, and secondly as vehicles of abstract suggestion. I think they call this magical realism and I love it. Can we just get a nice painting where some pretty tablecloth covers the sky aurora-style and meanwhile the world is going from convex to concave like things are getting seriously warped. Wow! Diamonds and flowers? Did you know that I really like those things? Thanks artist. You rule.

But the real heart-stopper was pretty much everything at Kaikai Kiki:

This piece was made by Oguchi who is younger than me at 21 years old:


And this one by OB who is 20 years old!


And this one by Haruka Makita who is 15 years old!

Haruka Makita

I am amazed and I feel old. And while yes, figurative art of anime characters is widely practiced, these examples are featured at the Armory Show for a reason. Technically adept, personally stylized and emotive, they speak from a new generation of Asian artists who can make work like this appeal to a wider audience by dexterously fusing Murakami and Miyazaki while also referencing a wide array of manga graphic styles and giving these popular images a fine arts edge. The originality comes from the way in which these images are constructed, and takes its subjects for granted. It’s for someone who already likes the visual vocabulary, and then it’s just plain gorgeous.

So while the art fair certainly proves that the whole contemporary art bubble is pretty much exactly what it’s been for the last decade or so, there are signs of moving past the sad mining of the last century’s great and still moving artworks. I somehow doubt that American art will be making any waves in the near future though. Jump on that Kaikai Kiki goodness!

photos: Tola Brennan

First published in Resolve40

Tola BrennanThe Armory Show Wrap-Up | Resolve40

The First Year Experience | F Newsmagazine

Tola Brennan Writing

With a new title and a more specific focus, the First Year Program becomes its own department

According to Scott Ramon, this isn’t the first time the First Year Program (FYP) has changed. “The First Year Program has been in transition ever since I started ten years ago,” says SAIC’s Director of Undergraduate Admissions. In the last decade, the FYP has gone through some aggressive changes, most of them occurring since 2005. Most recently, the FYP has become the Contemporary Practices Department (CP).

Amy Vogel, Co-chair of the Contemporary Practices Department, explained that when they began reformatting the program, they had to say, “This isn’t quite right for 2005,” and ask, “How do we adapt to that?” Staying contemporary is an important aspect of the SAIC experience. “What’s exciting about SAIC is that it was one of the first [schools] to start changing. Everybody was involved in the curriculum,” Vogel adds.

Jim Elniski, former First Year Program co-chair and current faculty member in the new Contemporary Practices Department, wants first-year SAIC students to be able to stretch the limits their creativity. “The whole issue of creativity has really been: What is creativity? It is an ability which has been re-focused as being a human attribute that has more recently been tied to dispositions that we have as individuals and supporting open-ended exploration of ideas and form, and less about methods and materials.”

Illustration by Alli Berry.

This rethinking of the program resulted in Core Studio, the year-long media-based synthesis of the old 2D, 3D and 4D classes. “Rather than studying the foundational principles of surface or 2D and then doing the same thing for 3D, you’ll study them in relation to each other. It’s really coming at art through the making, how you get at ideas through materials,” Vogel explains.

This approach is cemented in the alternate terminology of surface, space and time. “I think that this understanding is a necessity for visual scholars, for people who make things. They need to understand that there’s a bridge between these qualities. The bridge is their idea,” adds Ramon.

The name change was essential to the continuing development of these studies. “Even if we didn’t become a department, we were going for the name change. It just happened to coincide nicely,” says Vogel. The [First Year] program felt like, “this thing you had to get through. ‘First Year’ doesn’t really say what you’re doing in the classes, it’s just a mark of time. The name ‘Contemporary Practices’ felt like a nice move away from the sense that we were just foundations.”

Forming the department began “with some research about students and retention and a correlation [with those numbers with] being taught by full-time faculty. I think that’s why it came down that we were allowed to become a department,” explains Vogel. Being a department enables the hiring of full-time faculty.

However, this came at a price. “All of us had to reapply for our jobs to make room for full-time faculty. We couldn’t keep all of the part-time people.” The process was handled by an undisclosed committee, and was structured according to strict school regulations. “I know it was a very, very tough decision. Across the board it was very hard for all of us. Everyone was in the same boat.”

In regards to the newly-formed department, Vogel says that “it was really painful, and it’s a risk making the name change and everything. But it feels good. There’s a sense that it’s exciting and we’re going to keep discussing stuff. We have faculty lunches and teas where we talk about curriculum and we keep looking at: is what we’re doing right?”

Keeping studies relative to current trends in art is something that they focus on when building the first year curriculum. “We want to keep being able to respond and build on what we already have that’s good, [while also] responding to changes. How do you bring in new technology and still really teach drawing and be fair to that?”

Maintaining SAIC’s inter-disciplinary philosophy was important in the development of the identity of the Contemporary Practices department. “You need to immediately think in an inter-disciplinary manner or you’re not going to make it,” Ramon says. “A lot of people have a very traditional art background. It’s very rigorous in the technical exploration of still lifes or classical studies. There’s not a lot of talk on theory. There’s not a lot of discussion in regard to what’s happening now. People ask: ‘Who’s your favorite artist?’ Are you going to say Van Gogh, Gauguin, and anything you can see on a Wheaties box? To be someone who is a maker in the 21st century you are working in a contemporary context. For some reason, people don’t think that.”

Trial and error is fundamental to the Contemporary Practices department. “A big aspect of CP is this emphasis on learning how to fail and learning how to accept that, and I think most people are not ready to handle it at that age group,” says Ramon. “We’re looking at media holistically — just because something is surface-based, it might be a drawing, but it might involve time and it might involve other elements. It’s more of an open-ended perspective, and it forces you to think about that. It makes sure you’re not going to gravitate towards safety or quaintness of how you work in media. It’s not the most pleasant place to be but you have to be doing that. If you’re not questioning what you do and how you make something, then you’re coloring in a coloring book.”

The program’s name change is more than just a cosmetic enhancement. Rather, it’s reflective of the School’s commitment to keeping the curriculum relevant — consistent with the program’s evolution over the past five years. With a cleareridentity, and a new faculty structure, we shall see if the Contemporary Practices Department can deliver where the First Year Program fell short.

First published in F Newsmagazine

Tola BrennanThe First Year Experience | F Newsmagazine

Fashion Zombies | The New York Optimist

Tola Brennan Writing

In today’s world, any ordinary schmuck can go from being horribly dressed and fashion unconscious to being unquestionably stylish and cool in about a day with the help of a few hundred dollars and couple hours on the internet. Each social denomination has a dress code and a whole industry aimed at refining it. The boundaries have been so established that with a little observation you can pretty much figure out exactly what a hipster, a rapper, a punk or a prepster (just to name a few) will look like and emulate accordingly.

And despite the general tone of disgusting conformity, it’s  hard to argue that the clothes don’t look good. The various industry supported fashion scenes have certainly managed to attain a certain expertise. Simply put, a pair of Converse, skinny jeans, a tight heavily decorated t-shirt and black thick rimmed glasses look amazing. A baseball cap, a baggy shirt, saggy jeans, high-end kicks, a gold chain and a couple fake diamond earrings and rings can look just as good. Further listing of stereotypical uniforms would be redundant. However what this all boils down to is, by its extreme availability, hip fashion has lost any value it might have had. Of course there are slight variations, but in essence, anyone can buy a look with a short trek to the shopping mall, or its city equivalent of that stretch of Broadway which goes through SoHo and has the highest clothing store densityIve ever encountered.

Anyone can fit the standard for cool with minimum effort. Therefore, being well dressed is no longer a sign of any sort of admirable agency or cultivated taste; the condition of pleasing attire is harder to avoid than to find. What this means is that for fashion to retain any sort of original productive and respectable value (for those who wear the clothes and not the folks who make them), it must grow from the individual rather than an industry. We must make our own clothes, or at least change them substantially from their original store-bought condition.

While it’s exceedingly difficult to trump a business which has grown to be as immense and talented as conventional fashion has, it isn’t necessary because no, it’s almost impossible to splatter your shoes with paint more elegantly than some art school graduate who’s stared at Pollock for twenty years and now works for a clothing designer. However, what you can retain is distinction. And distinction ultimately carries more importance than a complete knowledge of the moments new trends.

So what do I advocate? Wear the same Converse, skinny jeans and tight t-shirt, just put something interesting on it, or if that seems impossible, find someone who can. Is there really a substantial difference between the soon to fade homemade garment array and the almost perfect store-bought getup? Perhaps the literal difference is slight, but the spiritual difference is quite immense.

First published in The New York Optimist

Tola BrennanFashion Zombies | The New York Optimist

Clandestine Mecca | The New York Optimist

Tola Brennan Writing

I know you’ve been to a thrift store sometime, somewhere. Some of you may be thrifters (you know, really serious thrift store shoppers). A few of you may be acquainted with that strange creature called “thrifter’s madness” (you know, like those crazy shopping sprees teenage girls are commonly accused of going on). Under the bleary eyed exhausting spell of the madness, the objective is not to spend as much money as possible, but to make many nifty finds with single digit price tags.

Anyway, not many thrift stores induce this oft sought after madness (perhaps a really big Salvation Army, a Goodwill, some nameless local thrift shop, certainly not those high-end thrift stores popping up in the East Village with hundred dollar jackets that you know the owner must have raided from somewhere else for a tenth of the price). It’s a rare and fortunate thing. Now, we all must have dreams about the perfect thrift store. I probably have. I’ve forgotten them. I assume the same goes for you. However, the point of this extraneously long introduction is this: the perfect thrift store exists, in Canada.

It manifests as something between a high-end thrift store and a low-end department store. It is always gigantic, and sometimes block sized. And quite reassuringly, everything in their store is actually arranged by size and sort. Everything is where it should be. You can find things. Half the job of filtering through piles of clothing has been done by the store already, so the buyer has the role of, say, fishing at one of those fish farms where you pay a flat rate and all the fish are splashing around in a pool so you always catch something, instead of on a weedy backwater lake. Okay. Bad analogy. You get my point. They have a good selection.

It’s called Value Village in Canada, Village des Valuers in Quebec. Value Village buys clothes and household items wholesale from various affiliated non-profits, sells whatever is suitable and donates the remainder (which consists of about half of their purchases) to developing countries. They also donate $117 million annually to charities, so says the infallible Wikipedia. Value Village (called Savers Inc. In the U.S.) remains rather elusive in New York as well as the East Coast (they have one location in Long Island, I recently discovered). However, in Ontario, Quebec, and even Newfoundland, they bloom with sublime grandeur.

I embarked on a cross-country spree, starting in Toronto (the point of discovery), on to Ottawa, and concluded in Montreal. I now have a whole new wardrobe on which I probably spent about $150. Each Value Village I arrived at was progressively more massive until I arrived at the mecca of Value Villages in Montreal, which covered an entire block. I entered bleary eyed and delirious to be greeted with a selection so colorful and varied, I was quite astounded. I left with a quest fulfilled and an exhausted sort of euphoria. Then, I returned to the convivial (yes, sarcasm) home country.

First published in The New York Optimist

Tola BrennanClandestine Mecca | The New York Optimist

Locomotive Salvation | The New York Optimist

Tola Brennan Writing

We’ve all been to crummy shows. You go expecting to have a good time and dance around a bit, and as it gets underway, you become infused with woe. You get this buzz in your body, notice how edgy and belligerent you’re getting, and then register how bad the music is. You want to get grooved up, but it’d just feel morbidly embarrassing to stoop to such a level. Giving in to the temptation would defeat the purpose of having standards and a legitimate set of preferences. And then, just as you tell yourself, “Shit, who am I kidding; I might as well just join the revelry.” The show ends. Now, there you are, left with a surplus of nervous energy wanting to kick a dumpster.

Don’t fret, there is Starscream. They encapsulate the antithesis to that situation. Starscream is an 8bit duo (entirely vocal free) from New York composed of George Stroud on drums and Damon Hardjowirogo on the Game Boy. Starscream makes all their music using LSDJ (Little Sound Disk Jockey), a now extinct cartridge for the Nintendo Game Boy which lets the user sequence and program music using Game Boy noises.

The touchstone of Starscream’s lure is that it somehow through its strangeness becomes universally accessible. It doesn’t carry all the target audience baggage of the subculture inducing and induced fields of alternative rock and hip hop. In fact, it combines the main tenets of these two categories in equal proportion: melody and rhythm. The distorted buzzing melody of the Game Boy coalesces with the hi-hat and snare heavy drumming without favoring either (a setback which besieges many bands) in excess. Instead, they combine with jagged clarity to produce a sound which is temporally dense but sonically sparse and refreshingly pithy. The sound itself embodies that oft recited saying that a band should play a short set to “leave the audience hungering for more.”

Starscream doesn’t fall into the rut of playing the same thing for too long. In each song, they shift sporadically from groove to groove and line to line with occasional and sudden breaks which leave the whole audience confused and astounded and then satiated and consoled when the music starts again (often at a faster tempo). Using a programmable instrument lets Damon create lines which are faster and more complex than an ordinary guitarist would be able to manage.

However, by nature of their instrumentation, they are very much a live band. The crowd they draw dances deliriously, then stumbles outside the venue to smoke madly and collapse from exhaustion and euphoria. Starscream usually plays the “all age” circuit (The Tank, Cakeshop, Don Hill’s, Southpaw, etc.) as well as various unofficial organized events. They have just released a full length album entitled Ghost//Stars. You can check them out on Myspace- /starscreamnewyork.

First published in The New York Optimist

Tola BrennanLocomotive Salvation | The New York Optimist

Ergo Wonderment | The New York Optimist

Tola Brennan Writing

Anime usually gets a bad rep from the film buff. This is merited. Googly eyes, Lolitas, superpowers, high-pitched voices and strange pornographic offshoots appeal to a particular sort of aesthetic sensibility. But hidden within the folds of a genre geared towards kids and fanatics (I mean that neutrally without negative connotations), there is a work for which applying the term ‘bordering on the sublime’ would be an understatement. Ergo Proxy is sublime. It is awesome, and I love it. It took me about three months to get through the twenty-three episodes (23 minutes each). I liked it so much that I was scared to continue watching it for fear of ruining my spotless opinion of it. There was no cause for fear. It stays excellent. It’s that good.

Ergo Proxy is recent (broadcast in 2006) and has little in common with most of its field. The animation is fluid, the special effects top notch and the characters are drawn in human proportions. The show fits under the umbrella of sci- fi, but that’s only a framework. Ergo Proxy goes in some very surprising (and sometimes hilarious) directions. Though a lot of futuristic, post-apocalyptic environments can be gruesomely dismal and depressing to look at (Ghost in the Shell for example), this show manages to make a whole lot of gray and brown exceedingly beautiful. This is in part due to all the machinery being design masterpieces and the costumes coming straight out of a fashion magazine. Furthermore, the backgrounds and scenery also happen to be superb.

The credits say quite a bit about the show’s content. The closing is ‘Paranoid Android’ by Radiohead and the song becomes emblematic of the show in general. Immediately following the closing credits, we hear the main character (Re-l Mayer) tell us in poetic fashion (while parts of her sentences flash on the screen) what has been going on (both in the current episode and what will take place next). These little summaries quickly become vital, since each episode, as a general rule, takes different meaning as you watch subsequent episodes. This may be disconcerting at first, since too much vagueness can be irritating, but I think Ergo Proxy has that perfect amount which keeps you engrossed. This was immediately manifest when I had to watch the first episode about four times before I really had any idea what to make of it (to my joyous amazement at discovering something so incredible). Despite its complexity, Ergo Proxy is definitely enjoyed best with breaks in between (both to prolong the experience and allow for pondering time).

The opening song is called ‘Kiri’ by the elusive British band ‘Monoral’ combined with visuals of the major characters mixed in with little grainy flashes of what I think are Greek and Italian words, as well as a variety of other tasteful imagery. The whole section has this antique feel to it, which juxtaposes curiously well with the show’s futuristic setting. It also hints at the prevalence throughout the series of Greek imagery, sculpture and philosophical themes. Ergo Proxy works with complex ideas, both internally and in what it alludes to (which includes naming characters Lacan, Derrida and Husserl). Despite a multitude of thematic elements, Ergo Proxy approaches two main ideas: one being whether the path or the traveller constitutes an identity, and second, what constitutes a purpose (termed raison d’être within the show). These two themes are often seen through the lens of machines achieving sentience and a strange group of creatures called Proxies (hence the show’s name).

To continue, the characters are just about the coolest I’ve come across. They’re refreshingly complex, with intricate emotions and character development almost worthy of a Kubrick film. The dialogue is never juvenile and the English voice actors are all convincing in their parts. The quality of the characters themselves lends force to the already amazing setting and plot (both of which are naturally interwoven). Ergo Proxy is at once mystery, suspense, drama, action, comedy and an all around breathtaking experience. Something this good happens very rarely,and in fact, the writing of this article makes me itch to re-watch the whole thing. On a final note, you can buy the entire series in English for under $30 (in a release called the Ergo Proxy Perfect Collection). However, if you feel generous, the official releases are certainly worth their salt.

First published in The New York Optimist

Tola BrennanErgo Wonderment | The New York Optimist

Souled Out on Sunday | The New York Optimist

Tola Brennan Writing

While standing in the audience, I get into that horrible state of mind where as soon as something good happens, I start waiting for it to get bad again, and thus invalidate my peachy reaction. This is the result of too many disappointments. I can’t avoid it. If I hear a couple impressive songs, I start getting excited, and then, BANG. I lose. Everything turns lame. I have to keep my guard up and not get too invested. I can’t trust the music to be splendiferous because it usually isn’t. So, keep in mind that I have this annoying complex which always causes me to be unimpressed.

Two weeks ago, Conor Oberst played a few nights in a row at Terminal 5. If you’re wondering who Conor Oberst is (and you shouldn’t be, considering as everyone should know about him; but, just in case), here is a short illumination. Conor Oberst is the band leader and singer/songwriter of the band Bright Eyes. The group has pretty much always been Conor Oberst with a back-up band, since around 1996, when they first started. Since that time, they’ve released a number of very significant records, the most popular being I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning and most recently, Cassadaga.

As a consequence of the lackluster Cassadaga, and the various other decisive personal factors, Conor Oberst fled to Mexico and recorded an album with a group of friends called the Mystic Valley Band. The album was released under the name Conor Oberst and was self-titled. This was the first official release under his own name, and it marked a transition from the usually morose and introspective tone of Bright Eyes to something more upbeat, fully grown and almost optimistic (which is indeed quite a change).

I went on the last night. Since it was a Sunday and would require getting home very late (leading to a horribly groggy day at work or school respectively), only the people who really loved Conor Oberst showed up. Also, since it was the last night, Conor Oberst (and pretty much everyone else) got extra drunk. Thus, the show began on an exciting note.

Of course, I’d had my share of excitement inducers, but even so, after the first few songs being phenomenal, I started noticing my complex. Is it going to turn bad? Oh god, is it? Well, every time that judgment surfaced, the band played another amazing song. Everything fantastic from the record got played. I kept expecting something to go wrong. No. Nothing went wrong. It just kept getting better. At this point, my excitement and happiness were nearing a very unusual spectrum. And just about then, they stopped. It being about eleven-thirty, no one was willing to leave. There was one of those typical encore scenarios, and eventually the whole crowd was stomping and shouting, “Conor, Conor, Conor.”

After about ten minutes, they came back on and played for another half hour. Amazing! Wow! Frenetic! Divine! Obviously I am having difficulty in explaining how sensational it was, but at some point, my jaw dropped in awe and stayed that way for the rest of the night. I also didn’t get to sleep until two in the morning. Thank goodness for coffee. Anyway, it turned out to be one of the greatest of concerts. I wish I could recommend a show to go to, but the tour is currently finishing up in Texas. However, do yourself a favor and get the album. Conor Oberst is the best.

First published in The New York Optimist


Tola BrennanSouled Out on Sunday | The New York Optimist