Better Than Okay

Mike Simi’s Mr. Weekend


Let’s talk about the elephant in the room. Well, in this case, it’s a decommissioned robotic arm from a Detroit automobile manufacturing plant dressed as a sock puppet ceaselessly reciting phrases about its new condition as an art piece. Mike Simi’s piece Mr. Weekend contributed to an atmosphere of absurdity while I interview Danny Orendorff, the current Charlotte Street Foundation curator-in-residence. My questions confronted a political undercurrent that flows through the exhibition, effortlessly disguised by humor. He responded to my highbrow inquiry while maintaining the importance of accessibility, his curatorial approach toward fostering a democratic discussion about the economy.

Ben Busch: The title “We’ll Make Out Better Than Okay” maintains a cognitive model of endless economic growth, wherein “Okay” stands for the status quo. However, it is increasingly apparent that “Okay” actually stands for the reversal of human rights, widespread dissolution of public services, and open exploitation in the workforce (à la internships and contract labor). Is this exhibition about treading water, attempting to stay afloat?

Danny Orendorff: Definitely. I really focused on “Better Than Okay” being a sort of ‘aiming low.’ The expectations we have had for life, thriving and upward mobility; all of these have turned into false promises. The title really has to do with optimism, because the tile “We’ll Make Out Better Than Okay” implies a sort of optimism, but the show is not optimistic. In fact, it is saying that optimism itself has fallen under scrutiny. It confronts all of the promises that have been broken, whether through predatory lending, through the job market crashing, through the false promises of taking out loans for school, or the endless quest for healthcare that never seems to actually come to any fruition.

This idea of optimism, this idea of ‘a good life’, is what Lauren Berlant talks about in her book Cruel Optimism. The ‘good life’ is a fallacy and is, in fact, something that holds us hostage. This idea of arriving at a place of stability, arriving at a place of financial soundness, or getting in the black instead of the red, actually is all myth within a system that does not want to see your thriving. In fact, believing in ‘the good life’ keeps you running on a treadmill: you’re constantly working, you’re constantly exerting energy, but you’re really not getting ahead anywhere. So, this idea of “Better Than Okay” is all we can really expect—and really, what is ‘Okay?’ What does that look like? Does it include healthcare? Does it include home ownership? Who decides? What is the social contract? I liked the vagueness and the low expectations built into the title.

BB: What role does artistic production, both in terms of art creation and in your case curation, play in economic recovery, or, is so called artistic production actually a commodification of something that exists outside the free market, which is incompatible with the metrics of economic recovery? How can we statistically measure a feeling of sustained security?

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Alex Schaefer painted banks on fire. Real banks, fictional fires, directly across the street.


DO: There are two things in there. One is found, for instance, in the Alex Schaefer paintings of corporate banks on fire. What really is the artwork there? Is it the action, the public performance of plein air painting that has this political and subversive edge to it? That public action, followed by its fallout wherein the police raided Schaefer’s apartment, reveals so much about the state’s attitude towards the public presentation of politics, even in terms of the most innocuous form of plein air painting. It revealed a lot about the limits of representation of this crisis, what images the State will or will not allow, and of a new sort of imaginative thinking around political humor.

So there’s that, but then these objects exist, and now they’re being incorporated and included in the international art market, not only direct sales from himself or the gallery that represents him, but also in the secondary market of auctions. I think that’s something that Schaefer grapples with in his own practice and is why the “banks on fire” series has pretty much come to a conclusion for him. He’s tried to work in much more ephemeral ways, like doing chalk drawings within Chase Bank terminals, and still creating public action that is less able to be commodified and entered into an art market.

I don’t think Schaefer anticipated the kind of reaction and attention that he would get from these simple gestures, which is part of the ridiculousness that comes out in the storytelling about the work. Conversely, Theaster Gates, who obviously has so much more experience with an international market, created these Bank Bond pieces as a way of leveraging or taking advantage of his art world celebrity and the escalating prices of his artwork towards actual community reinvestment. That marble slab came from the very bank that he wants to renovate into a cultural center on the South Side of Chicago. The complete circularity of that single piece of marble via intervention into the economics of the art market is really the brilliant gesture of that total art-gesture.

Honey Pot Performance: “Bet you got a gig on the side / I know you got a gig on the side”


On the other hand, not thinking about objects but really thinking about art and affect, thinking about what Cassie Thornton is doing with her debt visualization workshops or what Honey Pot Performance addresses in Price Point, the art becomes about overcoming—through the mediation of art—a lot of hesitancy and shame people experience when talking about how this economy has made them feel. There’s this movement in Price Point where Honey Pot Performance calls out all the ‘Mystic Mumbo Jumbo’ style rhetoric we’ve encountered over the past handful of years. The movement begins with a Marx quote, and then goes into how all these phenomena—from Obamacare to Marx to ‘Stop and Frisk’ style policing to health benefits—are experienced on the street level as just ‘mystic mumbo jumbo.’ Then the movement dissolves into the ladies outrageously repeating, “Everything’s fine,” “I’m fine,” “You’re fine,” “Your parents are going to be fine,” “Your kids are going to be fine,” until they basically erupt into complete hysterical laughter.

Creating these strategies that really rely on performance and affect give entryways into more accessible forms of public conversation, or the public airing of grievances. What is made possible by Cassie Thorton asking you to bluntly and plainly state how much debt you have? It causes so much anxiety in my own body. How are we working through the hurdles of that shame or that anxiety or that panic or the trauma which are all brought about by living under debt or living impoverished or at the poverty line? How can art, not in some sort of therapeutic sense, produce uncommon or experimental ways of at least entering these things into the public realm of conversation?

What does it really mean for William Powhida at the center of his drawing Griftopia to call Allen Greenspan “the biggest asshole in the universe”? What kind of levity does that make possible for us in our conversations around the financial collapse?

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William Powhida’s Griftopia (left)


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Stephanie Syjuco’s FREE TEXTS provides take-away links to a rolling selection of texts made available for each subsequent exhibition (see two selections below).


BB: The works break from traditional conceptual pathologies which result in the production of singular artistic expressions. Via praxis, the artists involved have created (designed?) novel processes that may continue to give rise to an endless multitude of singular expressions, additionally for example Stephanie Syjuco’s FREE TEXTS. This dissolves the physical domain of the gallery into an amorphous scattering of geographical potentialities. Do you see collaboration, or more precisely agonism, becoming increasingly important in art in the America?

DO: I don’t know if collaboration is important within this exhibition, but I think that artists have to understand art, and the institutions and the economies of art, as being deeply related to political economy, to policy, and to labor. Maybe there’s more of a need to become conscious of an artist as citizen. In terms of relevancy to what is happening in the world, which I’m very interested in; maybe there’s a crisis moment where art needs to prove its relevancy to the general population.

Certainly with this show there were art audiences that wanted to have conversations that I thought were sort of irrelevant, like: “Is this a conceptual art show?” “Is this an anti formalist show?” And I’m like, “Does it really fucking matter?” That’s not the interesting conversation to have in here. The interesting conversations that have occurred in here have been from sociologists, from people who work at the workers justice center, from anarchists who make zines in town—those have been the much more productive and generative conversations about how art and the work that’s being done in here have a connection to broader conversations that are occurring in Kansas City locally and at national and international levels about the political economy.

In terms of what is called ‘participatory art’, it is my opinion that with the emergence of social practice and relational esthetics, it makes too-precious a lot of work that is already being done and that in fact comes from much different historical traditions. A lot of Honey Pot Performance’s work is inspired by survivalist strategies from the Jim Crow Era. Their work is about creating networks of cooperation and exchange between historically disadvantaged people. There is another moment in Price Point when they talk about The Negro Motorist Green Book, which was developed by a postal worker (Victor H. Green) as a guide book or an alternative phone book that detailed safe spaces for black people to go to on their travels throughout a city. For example, what auto mechanic wasn’t going to rip you off just because you are black, or what food pantry was open and accessible to you. Those kinds of survivalist strategies were needed then and just may be needed again now.

The work in the show that I was interested in wasn’t necessarily trying to be antagonistic or participatory, but was meant more to be provocative of a person’s personal situation. I was hoping to make people reflect on their own financial circumstances and the financial circumstances of others, and how they relate to our mental wellbeing, our physical wellbeing.

BB: Participation pertains to what I’m interested in at the moment in terms of architecture. I recently read a really interesting book by Markus Miessen, an architect and writer in Berlin who is influenced by the art world and whose texts are widely read in the art world, titled The Nightmare of Participation. The background of Honey Pot Performance and the remembering of past strategies and reactivating them in a way relates to participation.

DO: The same goes for Andrea Bowers, who is looking at activist collectives working towards better women’s healthcare and then reactivating those methods or creating a historical continuum between then and now.

Emily Roysdon, who is not in this show but whose curatorial work has been a big inspiration for me, does artwork around architecture and the possibilities of civic uprising, working often with choreographers to figure out what sort of motion is possible through plazas or public spaces of assembly. It’s very conceptual work, it’s architectural, it’s diagrammatic, there are choreography notes within it. In some ways, this show is about bringing the grievances that people have to the surface and provoking that sort of thinking. Or trying to think expansively or in a collective, holistic way about how you could be thinking or feeling at one moment and relating that feeling back to these structural, societal issues or to policy. In short, and inspired by theorist Ann Cvetkovich, I hope to provoke people into thinking about how fatigue or exhaustion or depression may actually not be medical, but may be byproducts of a broken capitalist system.

BB: In terms of psychological affects and symptoms within American society. Absent from your press release are two loaded yet relevant issues: neoliberal economic policy, and more generally global capitalism. Why did you choose to employ a lyrical description of the symptoms precipitated by laissez-faire capitalism as opposed to identifying the causes outright?

DO: Part of it was striking a tone. It was really about trying to use street-level language. With this show, I felt like it was really important to be anti-academic and to really go to the gut in a lot of ways. So, I wanted to go to these places of, “How is the economic system around you making you feel?” as the kernel or the catalyst for entry.

With this show, I really just wanted it to be in plain language. I didn’t want it to have any sort of alienating quality of being overly academic, overly intellectual. I really love what William Powhida does in those drawings: approaching global capitalism, the housing crisis, exploitative financial policy, in a way that feels accessible. Not like you have to have gone to grad school or really taken in all of this theory before entering the gallery.

There was a sociology class from the University of Missouri–Kansas City that had their final in here, and the class was about applying concepts like ‘social framing’ to works in this show. That is much more what I’m interested in. I’d rather have the work be able to reach an individual on a purely emotionally, visual, affective level, and then to think more abstractly about the other issues that you’re talking about.

I knew for instance to get feet in the door, I had to promote a 12-foot tall talking sock puppet and not about neoliberal capitalism, because that wasn’t going to be a big audience draw. But I think that people have thought about neoliberal capitalism as a result of having come through this show and listening to that 12-foot tall talking sock puppet.

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Mr. Weekend


BB: Exactly. I think that the hardest thing is to find a way to talk about these issues, things that we have little to no control over, how do we cope with them? Talking about coping strategies, talking about activism in an actual way outside of this highly academic sphere, does make it accessible. You forego the discussion in a way, but at the same way you are making it more democratic. Could you talk a bit about the workshops, because with this exhibition you have a physical space that you hang but also have the opportunity to activate it in different ways, so you can still have some sort of academic discussion.

DO: A lot of it has just been pretty casual. It’s just been pretty conversion-based. The outreach that I did was to people that I thought might be interested in some of the themes of the show, sometimes people follow up with you, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes people write to me out of the blue saying that they checked it out and were interested in it.

The neutrality of a gallery, I don’t believe in. But what it is, for me here at la Esquina anyway, is an open and a free space for people to come in, and I make myself really available. If people want to come in and check out the show off hours, all it takes is an email for me to set that up. In some ways it’s just becomes a place where people have started to have some political conversations. I’ve at least accomplished that locally here in Kansas City. I feel I have made people wonder about what it would mean to have a designated, dedicated venue towards political think-tanking.

It’s also made me reflect. Did I not take full advantage of the fact that I could have created this as a political hub, a place to gather? More than anything else, I think that it’s made me reflect on where independent, political thinking, reflecting, and sharing are possible and if the gallery can be that kind of place.

Persia and DADDIES PLASTIK: “Gentrify me”


BB: One last question. What role does empathy play in the effectiveness of the work presented, and moreover how does empathy pertain to your goals in curating the exhibition?

DO: A great deal, actually. A really great deal. There are some really disenfranchised voices in this show. Thinking about Persia and DADDIES PLASTIK’s Google Google Apps Apps video, and thinking about Brittany Southworth-LaFlamme with her divorce paperwork artwork. All of these artists are producing really aggressive actions. But they’re often pointing at themself as a ‘spectre of welfare’ in some senses—social figures that the mainstream is so often dismissive of or not really willing to empathize with or identify with.

Southworth-LaFlamme’s openness about being a single mom in a ton of student loan debt and on welfare—now, because of her divorce, subject to State monitoring and control—might be capable of making us think about how she is experiencing this world and this economy. With the letters that Andrea Bowers has recreated, I think they’re so emotionally powerful. To read first hand accounts of women in the late 60s, their desperation for finding a safe means by which to have an abortion, really goes directly to the human element of the abortion debate. The work is trying to give a human angle and a human perspective to the experiences of those the State can be so quick to legislate.

With Honey Pot Performance, their work comes from black feminist theory, and certainly the working-class black female is an identity that has been disregarded, overlooked and often criminalized by the mainstream media and the State. Overtly coming from a place of black feminist theory to meditate on the economic issues that we experience every day, or the hardship that we have balancing the checkbook—Honey Pot draws out a lot of empathetic reactions in people. I think that many solidarities are formed on a conceptual level between people that see similarities in their own economic circumstances and the economic circumstances of identity groups the media and the State have made us feel are ‘marginal’ or ‘other’.

Steve Lamber so simply fixates on the phrase ‘Give and Give and Give’ in his work. That phrase, as a universal sentiment, is so provocative. Yet, Persia is making Google Google Apps Apps with such specificity of cultural experience that you might think it would be difficult for people in Kansas City to get down with what this non-white drag queen in the Mission District has to say about corporations and gentrification. But people get it. And people hear it. And it’s catchy, and they like it, and they respond. There is a specific and too often unheard analysis on gentrification being delivered in that song, and Persia really demands you consider the Latina drag queen experience of gentrification as central, and by no means ‘marginal’, to the total conversation about gentrification. How powerful is that?


“We’ll Make Out Better Than Okay” was the Inaugural Exhibition by Charlotte Street Foundation’s current Curator-In-Residence Danny Orendorff. It was open from October 25-December 20, 2013 at la Esquina in Kansas City, Missouri, USA.