Ground Control to Linda Griggs: The long flight back from 90s “cyberspace”
By Sarah Schmerler
Is there such a thing as an altruistic person in our narcissistic art world? And, if there were a truly generous artist out there—a real artist, who still managed to promote his or her career while helping others—where or how would such acts of kindness take place?
Linda Griggs has renovated a crack house in Asbury Park, NJ; she’s painted allegories of death and sex and life; she’s run e32 (“Energy Third Tuesday”), a salon in the East Village where artists get a free forum to present their work to themselves and each other; she’s danced Flamenco; But we digress. Mostly, she’s transformed herself into a kind of human catalyst—the sort of person you want on your team because every task she takes on she makes a point of turning into a community event. Griggs shepherds art-making beyond the narcissistic borders of studio practice and into the realm of bigger and better things.
Few people are aware that back in 1995, Griggs created the first-ever virtual art gallery—a space with exhibitions as rigorous as those in any regional museum. She fearlessly cajoled, curated, and otherwise commissioned artists who were (at the time) lesser known or underserved. What’s more, most of them were from our neighbor-hood. So many Williamsburg and Greenpoint artists got their first showings online on the walls of Griggs’ virtual space, called Scope, that, in a way, hers was the first high-profile Brooklyn gallery “community.”
Now it’s 2011, the ‘hood has exploded with galleries, and every artist here owns a smartphone loaded with enough kick-ass graphics to distract them from their studios. So we asked Linda to sound off on some intensely human stuff: what does it mean to invite others to be creative with you? How do you cope with their mishegas? And what about those times when you wonder why you bothered anyway?
SS—Tell us about the virtual gallery; when was Scope started? LG—The online gallery launch was July 4, 1995, in keeping with the democratic nature of the Internet. Our motto was “Serving Your Scopic Drive Since 1995.” “Scopic” meaning the urge to look.
Who from the Williamsburg scene was in it? There were two major shows that were entirely, or almost entirely, Brooklyn, I think because James Esber and Greg Stone brought me a lot of artists. “Rococo Cartoon” was one; “Beauty/Death” was another. There was Amy Sillman and Itty Neuhaus and Pat Ward Williams and Drew Lowenstein, Randy Barke. That was in 1995 or early 1996.
What other art sites were on the Internet that time? There was very little. The Andy Warhol Museum put up their website. That was when you wanted a painting to be 60k. Netscape was so buggy at that time that a high-res image would crash it. Whoa. That’s a blast from the past!
Did you need to raise startup money? No. A guy named Charles Thayer at Mediabridge hosted me for free. He was very supportive.
How did you even get interested in this project? My room-mate was interested in intellectual property issues, and he hooked me up. Before him I wasn’t interested in the Internet beyond research, using Telnet. There wasn’t much out there—a lot of listservs, and certainly a lot of potential. But he said, “if you do this, you can use it to help your artist friends.
How’d you carry it out? Michael Hardesty did all the graphic design along with his wife, Sandy Cundiff. He laid out the website. It was beautiful, so clean. Today there are so many bells and whistles… but it was amazing, it could load quickly. Those were the days of dial up. All the paintings were thumbnails skewed in 2-point perspective so that they converged to the corner of the room. So you clicked on the thumbnail and saw a larger picture. This was all done with Webmap and Gifbuilder. This was before Java. It was all done in html. Media Bridge did all the code for me.
Way cool. Now: What about the content? Tell us about your second show, the one about discrimination… That was people I admired and was looking at at the time. It was called “Colored Stories: Depictions of Race in Narrative Art.” I had Dotty Attie and Carrie Mae Weems and Kerry James Marshall. The galleries were happy to work with me on the project because the Internet was so new it was a novelty and they didn’t have a website [of their own] so they gave me slides and I scanned the slides and then I would make thumbnails and skew it onto the wall.
Sounds like a lot of work. How did you handle it? I was scared to death. I had never done a project of that kind and I was afraid of embarrassing myself. Anyway, I got through all that and did it for a year, and did another year, and then I just kind of…lost heart. I don’t know how to describe it. Other people were coming online with their art. What’s more I was getting 1,000 hits a month—which was great for a non-porn site in 1995. People were looking like crazy for content, but I quit doing it and I have no idea why…
No idea? That’s honest! I guess I needed to be out in the real world. Along the way, I got to practice curating which prior to that I had only done a little of. I spent $600 on a slide scanner, and now I have one which I don’t use much, but I learned a lot. And I got to meet all those great people.
Tell me about the people. Greg Stone, a terrific a guy who works really hard to bring people together. James Esber, so smart and funny. Drew Lowenstein; I loved his work. Amy Sillman… I also met Peter Norton; I went up to him and told him about the project and gave him my card. Then he faxed me from a plane because he was interested. By the way, I got on his Christmas gift list. A ups man would suddenly stop at your door and deliver a work of art to you. I got a Vik Muniz, a Murakami, a Lorna Simpson.
Sounds like you’re really talking about community. Aren’t people what “makes” a social network? I think about community all the time. ALL the time. I think about what it means. It’s different than a friend, a colleague. People always say “such and such is a community,” and I say, [indignantly] In what way?! In a creative community there’s something that actually happens, something that spurns people on to make their best work.
These days, everyone talks about how children are playing their video games, together, but in isolation. They’re not going down to the creek to poke stuff with sticks, or riding the subway not knowing where they’re gonna get off, trying new stuff. [Video culture] doesn’t generate curiosity.
So curiosity is a key ingredient to a creative community? Yes. Community can’t just be a shared hobby. It needs to generate creative curiosity.
What are other key ingredients, or conditions? Surely, over the years you must have noticed a bunch. I’m wondering if I ever really saw it, real community. I see it more in studio buildings, do you know what I mean? You’ve gone to open studios. People are working in a space where they walk in and give each other feedback. They say things to each other like “that’s great, just keep doing what you’re doing,” which is, like, the worst studio visit ever.
But they say it to each other. Well, with Scope, we were hoping for that sort of unfettered feedback. James Esber was doing all these amazing stretched pieces about race: the Jewish “spider” taking over the world; that horrible caricature of an Arab, swarthy, in a turban with a big nose—all so unattractive. And we put those on the Internet, and we waited. We waited for some real dialogue and feedback. We thought the anonymity would encourage people to say what they wanted. That they would actually speak their minds, because we know that in the real artworld if you say what you’re thinking with honesty it will come back and bite you in the ass.
But they didn’t, did they? Comment. Say something.No. And this brings me to the red sweater problem.
The red sweater problem? It’s the only explanation I have come up with for why people didn’t speak their minds on the Internet.
There’s a standard model for marketing your art and it’s based on the idea of a red sweater at The Gap. Now, if you were a site that had a standard store like The Gap, people would go to you when they want to buy a red sweater. But when you’re a little guy, like a knitter, people wouldn’t go to you to buy a red sweater because they wouldn’t look for you. That same model would happen at Scope. People weren’t going around the Internet for artists they’d never heard of. I mean, I put every keyword out there I could think of. I got 1,000 hits a month and people still wouldn’t comment, even though I guaranteed them that their comments would be posted anonymously.
That’s a pretty amazing insight on the nature of the Internet, Google, and such. But your whole “comment” issue puts a finger on another ingredient (or lack of one): Trust. Maybe another ingredient for being in a querying community is also something about trust. I keep looking. When I was a kid in Oklahoma, and I dreamed of going to New York [to be an artist], I thought it would be like “An American in Paris.” Then, when I got older, I thought New York would be like the Cedar Tavern. Then, I thought it would be like Andy Warhol’s Factory. Then I got to the Lower East Side and I thought it was dead. People said to me that there are just too many artists now, and in the time of the Cedar Tavern it was a tiny group of people. And that that’s what makes it impossible to have a small, cohesive community. Then people told me there was not enough money in the artworld. Then I was told that now that there was money, that’s why women were being excluded, because people didn’t want to invest in, buy women. And now they say there’s a lot of people competing for their sliver of a very small pie, and that people don’t want to sit around and talk about art and ideas.
Well, what’s next for you? I want to have a “NYFA Prep Night” at e32. You know, for artists before they apply for NYFA grants? Now’s the time. We would get them to see their work exactly as it would be seen by a NYFA panel. So I started calibrating the projector, doing four-by-four [images] to scale, exactly, because that’s what [the panel] does when it reviews your work. A lot of the time there are mistakes, and they come out in the prep. The images pixilate way more than you expected…there are border issues with the images…I also have people speak their artist statements out loud while they show their work. Then I ask, “does this statement reflect the artwork?”
Oy vey. I went to a night hosted by NYFA, a panel, about having your own website as an artist. And I just couldn’t help piping up. I mean, I think it is SO important for an artist to have a website, but for different reasons. Everyone there said it was important, but they said it was so that people could find your work. To promote your work to people who might not otherwise see it. I said, well, no one’s going to look for your work. You need to have a website so that people who are looking for you can find YOU.
Griggs’ latest project is a descendant, if not immediate kin, to her virtual Scope experience. “Find & Combine” curated first for e32 as an artists’ slide show-discussion-networking presentation, has evolved into a “brick and mortar” show at Clemente Soto Velez Cultural and Education Center on the Lower East Side, opening September 7th.