"Dark matter" is the term astronomers use for all the stuff out in the universe that they can't see, but that their theories tell them must be there. "Dark Matter" is also the title of a new show at the Baltimore Museum of Art. It explores all the art and creativity that's out there in the world but manages to remain unseen by most art museums, connoisseurs and critics.
You won't find wonderful artworks to look at and admire in this exhibition. You'll find pasta and knitting and homemade magazines. The argument is that there's beauty -- or if not beauty, interest and value -- in every kind of "making," and that high art (say, painting and sculpture) is not so much capital-C Culture as just another subculture alongside many others.
Chris Gilbert, the BMA's curator of contemporary art since 2002, wants us to acknowledge all the worthwhile kinds of making that don't produce the art we're used to seeing in museums. For once, the success of an exhibition is signaled by its lack of gorgeous works. If nothing else, the daring involved in mounting a show like this proves that Gilbert, who worked in the arts in Washington before moving away to get his PhD in Richmond -- is one of today's most interesting young curators. The BMA's willingness to let him go this route shows institutional courage that's almost as impressive.
The knitting in this show consists of the subversive yarn work of two small collectives. There's a breast, syringes, a surrogate for underarm hair (in case you have less than your fair share) and a parking-meter cozy that disables any meter it's put on -- all crafted with knitting needles.
There is a rack of zines, magazines and comic books on topics as diverse as long-gone punk bands, the homophilic love of Spock and Capt. Kirk, and the glories of being teenage and fat.
There is a small display of the equipment worn by players in a "live-action role-playing game." These fantasists put on homemade armor, pick up bows with foam-tipped arrows and foam-rubber swords, and then fight for control of an imaginary land called Darkon. (Imagine Monopoly, but where each costumed player acts out the role of a different real-estate magnate.)
A booth displays experimental musical instruments: Guitarlike objects built around pool cues; a stationary bicycle with complicated pickups mounted to its spinning wheel; various bits of surplus electronics that produce strange blips and bleeps of sound.
Marjetica Potrc, a leading artist from Slovenia, presents a display called "Power Tools," her collection of low-tech solutions to some of the developing world's problems. In her travels she's picked up a cardboard solar oven that allows baking in electricity-free zones. She's also found a rolling plastic water drum that makes a long trip to the well less painful; it also helps diffuse the force of any land mine it encounters on the way, hopefully sparing the person pushing it.
Another booth -- there is a deliberate crafts-fair feel to the way the exhibition's mounted -- presents a slide show of Baltimore graffiti.
And there's a display of pasta, handmade in the gallery by Chicago artist Dan Peterman and then shaped into fancy little moons using a metal bottle cap. In the past, he's cooked it up in the communal kitchen that he runs at home, as well as for visitors to the Berlin art biennial.
Gilbert says he isn't interested in replacing high art with some single something else, but in giving us a taste of "living labor in all its uncontainable profusion."
Hear, hear, say I -- except that I don't think Gilbert's gone nearly far enough.
Most of the projects he's presented have such a firm place in our culture's official "underground" that the world of fine contemporary art has long since adopted them.
By now, zines and graffiti have become the certified examples of non-art art, featured every other month in any radical art venue worth its salt.
And the kind of funky, DIY musical instruments Gilbert has assembled have been the official alternative to violins and flutes for the past 40 years and more. They have long been featured in nicely produced "new music" magazines funded by governments in Canada and France.
As for those transgressive knitters, I'll be forwarding their names to a textile curator I know, because their work would suit the shows she does about the cutting edge of carefully considered fabric art. In their heyday in the 1950s, the isolated quilt makers of Gee's Bend, Ala., were in some ways more truly alternative than this show's makers of countercultural cozies.
Pastamaker Peterman is already a well-respected artist with a fine museum resume. His generous food art is part of a movement, active since the '60s, whose full-blown art stars now include Rirkrit Tiravanija.
The water-roller from Potrc was seen in 2003 at the Venice Biennale, where hers was one of the more interesting and widely touted works.
Even those role-players struggling for control of Darkon have a fixed, self-conscious place in a well-established counterculture. Twenty years ago I roomed with some of these fantasy gamers, and they already thought of themselves as on the edge of an "alternative" creative world: Their resistance to cultural norms was as tightly scripted and stereotyped as any bead-wearing, weed-smoking, Baez-listening neo-hippie.
Riffing on ideas developed by theorist Gregory Sholette, whose essays were a trigger for this show, Gilbert sees his enlarged notion of art and creativity as having political potential. Simply by not buying into the passive consumption of prepackaged culture -- high or low -- you're pushing back against it; do it yourself, and you're not letting others do it for you, or to you. The making of dark matter, Gilbert believes, could provide a model for more aggressive activism; the show itself could count as a political event and act as a catalyst for change. But all the examples that he's given us have already been accepted and co-opted by today's bull market in counterculture. They've been turned into tidy consumables with stores and Web sites and museums dedicated to them. Their matter already shines out like a shop window at night.
If Gilbert really wants to demonstrate alternative zones of creative force, he's going to have to look much farther afield.
His exhibition broadsheet cites an idea from theorist Michel de Certeau, which states that in a society as devoted to production as ours is, there's a kind of productive aspect to consumption, too. Might there be an artlike productivity involved in surfing eBay for some vintage Adidas? At a certain level, understanding the history of consumer products and then using it to shape your own consumption in creative ways becomes akin to how artists can understand the past and present of an art form, and then make it their own. Doing, even buying, replaces making as a model for creativity. If Gilbert had included a sampling from a skateboarder's shoe rack, I'd have been truly impressed with how thoroughly he'd rethought the boundaries of art.
Or how about replacing Peterman's arty, officially-alternative food production with a cooking station manned by a great master of the wok? That would have truly been letting "dark matter" seep into a fine-art world that tends to hog the cultural spotlight. (Actually, my bet is that it might be even harder to find a true magician of the wok than a gifted maker of fine art. Fine art is the socially sanctioned home for thoroughgoing creativity, so it almost always takes things farther than other disciplines. The problem with low art -- whether produced by Hollywood, a string-art hobbyist, a zine collective or a bistro chef -- is not that it's low; it's that it's most often cliche-ridden, derivative, unreflective and unadventurous.)
Philosopher Paolo Virno, another inspiration for this show, is quoted in the catalogue: "The productive forces . . . on which every contemporary work process must draw, are linguistic competence, knowledge and imagination." The modern paper-pusher, that is, has as big a place in the creative, productive scheme of things as any highly trained fine artist -- a claim this particular paper-pusher is happy to buy. That leads me to one final suggestion for an alternative exhibit for this show, if the boundaries of art are to be expanded to include the widest range of creativity: Gilbert should move his office into the "Dark Matter" gallery, so visitors can witness him producing exhibitions. We could watch him reading and thinking, and then compiling the broadsheets that are often as captivating as the objects in his shows. I'm not convinced Gilbert has reached his real potential as a radical creator yet, but he's ahead of many of his peers.
Museum-goers will want to keep an eye on him.
Dark Matter, the second installment in Chris Gilbert's exhibition series "Cram Sessions," is at the Baltimore Museum of Art through Nov. 28. Call 410-545-6094 or visit www.artbma.org.