FREE Day Project: The Workers

What do you do? That was the question that inspired a community wall installation in our Tall Gallery on FREE Day last month. In addition to the many fun activities that took place throughout the day, one of the most interesting was the resulting wall collage of brown paper bag cutouts inspired by Mary Lum’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor, on view as part of our exhibit The Workers¬†(below):

Lum spent several years collecting the names printed on the bottoms of paper bags, after initially being surprised to discover that each bag is stamped by an individual person. This easy-to-miss detail underscores the human element of mass-produced items that we don’t often think about or stop to consider. On FREE Day, we asked kids and adults alike to write down what they do on pieces of brown paper bags and stick them on the wall. What began as a simple question evolved into a creative and oftentimes Post Secret-esque endeavor. Check out what some of our visitors had to say about their work and their place in society.

We loved reading all of these at the end of the day. Thank you to everyone who participated!

By Cora Sugarman/Photos by A. Elizabeth Berg

Posted March 5, 2012 by MASS MoCA
Filed under BLOG, Free Day, The Workers
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Artist Spotlight: Hugo Hopping

Curator Susan Cross writes about one of the artists featured in our current show The Workers.

Hugo Hopping‚Äôs practice engages with the legacy of conceptual art while addressing social and political concerns. In his video for The Workers exhibition, A Few Thoughts on Resignation and Loss (2010), Hopping re-stages a 1924 chess match played between the influential artist Marcel Duchamp, who famously retired from his career in art to pursue his love of chess, and the Italian chess master Massimiliano Romi. Duchamp conceded the game in order to avoid an embarrassing checkmate, a move which became of particular interest to Hopping and prompted his subsequent ruminations on the multiple meanings of resignation and loss. In the video Lieutenant Hugo Alejandro Tapia Agustin of the Mexican Armed Forces offers his analysis of the chess match. Chess becomes a metaphor for society where the system of pieces on the board reflects class hierarchies, institutions, and positions of power. The pawns can be understood to represent the foot soldier but also the working class, who, like the pawns have the least power individually, are crucial ‚Äď especially in their united movements ‚Äď to the ultimate outcome of the game. Lt. Tapia sees a parallel in this metaphor to the position of the Mexican people in the hope of strengthening a collective national identity and a means to enact change.

Former curatorial assistant Rosalia Romero interviewed the artist about the video:

Rosalia Romero: You met Lieutenant Hugo Alejandro Tapia Agustin, whose letter is narrated in your piece, on an online chess forum.  Did you approach the Lieutenant specifically with this piece in mind? Or did the work grow out of your communication? 

Hugo Hopping: Between October 2009 and March 2010, I was organizing a solo show for Anne Barrault Gallery in Paris, France titled A Sugar Diet for Mystics. I had prepared some artworks that focused on the public life of Marcel Duchamp, specifically on his chess-related activities. I have come to understand that the game of chess is a public mental sport (often practiced in private) that results in public forms of exhibition, from the park to the tournament.

I was fascinated by the fact that Duchamp resigned from making art publicly to pursue the aesthetics of chess and its strategies. I, myself, had obsessively researched and played chess on a daily basis for over a year, so much that I was beginning to approach a fine line between chess and making art and had to decide which one had priority over the other. I could not believe how much I related to Duchamp‚Äôs ‚Äúearly retirement‚ÄĚ.

Resignation took on a theoretical aspect that I had not really understood up until the making of these art pieces. In many ways the resolution of having made these artworks reveals that I listened to Duchamp’s imaginary advice to Bobby Fischer. (1)

“If Bobby Fischer came to me for advice, I certainly would not discourage him‚ÄĒas if anyone could‚ÄĒbut I would try to make it positively clear that he will never have any money from chess, live a monk-like existence and know more rejection than any artist ever has, struggling to be known and accepted.”

Mastering chess is an all-consuming project and having made the world believe Duchamp had given up art for chess for nearly 25 years has to be understood, not as a gimmick but rather as a dynamic for managing public and private artistic activity/production as part of an artistic life strategy, like his final artwork Etant Donnés seems to disclose.

Meanwhile, I was feeding my own chess mania when I happened to meet Lieutenant Hugo Alejandro Tapia Agustin. We were randomly matched by the chess engine’s online program and had a very good game that resulted in a lesson. I found his comments about chess revealing and informative.  I suppose what was more engrossing in receiving advice from him was his background as a career soldier of almost 30 years in the Mexican Armed Forces. I approached him exclusively with the intention of having him analyze Duchamp’s tournament game and offer an analysis similar to what he had been offering in our online exchanges. This intention resulted from having made a series of art works over the years, which involved diverse individuals contributing content for my artworks through a collaborative exchange. This is how A Few Thoughts on Resignation and Loss came together.

RR: You have stated that in this piece you seek to examine the ambiguity of loss both real and theoretical. Is there a specific loss or theoretical loss you are referencing aside from Duchamp’s?

HH: I have for some time been concerned by the breakdown of Mexican society through the rise of narcocrime.¬† I spent my childhood living in a suburb of Mexico City, a relatively safe environment, and had been hoping to make a project that evidenced the contemporary social deterioration and that, of course, obviated its loss through the narratives of modern and contemporary art.¬† Duchamp‚Äôs game, in this sense, is a mise en ab√ģme for staging ‚Äėthe other‚Äô.

His resignation as a chess player possesses a historical narrative between public exhibition and private practice. Lieutenant Tapia is currently caught in a similar dynamic: his role as a soldier and voicing an inaccessible narrative and private perception of Mexican society, without referencing directly the narcowar.  I found that in asking Lieutenant Tapia to be part of this piece, I was both allowing Duchamp’s public chess practice to be examined through the game itself and as a comment on a contemporary conflict offered by an unexpected examiner in the Mexican army.

If the resignation means the sidestepping of making art publicly and favoring a production strategy for the making art privately, then the loss may be a word of warning (which Duchamp suggests clairvoyantly) of a coming transition from a private practice to market-driven practices, thereby transforming aesthetics in contemporary art production.

In terms of a self-reflexive search for an understanding of loss as a way of overcoming historical disappointment and societal changes, the Mexican soldier seems to be searching for a way to modernize the Mexican mind in spite of his station as a public servant directly involved in the current conflict. Material and political loss in this case is a way of life in Mexico.

In the end, the soldier wonders if there ever was a Mexican hegemony and how it can transcend both its historical and contemporary aberrations.

 RR: The dilution of Latin American culture in the face of American influences is central to Lieutenant Hugo Alejandro’s text. He presents a parallel between the great power that a unified set of pawns possesses in the game and the potential inherent in uniting a country’s people. Building a strong cultural identity is mentioned as a means of accomplishing this unity. Do you share Lieutenant Hugo Alejandro’s sentiment?

HH: Mexican national identity has been displaced by the economic practice in Mexico since the early 1980‚Äôs, and it has been fully entrenched into modern Mexican society since the economic circumstances of 1994. In other words, Mexican national identity has also been deregulated.¬† In the preface to the 3rd edition of Lesley B. Simpson‚Äôs book titled Many Mexicos published in 1941, he suggests that the ‚Äústudy of habit gives meaning to history‚Ä̂Ķfor ‚Äúwe cannot know ourselves without knowing the past‚ÄĚ.

Lieutenant Tapia is caught in a generational shift in Mexico, where the political scandals, continued disappointments, and failed promises have abandoned the institutionalization of the Mexican Revolution. He still remembers the difference between Mexican and American identities.

I think Lieutenant Tapia is suggesting an advancement of this identity; however, he does not provide nor suggest how to achieve this.  I don’t know where he stands with many of my comments above, although he seems to share similar concerns.

I differ in many ways with Lieutenant Tapia in that I am Mexican and also American, I have a heritage in both nations, and I see myself caught as a subject of an emerging North American subjectivity, one which is increasingly merging into the other, meaning the U.S. and Mexico. However, a cultural identity is indispensable, especially a strong one, ideally, where the virtues of this said culture can absorb difference and heterogeneity and not succumb to xenophobia and racism. I am impressed that Mr. Tapia and I are on different sides of the aisle; no soldier in Mexico is unaware of the brutal violence that is happening at the moment or has not dealt with it, and I can safely say that no Mexican artist is unaware of the same issues or has suffered losses from the violence.

RR: And you mention the increasing presence of military forces in open civil society in Mexico and the then current national crisis as a framework for viewing the piece.

It is important to understand that Lieutenant Hugo’s letter is written in light of a planned build-up in 2010 of more than 45,000 Mexican soldiers, who were being deployed into Mexican society to fight narcocartels. To some, this military intervention into Mexican civil society is regarded as the first major operation since the revolution.

It is important to note that the Mexican Armed Forces is one of the few armies in Latin America that has not staged a coup in the last 75 years and that a blossoming anti-militarization, anti-corruption movement in Mexico is on the rise, led by the Mexican poet Javier Sicilia, who, after the horrific assassination of his son among six others by organized crime earlier this year, has begun to build national support with other fed-up citizens who can no longer bear the societal deterioration.  This social movement, called Red Por La Paz y La Justicia, believes that society should seek new forms of coexistence and order without the imposition of an army and as such it is demanding a social revolution to gain back Mexican civil society. Here are Sicilia’s own words from a document written in the aftermath of his son’s assassination.

‚ÄúWe have had it up to here with you, politicians ‚Äďand when I say politicians I am not referring to any one in particular, but to a whole lot of you‚Ķbecause in the midst of this corruption that shows the failure of the State, every citizen of this country has been reduced to what the philosopher Giorgio Agamben calls, with using the Greek word, zoe: an unprotected life, the life of an animal, of a being who can be raped, kidnapped, molested and murdered with impunity, we have had it up to here because you have only imagination for violence, weapons, for insult, and therefore, a deep contempt for education, culture and opportunities for good honest work, which is what makes nations prosperous.‚ÄĚ‚ÄĒ An Open Letter to Politicians and Criminals, Javier Sicilia, April 3, 2011. (2)


Javier Sicilia has resigned from ever writing poetry again.



1. Brady, Frank: Bobby Fischer: profile of a prodigy, Courier Dover Publications, 1989; p. 207.

2. Carta abierta a políticos y criminals. Javier Sicilia


Posted March 1, 2012 by MASS MoCA
Filed under Artist Spotlight, BLOG, The Workers
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Flash Mob for FREE Day

Emily, our superstar performing arts intern, and Tim, whose 100-watt smile you see at Hardware everyday, talk about how they teamed up to bring a day full of dance to FREE Day, which took place on February 11, 2012.


We spent a few days during the weeks leading up to FREE Day using the rehearsal hall space, listening to 80s music and coming up with an arsenal of funky dance moves to put together in a sequence that would be both visually appealing and easy to pick up. We had a lot of fun goofing around in the studio and perfecting classic dance steps like the cabbage patch, the running man, and the Molly Ringwald. Check out our rehearsal video here.


On FREE Day, we taught lots of different people‚ÄĒtoddlers, college students, grandmas, ballerinas, and football players alike‚ÄĒthe dance we created. We taught about 20 people in each of our classes throughout the day. We danced Michael Jackson‚Äôs P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing), because it was upbeat, light-hearted, and makes you want to move! We also asked the people who took our dance class to dance with us later in the afternoon, as part of a surprise flash mob in the galleries. Check out our dance class video here.


Our dancers milled about through The Workers: Precarity, Invisibility, Mobility exhibit, blending in with unsuspecting, art-viewing patrons. Suddenly, Michael Jackson music started playing through the galleries, and spontaneous dancing broke out! We definitely surprised a bunch of patrons who got caught in the middle of the flash mob. There was a lot of talent, but the best movers were by far were the 2 little nuggets (they must have only been 3 or 4 years old) decked out in pastels and mermaid gear from Kidspace who got their groove on right in the middle of the flash mob! Check out our flash mob video here.

PRE-SHOW DANCE INSTRUCTION                          

To end the night, we taught a dance class on the Hunter Center stage, immediately before Gordon Voidwell and his band played some rockin‚Äô music for a psychedelic 80’s synth funk dance party. We¬†wore headset microphones (affectionately called the Madonna mics in the performing arts department – check out the photo below, taken backstage!) to broadcast our voices to the crowd¬†on the dance floor. Since we faced the crowd in the Hunter Center,¬†dance instruction was trickier because we had to reverse all of our instructions so that the audience could mirror our movements.

FREE Day 2012 was so much fun‚ÄĒmusic, dance, theatre, art-making activities, a mermaid parade, face painting, a hilarious photobooth, and great deals at Hardware! We were psyched to get to collaborate with the community and with each other. We can‚Äôt wait for you to come back to hang out next year and dance with the two of us at FREE Day 2013! – Emily and Tim

Posted February 17, 2012 by MASS MoCA
Filed under BLOG, Dance, Dance Parties, Free Day, Hardware, Interns, The Workers, Uncategorized
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Artist Spotlight on Anthony Graves of Camel Collective


Workers curator Susan Cross provides this introduction to an interview that our intern Kathryn Amato did with Camel Collectives’ Anthony Graves.

Camel Collective engages in research-based art. For A Facility Based on Change, the collective used as a starting point the museum‚Äôs location in the former Sprague factory and two archival photographs documenting a Sprague strike in 1970. The artists employed a screen-printing process (a technique normally used for mass production) to generate a series of 13 unique paintings. These abstracted images feature fragments of the historic photographs which the artists cut and recombined. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted August 15, 2011 by MASS MoCA
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Artist spotlight on Mary Lum

Workers curator Susan Cross provides this introduction to an interview that our intern Kathryn Amato did with Mary Lum.

Continuing our artist spotlight series, we are focusing on  the work of North Adams-based Mary Lum, who is featured in the current exhibition The Workers. A 2010 Guggenheim Fellowship recipient, Lum earned her M.F.A. at Rochester Institute of Technology. Represented by Joseph Carroll and Sons, Boston and Fredereicke Taylor, New York. she has exhibited both nationally and internationally. Lum has been faculty  at Bennington College since 2005.

Invited to create a new piece for The Workers Lum was inspired both by the history of the former manufacturing site and her own interest in labor, a theme which the artist has explored in a number of previous works.¬† Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor features an assemblage of hand-torn paper bag fragments which the artist has been collecting for nearly two decades. Each of the pieces ‚Äď torn from a multitude of bag bottoms — is stamped ¬†with the name of the individual who made the bag or oversaw its production and quality on the assembly line. ¬†¬†A detail easy to miss, each name reminds us of the human element behind industrialized production and the objects we use on a daily basis.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted August 3, 2011 by MASS MoCA
Filed under BLOG, Exhibitions, North Adams, The Workers

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Artist Spotlight: Tyler Rowland

In an attempt to bring some extra in-depth information to the newest MASS MoCA exhibition, The Workers, Artist Spotlight is a new blog series focusing on specific artists. Running until March 15, 2012, this show explores the conditions and representation of contemporary labor, which includes almost 40 works in multiple mediums, from 25 emerging and established international artists.

The first up for this series is Tyler Rowland, an American artist born in Reno, Nevada (but actually spent his childhood in Phoenix, Arizona). While attending Vassar College in New York, Rowland decided to devote his life to being an artist, and is currently an adjunct professor of sculpture at Vassar. His artistic point of view is demonstrated through a number of mediums- performances, installation, and sculpture.

His piece in the exhibition, All of the Objects Needed to Install a Work of Art (Gustave Courbet‚Äôs The Stonebreakers) is the first work in a series entitled The Realist Manifesto. Influenced by the 19th century French painter, Gustave Courbet, who led the Social Realist artistic movement, Rowland‚Äôs installation displays the typical tools required to hang a painting. Courbet‚Äôs famous painting The Stonebreaker‚Äôs, completed in 1850 depicts the intensity of two working class men of the time, and is the ‚Äėto-be hung‚Äô piece. Symbolically and physically the painting is missing, as the artwork was destroyed during WWII in 1945.

As described by Rowland, his ‚Äú‚Ķgoal is to reintroduce Courbet‚Äôs work and philosophies back into the dialogue of current cultural production.‚ÄĚ The artwork is very realistic, and might be confused with MASS MoCA‚Äôs own installation team‚Äôs gear. Included are hooks, a ladder, a hammer and cardboard among other tools that are all made out of recycled materials, which Rowland made out of salvaged materials from when he worked construction jobs to support himself as an artist.

Come check out Tyler Rowland in The Workers at MASS MoCA!

Posted June 8, 2011 by MASS MoCA
Filed under BLOG, Exhibitions, The Workers
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