Allison Gulick reviews Nancy Daly’s exhibition, Subject to Terms and Conditions, at School 33 Art Center on Light Street in Baltimore, through October 26th.
We’ve all heard the adage “put your money where your mouth is,” which I’ve always interpreted as a nicer way of saying “quit bitching and do something about your problem.” In her new exhibition, Subject to Terms and Conditions, Nancy Daly asks her viewers to put that old adage to work, and then some. Daly’s asking us to put her money wherever we want! She asks viewers to vote on organizations represented within the piece and pledges to donate a portion of her annual charity allowance to the winning organizations. (Should I have an annual charity allowance?)
Daly’s installation is made up of two large white panels—one with approximately 200 exposed light bulbs and the other with corresponding switches. Interestingly there is no apparent relationship that explains which switch corresponds to which bulb. The first time you flip a switch, it’s something of a surprise which bulb will turn on. Each of the 200 switches represents a company or organization. Information about each company and their practices are indicated on small retractable scrolls that accompany every switch. The scroll provides important information about the company as well as a description of the implications of flipping that particular switch. Examples of additional organizations include: (exhibition host) School 33, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, The National Rifle Association, National Public Radio, United Way, Salvation Army, Catholic Charities, Feeding America, American Red Cross, Food for the Poor, American Cancer Society, Habitat for Humanity, etc.
Essentially the artist has created an intricate voting device that carries an electrical current. Each switch represents an organization; every time a switch is flipped, that flip is recorded and an electrical current is sent to a corresponding light bulb. For example, let’s say I find Habitat for Humanity among the scrolls and switches. If after reading Daly’s fine print I decide that I support that organization’s practices and I want to donate Daly’s money to their cause, then I would flip that switch. This flip also begins to light up a bulb on the adjacent board, and let’s say I get over-excited about Habitat’s great work and maybe I flip the switch a few more times; these additional flips are also recorded and the connected bulb becomes brighter and brighter.
Or I could be someone with little regard for how large corporations treat their employees. Even after reading Daly’s fine print about the company I might be less inclined to vote on the company’s business practices and more inclined to try and make a pretty design with the light bulbs. I may not even read the fine print; I may just haphazardly start flipping switches rebelliously without cause or conscious. This is reflective of our consumer lives in general; as consumers, we can believe what we’re told by the shiny happy people in advertisements or we can choose to make informed decisions. In Daly’s installation, we can choose to learn more about a company, their products, and how, according to Daly, they treat their workers, or we can enjoy mindlessly flipping switches.
Subject to Terms and Conditions is experiential. The only light in the room emanates from the filigree of Daly’s 200 bulbs. The dimness of the room leads viewers to the sculptural elements like moths to a flame, and the ambiance is both meditative and light-hearted, as the audience-turned-participants try and discover which of the 200 switches controls which bulb.
When I was at School 33 for the opening reception, I watched participants approach the composition differently. Some meticulously read the fine print of the scrolls, making sure they were comfortable with their switch selections. Others were flipping switches at random, not even reading the scrolls, but instead focused on creating their own light bulb pattern—which is harder than it might seem since the switches do not align with the corresponding light bulbs on the adjoining grid… Hmmm… Tricky! Is this a game? Is it serious? It’s hard to say.
Daly’s artwork is consistently a combination of simple or not-so-simple machinery which incorporates clean lines and thought-provoking subject matter. Frequently Daly’s work discusses our ever-increasing dependence on technology. Notable earlier works by Daly include Status Update, a series of wall-mounted rotary devices which address the role of social media in creating information waves and online presence, and Missed Connections, a hand-cranked series of machines which extrude Crisco through cut-outs of a sample of those popular pining Craigslist texts.
In Subject to Terms and Conditions, Daly asks the audience to consider where their money is going and what they’re supporting in consumer settings. The use of currency in our lives has become so ingrained that we can forget that our money has an effect long after it’s left our hands. Don’t get me wrong, most people I know are very aware of their monetary standings, and we all exist in a state of flux along a spectrum of having money or not. But beyond that, do we really consider where our money goes after it leaves our pockets? To some extent, maybe we do. We all know that Wal-Mart is evil and Ikea is cheap, and there are charts on the Internet to tell you which products are actually “green” and which are supporting the industrial-farming giant Monsanto. But realistically, I’m under the impression that we are less aware of what our money is supporting than we should be. At least I know I am.
In her artist statement, Daly questions her viewers and invites them to participate:
“…Does buying that chicken sandwich or watching that movie mean providing financial support to organizations working to deny some Americans their unalienable rights? …In Subject to Terms and Conditions viewers are urged to investigate the unanticipated effects of blind participation.”
This installation is charming, simultaneously telling me that I need to pay attention to my choices but also providing me with the option to opt-out and play with the adult equivalent of a Light-Brite.
In all seriousness, Subjects to Terms and Conditions challenges us to pause in our hectic consumer-driven lives, stop our zombie-like dispersal of funds, and be aware that our choices—however menial or haphazard—are important. Speaking both metaphorically and considering the literal impact of Daly’s money, the switch we flip affects more than which light bulb comes on. Subject to Terms and Conditions calls on viewers to wake-up, resume consciousness, and remain vigilant in the realization that our choices—monetary and otherwise—have an impact.
Allison Gulick is currently working for the Office of Community Engagement at MICA. She earned a BA in Art History from the University of North Carolina at Asheville and is a recent MFA graduate from MICA’s Curatorial Practice Program. Her previous curatorial work includes the exhibitions: Reloading the Canon: African Traditions in Contemporary Art; Invited: Celebration Station; Live and In Person: Globe Posters at MICA and The Meyerhoff Symphony Hall; and La Riqueza Del Pueblo: The Richness of the People. Allison has an addiction to coffee, chocolate, books, and British period dramas. In July, Allison wrote about Ashe to Amen at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum for What Weekly. Art Criticism in What Weekly (whatweekly.com/artcrit) is made possible with the generous support of the William G. Baker, Jr. Memorial Fund, creator of the Baker Artist Awards, www.BakerArtistAwards.org. Marcus Civin has so far edited twenty-four of these art criticism articles for What Weekly. Ben Andrew co-edited this one. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.