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Fifth Street

April 15, 2021

In this issue: Curator Ashanti McGee on new exhibit A Common Thread | Found Dog, Lost Cause | Cryptocash, Virtual Art, and Robot Authors


WOMEN'S WORK: a term almost always used to diminish or erase. So, in her first museum-level curation, Las Vegas artist and advocate Ashanti McGee sets out to surface the deeper meanings and complexities inherent in women’s labor. The result is A Common Thread, a fabric and textile-based exhibit occupying the Barrick Museum’s center gallery and co-presented by The Las Vegas Womxn of Color Arts Festival. “Almost immediately I said I would like to do something really focusing on a genre that has been largely associated with women,” McGee says. The works are varied, from wall-crawling skeins of fabric and plastic by Adriana Chavez to the meticulous weaving of Desire Moheb-Zandi to a quartet of ersatz water vessels woven from grocery bags by Ailene Pasco, all entwined into a meditation on connection, teaching, the passing down of knowledge and traditions — typically not qualities valued by a mostly patriarchal arts world. “Since we're talking about textiles and fiber,” McGee says, “I wanted it to flow.”

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There are several pieces — by Adriana Chavez, by Ailene Pasco — that deal with the idea of reuse.
Absolutely. I'm a little bit of an eco nerd, so I'm immediately drawn to that. But, also, I think it is a discussion on the idea of feminine work. I think we can look back to women in our lives who had these innovative ways of creating things out of nothing. How's she doing this? I've known a few friends who would talk about how their mothers could create several meals out of just, like, a small portion of something, and just be so innovative. And so I think those also allude to that. 

Also, one thing I love about Ailene and Adriana's pieces is the idea of taking refuse most people would throw away and creating something beautiful out of it. And creating something that implies use, like in Ailene’s case.

And, in Ailene’s case, with a layer of sharp wit that really catches you by surprise.
That's one of the things I also like highlighting — that playfulness, that fun. You'll see throughout the exhibition, there’s a lot of movement, a lot of bright colors. I love witty, and I love fun. So, yeah, there are a few pieces that definitely invoke that.

(Stopping in front of “Self Portrait (Jigéen, Jabar, Yaye, Ndey)” by Yacine Tilala Fall, a brightly colored face covering that extends downward to obscure the wearer’s body, as demonstrated in an accompanying video.)
It's pretty intense. She's a first-generation Senegalese American, and this spoke about her mother. Her mother ended up coming to the United States to provide a better life for her family. Typically it's the men of Senegal who will go to different countries to find work and send the money back. It happens so much that they have a word for it — however, they don't have a word for when women do it. And so she really wanted to highlight the tension, the turmoil, and the difficulty of being away, and the strain that that has on someone who is, in a way, pioneering. I mean, her video is intense.

Oh, another thing that I wanted to add, regarding themes: There are some professors in this exhibition, as well as students, you know, emerging artists, and I really like connecting people. I value the idea of, you know, seasoned professionals who are used to this (being exhibited in a museum) being connected with younger people or emerging artists. 

Which reinforces the ideas of connection and lineage.
Exactly, and it's one of those little happy moments that I did unintentionally, but that's just who I am as a person. I really enjoy connection and stories and finding ways for people to get to know each other.

Let’s talk about this piece (“Finding My Light” below right) by Adriana Chavez (. It caught my eye in part because it moves from, like, private meanings — it's got some of her grandmother's clothing and embroidery in it — to some very public meanings (with discarded plastic trash woven in). It seems very open-ended.
This was a spontaneous work, and, to a certain extent, when I chose the artists, I trusted them in creating something that made sense to them. So I had no idea what she was going to do. And it was really interesting — while we were in the process of installing, she was (still) putting things together. So, yeah, it's definitely spontaneous and cathartic. This really resonates with me because my grandmother had a background in textiles and sewing, and, after she died, we were unpacking a lot of her things. I could kind of empathize with Adriana when she was going through this process. I really wanted this to be part of the exhibition because there's this continual, you know, unpacking.

There are a few pieces that have a more obvious political bent (stopping in front of “Black Sweat — Diamonds and Gold” by Isar King). You know, diamonds and gold being the things that brought the white colonials to Africa, and this addresses that grotesque history while being a very beautiful object in itself.
Absolutely. She's probably one of our more senior artists in the exhibition. She said that she's been involved with textiles and quilt-making for close to 50 years. And it was really important for me to have her here to talk about these stories. Especially in a lot of cultures of color, elders are essential to the connection of community. She calls herself a cultural anthropologist, and there's definitely that commentary of exploitation and the history behind it. And I think also with some of these — essentially, with all of these — there's also a commentary on resilience.

This work and several others also speak of patience. Many of these pieces represent a lot of time invested in many small, precise, detailed actions, and it sort of goes against our cultural norms, in which we're all so accelerated.
And that's one of the reasons why this exhibition was so important to me, and I hope to others. I'm really trying, despite everything that's going on, to find a space for patience and time and reconnecting, because it's so important. It's so valuable and healthy. It's a reminder to me of something calming, of saying, Okay, stop and wait and let your fingers and the fabric meet.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

A Common Thread, through July 2, unlv.edu/barrickmuseum

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MY HUSBAND AND I first spotted Rex — as we’d later name him, after Edward Norton’s Isle of Dogs character — on a Monday, lying in a lawn not far from our house. The lawn bordered a busy residential street, and because Rex didn’t move when we walked by with our own dogs, I figured he’d been hit by a car and made his way to the safety of the grass before collapsing. Either that, or he was extremely mellow. He just lay there watching us go by — head up, but motionless. We didn’t approach, because we didn’t want to risk either him or our dogs getting hurt. We decided to finish our walk, drop our dogs off, and circle back to see if he was still there. 

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We didn’t have to. He came to us, limping up the street toward our house like an arthritic grandpa. Maybe he’s just old, we speculated. He looks like he’s got some shepherd in him. You know how their hips get. My husband leashed him up without a fight and we put him in the rec room, a converted garage that has its own entrance and dog run where we used to board dogs back when we did a lot of fostering.

This not being our first rodeo, we swung into action: took pictures of the dog and used them to post notices on social media; registered him with the lost-and-found service that Lied, the public animal shelter, uses; made posters and taped them to utility poles around the neighborhood. “FOUND DOG. Morning of 4/5/21 on the corner of St. Louis and S. 16th St. Unneutered male shepherd mix with no collar,” etc.

We’d eventually have to get him scanned for a microchip and walk him around the area where we’d spotted him to see if anybody recognized him, or if he gravitated to a specific location. But someone would probably claim him before we got to that. In our experience — particularly since the advent of sites like Nextdoor.com and the Lost Dogs of Las Vegas Facebook group — this method usually produced an owner within a few hours. 

Not this time. All day, crickets. Except, of course, from everyone’s favorite social media faction, the Helpful Suggestion Commenter, which had a lot to say. We should get the dog scanned for a microchip. Make sure and require proof of ownership from anyone who claims him (Beware scammy malevolent dog thieves!). Take him to Lied, since that’s where his owners would look for him.

But we were trying to avoid that option. Lied isn’t a no-kill shelter, and we weren’t sure if the dog was “adoptable” by their standards. We still didn’t know what, if anything, was wrong with him. So, we decided to just hang onto him in the hope someone would call. We’d keep checking social media, and regroup in the morning.

Tuesday. No one has called. Our neighborhood veterinarian has an early cancellation, so my husband takes Rex — he’s Rex now — to be scanned for a microchip. He doesn’t have one. The vet estimates he’s two-ish years old and, yes, probably injured. She vaccinates him but doesn’t have time for a full exam; since the dog is eating, drinking, peeing, pooping, and walking, he’s probably just banged up — nothing broken or bleeding internally. He doesn’t respond to the most basic commands in either Spanish or English. Probably a stray, the vet says. You should take him to Lied.

Mmm… not yet. He’s fine in the rec room for now. He mostly sleeps, only barks and cries for a few minutes when we leave him alone after feeding or walking. Someone is bound to call.

Just in case, I compile a list of a half-dozen trusted rescues, and my husband starts calling them. The first one informs us they won’t take a dog from us that’s not our dog. Makes sense. We either have to keep Rex for 30 days while trying to find an owner, or he has to go through the 3-day hold at Lied and be released for adoption, whereupon he can become our dog. Next rescue, same thing: You have to take him to Lied. People looking for lost pets go there first. Don’t worry, they assure us. If he’s healthy and friendly, he’ll either get adopted or picked up by an outfit like ours. After a third rescue says more or less the same thing, we relent. My husband dials the number for the Animal Foundation, the nonprofit that operates Lied.

The shelter, not surprisingly, has limited service due to the pandemic. Their public lobby is closed. They’re not taking walk-ins. Stray animals will be accepted curbside by appointment only. My husband navigates his way through an automated phone tree to the lost-and-found department. You’re the 9th caller in line, the computer tells him. Please continue to hold. He makes it all the way to No. 2. Then, before a live human can pick up, he’s sent to voice mail. Most calls are returned within 24 hours, it says. He’s not sure if he’s reached the right place but leaves a message anyway. I try them later that day, with the exact same result.

Wednesday. Rex is feeling better. We know this, because he begins barking as soon as it’s daylight and keeps it up 'til we go out to the rec room to feed or walk him. He’s starting to pull on the leash. He’s actually pretty energetic, it turns out.

We have to introduce him to our dogs, we decide. There’s no telling how long we may have him, and he can’t just sit in the rec room alone all day, whining. We introduce Rex and our Brittany, Stryder, in the driveway, then bring the two of them around to the backyard, hoping Stryder will provide a buffer for our pit bull, Buster. The attempt fails. Buster won’t accept Rex, who aggravates the tension by repeatedly trying to hump Stryder. Back to the rec room Rex goes.

I take to social media, updating my found-dog postings with a plea: No one is claiming this dog. He doesn’t get along with our dogs. We can’t get through to Lied. Can anyone else foster him? One person comments, tagging another, presumably a dog rescue volunteer, with a question mark. No one replies. Everyone’s run out of advice, it seems.

I call Lied and leave another message.

Thursday. My neighbor stops me on the way home from a walk. She wonders if we got a third dog. No, I explain, telling her the story. She says she has a friend in Pahrump who does some dog rescue and might be able to take him. Within an hour, she texts me: Her friend will take Rex, she says, if we get him neutered first. Deal, I say, Rex barking in the background.

I call the neighborhood vet for a neuter appointment. They have no openings till June. I remember Hearts Alive Village, whose staff have participated in the pet segments I’ve produced for State of Nevada. They’ve talked about their low-cost veterinary clinic. I call them. No openings until August. Four months away. As a last resort, I try Lied’s clinic. Thirteenth in the caller queue. I hang up. 

At lunch, I lament Rex’s plight to a friend, who says she’s noticed a place near her house that’s actually called the Spay & Neuter Center. I text it to my husband. He calls them and gets an appointment for Saturday. We’re finally getting somewhere — with no help from social media or the publicly funded animal welfare nonprofit.

Friday morning. Lied calls my husband back to offer an appointment. He asks them to wait a moment. Muting his phone, he asks me if I’m sure. Suddenly, he has misgivings. We’ve made a plan. Rex is such a nice dog. What if they deem him unadoptable and he gets euthanized? It will be our fault. I try to reassure him. We don’t know if it will work out at our neighbor’s friend’s house in Pahrump; we don’t even know him. This is the route the rescues told us to go. We’re doing the right thing.

It doesn’t feel that way though. I arrive at Lied at 10 a.m., first in line, thankfully, since Rex is barking nonstop in the back seat despite my attempts to calm him. As a volunteer walks toward my car, a man with a fat black pit bull on a leash stops her. From what I can make out, he’s trying to surrender the dog. The volunteer rebuffs him and offers me a clipboard with some paperwork. As I fill it out, a nervous woman comes up the sidewalk shouting about her dog having been illegally confiscated. She needs another dog right away. She’s willing to pay cash. She approaches the man with the pit bull and offers him $300 for it. He seems interested at first, then distances himself from her. She crouches down and tries to coax the dog to her. As this situation unfolds, staff come out of the building to intervene. Rex’s barking is like a dentist’s drill in the back of my skull. I get him out of the car, hoping to distract him with fresh air and a tree to sniff. The woman who wants the pit bull turns our way, asks me if she can buy Rex. No, I say. We don’t know if he already has an owner. That’s why we're here. 

A staff member comes out to take Rex inside. As I promised my husband I’d do, I ask to get his intake number. The staffer says he won’t have one until later in the day. She reassures me he won’t be euthanized, provided he’s healthy and friendly. He’s really friendly and well-behaved, I say. Can we be notified when he’s released for adoption? She tells me we’ll just have to keep an eye on the website.

As I drive away, another woman is crossing the parking lot calling to the shelter workers, “Where can I get my dog euthanized?”  

Monday. Rex shows up on Lied’s website. He has an ID number: A1165728. The description reads, “The Animal Foundation Team is getting to know me. Please call to learn more!”

I keep refreshing, every few hours, day after day, until I turn this story in, and it says the same thing. Now I know what will happen when I call — no one will pick up. There's no point posting Rex's link on social media or contacting the rescues until he's released. Like the day we found him lying in a lawn not far from our house, Rex is on his own. I wonder: Did we help him at all?

 

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1. IF WE HAD TO do the pandemic over again — and who knows, we probably will! — I’d spend my lockdown time differently. You know what I’d do? I’d invest my homebound year of queasy, fretful doldrums figuring out what hell is up with money nowadays. Money. Like, is it even … real anymore? Was it ever real? *touches spectral money* As lockdown sealed off much of our daily lived experience in a flickering marinade of virtuality — binge-streaming, phone-scrolling, browser-refreshing, tab-clicking — money seemed to emerge as disembodied as us, what with this world of crypto, stonks, NFTs, and SPACS burgeoning freshly into mainstream conversation, glittering and strange as a $587,000 nyan cat.

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In New York Magazine, Max Read tries to wrap his head around it all in his essay, “There’s Nothing to Do Except Gamble.” “NFTs and meme stocks and cryptocivilizations aren’t just the products of new technologies run amok or old financial dynamics dressed up in new clothes,” Read writes. “[T]hey are the morbid symptoms of an interregnum during which the role and identity of money in our lives and politics are shifting.” I wouldn’t call this a think piece; I’d call it a feel piece, as Read energetically grapples with the protean idea of what money is and can be.

2. The legacy of composer Richard Wagner is a snarl of complications, to say the least. On the one hand: forceful, visionary, complex, singularly stirring music that transcends generations! On the other: hella icky Nazi creeper vibes! (Little wonder Leonard Bernstein famously said, “Richard Wagner, I hate you, but I hate you on my knees.”) In The Baffler, Nathan Shields dives into the fray with a long review of Alex Ross’ recent book, Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music. Did Wagner’s potent oeuvre predict, prefigure, prepare the ascendance of Nazi Germany? It’s fascinatingly complicated.

I’d be lying if I said I devoured this article because I’m a Wagner fan; the extent of my familiarity with his work is being able to identify the gusty opening riff from “The Flight of the Valkyries.” I read it because Shields’ writing positively ripples with vigorous intelligence, and every sentence is a pleasure to read. Check this passage: “In [Wagner’s] post-revolutionary works, the orchestra is transformed into an instrument of unprecedented force and subtlety, the dramatic text assumes the allusive density and sweep of religious epic, and Wagner’s musical language is pushed to heights of anguished dissonance and contrapuntal complexity that would go unrivaled until the birth of modernism half a century later.” Valkyries in flight indeed!

3. Brutalism seems to be having a viral moment as a new catchall word for basic-looking design in any discipline. In architecture, it’s become synonymous with unadorned buildings that loom with imposing grimness and charmless inertial bulk. Now imagine imposingly grim concrete letters spelling out this: WRONG! In the Washington Post, writer Kelsey Ables attempts to rescue Brutalism from this unfortunate stereotype. “But there’s no need to vilify — or glorify — [Brutalism],” Ables writes. “The term itself derives from the neutral French phrase béton brut, meaning ‘raw concrete.’ What if we instead called these misunderstood buildings ‘raw?’ Maybe they’d conjure up different associations. Maybe we’d see them as the vulnerable, honest structures they aspire to be.” If you want to see examples of Brutalism yourself, you don’t have to look far in Las Vegas — common features such as recessed windows, large rectangular forms, and a focus on basic materials are also frequent hallmarks of desert architecture.

4. Someday in the near future, you’ll be sipping your nutritive nanobiotic vaxx smoothie while passively ingesting the latest edition of an AI-produced Fifth Street through your 1tb cranio-neural uplink feed, and your FaceTwitter Global Megacorp avatar may ask itself in the form of an shruggy emoji bubble, “How did I get here?” Well, it all started in April 2021, when one of the first cybernetic novels was published — that is, a work of fiction co-written by a human and an AI. In Bookforum, Dawn Chan considers this new work, Pharmako-AI, authored by human writer K Allado-McDowell and a predictive-text AI named GPT-3, but, more fundamentally, considers first whether readers can even encounter AI writing as a literary experience. In other words, if the broad project of literature is to enrich our sense of humanity, what does it mean when a non-human purports to produce literature? “The fuel [for reading] is that implicit faith—a faith that allowing an author’s thoughts into your mind will somehow leave you better off,” Chan writes. “Eerie and intriguing, Pharmako-AI asks the confounding question of how and why we might read when that faith is upended.” Andrew Kiraly

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Photos and art: Ashanti McGee by Christopher Smith, exhibit inset photo by Mikayla Whitmore; dog illustration by Christopher Smith

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