When I was in seventh grade, a teacher took some time out from the day’s lesson and showed us all how to read The New York Times: she demonstrated the proper way to fold the broadsheet crisply along its length, minimizing size without sacrificing readability. Of course, no such civilizing instruction was necessary for the tabloid papers, the New York Post and the Daily News. Their use – both literally and conceptually – was self-evident. There was nothing aspirational about the trashy dailies – they were simply part of the local landscape, and the less said about them the better.
Aleksandra Mir’s multivalent and hugely entertaining ‘News Room 1986–2000’ found much to say about ubiquitous tabloids and the distinctive voice in which they speak. The idea behind the project was straightforward enough: Mir had copies made of every Daily News and Post front page between 1986 and 2000 and organized hundreds of headlines from her archive into various thematic categories. Over the course of the show’s run she reproduced them in the gallery, doing poster-size freehand drawings in Sharpie marker. Mir set up an ‘editor’s office’ in the back room, sorting through files and sketching, while out front a table was crowded with an industrious group of assistants filling in the details, accompanied by a boom-box playing period-appropriate tunes.
In keeping with newspaper practice, the imaginary newsdesk staff were constantly working to deadline, churning out posters to be displayed hot off the ‘presses’. New themes were introduced each week, including: Bad Weather (‘THE HEAT IS ON’, ‘HELTER SWELTER’, ‘ICEBOUND’, ‘SCARF CITY’ and ‘BRUTAL!’), Horror (‘HIGHWAY HORROR’, ‘HANUKKAH HORROR’, ‘HORROR ON THE HUDSON’) and Cops Shot (‘2 COPS SHOT’, ‘3 COPS SHOT’, ‘4 COPS SHOT’, etc.). What emerged was a poetry of shock and outrage – hyperbole is, after all, what ‘sells papers’. The protagonists of tabloid New York became a set of types as formalized as commedia dell’arte characters: the victim, the thug, the teens, the gays and of course, Donald Trump. Recent history became a series of everyday miracles and disasters.
Of course, ‘real’ history crept through – various all too relevant national and international stories showed up in smaller type and in corner boxes. But it was clear that all this stuff was happening in some far-off elsewhere and was nothing like as important as the latest teen rampage or highway accident. Seen through the filter of the tabloids’ local focus, New York before 9/11 looked like some sweetly self-obsessed small town. For New Yorkers, at least, Mir’s project touched on an obviously flawed nostalgia.
Yet even for the non-native there was much to admire. Among the many pleasures of the project was the graphic appeal of the monumental newspapers – the posters, as it happened, were great to look at. The show served as an ongoing lesson in the formal conventions of tabloid design, with all the eye-catching push/pull of image and text. The standard front-page format was retained, but, transformed by Mir and her assistants, styles became loose and loopy: lines sagged, photographs were represented as shadowy fields of dense cross-hatchings. As the weeks went by, the drawings seemed to become wilder, as blocks of text turned psychedelic, dissolved into ornate Victor Vasarely patterns.
The evolution of styles and the circulation of themes inspired repeated visits. I’m sure I’m not the only person who made the gallery a regular stop on the Chelsea circuit. There’s a reason that films about newspapers are so popular – there’s something compelling about watching people work together towards deadlines. With all the creation out in the open, Mir’s show resembled a performance project or some exercise in ‘relational aesthetics’ yet wasn’t quite either. There was much to watch, and the artist was happy to stop and chat with whoever came by, but that wasn’t really the point – she had a job to do.
And she had, as well, a place in which to do it: the ‘room’ of Mir’s title was as significant as the ‘news’. Like almost everything concerning New York, her project was also about property. During her years of living and working in the city – years that more or less coincided with the period covered by the show – Mir never had a studio of her own. As though to make up for that lack, she took advantage of her access to the best studio in town, courtesy of Mary Boone. And for the run of the show Mir turned the gallery into a hub of actual productive activity and a remarkably pleasant place to spend some time. Celebrating the local and the handmade, Mir’s old news managed to make Chelsea feel connected to the rest of the city.