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ex machina 4

Ex Machina, Alex Garland, 2015.

A young male programmer employed by a Google-esque company wins a contest to spend a week in the paranoically secluded abode and laboratory of the company’s grandiose and manipulative CEO. The programmer is to assess an artificial intelligence in the form of a beautiful young female robot invented by the CEO, an A.I. generated through the culling of data from millions of company user searches (desire and knowledge) and images taken from masses of phone data (affect). Can it pass muster as human, with human defined as having complex intelligence, decision-making skills, and individual personality? This is the narrative schema of the new film, Ex Machina, a film that ventures into the under-examined territory of the algorithm with a degree of criticality not found today in most artworks or even discursive texts.

In a recent article about artificial intelligence in the Science section of the NYT, the journalist’s discussion of how unlikely is the possibility that we could create the kind of autonomous A.I. robots pictured in the film could not be more wrong about what is really at stake in the discourse and imagery of the film. The journalist reads the film concretely and reassures readers that we are far from achieving A.I. in robot form because the most advanced robots in the U.S. today are “glacially slow in accomplishing tasks such as opening doors and entering rooms, clearing debris, climbing ladders and driving through an obstacle course.” Robots, according to the article, are dependent on human operators to guide machines via wireless networks, though some are semi-autonomous. They are “largely helpless without human supervisors.”

Yet that is precisely what we have to fear.

A lot of the anxiety doesn’t come from any real situation that A.I.s are about to take us over or the world is about to change because of A.I.s in any fundamental kind of way — not at the moment at any rate. It’s got more to do with big tech companies and the Internet and search engines and social media and that kind of thing. I think there’s a sense in which we feel that we don’t understand how our cellphones and our laptops work … but those things seem to understand a lot about us. Now that’s not really about artificial intelligence, it’s about tech paranoia. So somewhere in this I think I’m trying to look at that, too.

Alex Garland, Director of Ex Machina, NPR, April 14, 2015

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Ex Machina, 2015.

What the algorithm achieves today is set in motion by humans, but once set in motion by humans, algorithms collect data on populations at a speed and with an accuracy unachievable by the human mind or hand. The A.I.s of today are not housed in attractive “fembots.” They are housed in microchips and abstract mathematical formulas that are unsexy…to most.

An Adaptive Data Collection Algorithm Based on a Bayesian Compressed Sensing Framework

An Adaptive Data Collection Algorithm Based on a Bayesian Compressed Sensing Framework

The other thing I was interested in was the way tech companies present themselves. So Oscar Isaac’s character Nathan talks in this very kind of familiar, pal-y way. He uses the word “dude” and “bro” a lot. And I felt that this was sometimes how tech companies present themselves to us. They’re kind of like our friends. They say, “Hey pal, hey dude,” like we’re kind of mates, you know, “I’m not really a big tech company, I’m actually your friend and we’re hanging out sort of at a bar or at the beach and we’re sort of part of each other’s lifestyle, but at the same time I’m going to take a lot of money off you and I’m going to take all of your data and rifle through your address book” and that kind of thing.

Alex Garland, Director of Ex Machina, NPR, April 14, 2015

The critical dimensions of Ex Machina depend on a synthesis of the visual, the visceral, the aural, and the scripted. But like a lot of great films, Ex Machina achieves visually what cannot be enacted through language. Yes, the storyline is creepy, and its arc is that of a moral tale about A.I.s taking over the world. But the visual and affective aspects of the film draw in the spectator in ways that go beyond that of a repressible moral tale. The film’s subtle visual effects, the decisions made about just how close to hew to the visual realism of human skin and features and affect, and just how far to veer from that realism and at which moments to do so- these create a spectatorial engagement semi-separate from that of the script. Just as an utterance or an exchange or facial expression in the psychoanalytic setting can have reverberating effects on consciousness and on the unconscious, so can the unscripted aspects of film, independent from a story line, independent from its narrative ending.

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Ex Machina, 2015.

Granted, it’s a common trope in science fiction or cyberpunk fiction to create a frisson of sameness/difference where the human and the robotic meet.

Screen frame from A.I. Artificial Intelligence, a film by Steven Spielberg, 2001.

 A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Steven Spielberg, 2001.

But Ex Machina deploys the visual trope through a deeply intelligent understanding of how to manipulate it to critical ends.

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Ex Machina, 2015.

I will admit to spending a good part of the film trying to figure out just what special effects they used to achieve the creepy elision of space between human and robot in the Ava character; the physical interface between human and robot in Ava is fascinating. I was able to attend to this throughout the film because of its pacing, and I think that musing on that intermittently was actually one way of experiencing the film. I was only able to find an explanation of the effects employed through the accretion of information from a few articles after the viewing. Garland’s script is allegorical, something the science writer didn’t pick up. It’s not about A.I. per se. It’s the throwaway lines that haunt – the references to the CEO’s access to the memories and desires of hundreds of millions of us; Ava as the encapsulation of that access.  Ex Machina‘s particular ways of blurring the space between human and A.I are what gives the story its significance and its affective pull. And this is best achieved visually, so as to leave the viewer with the question (a visually composed question) of just how large they’d like that space to be.

 

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Left: Dada Puppen (Dada Dolls), 1916, Hannah Höch. Right: Collage (Dada), c. 1922. Hannah Höch.

The “Dadaist Manifesto” [Berlin, 1918] alludes to World War I as “the explosions of last week” and “yesterday’s crash,” asserting, simultaneously and almost paradoxically, both the war’s presence and its historicity, its belonging at once to the moments of the manifesto’s production and presentation and to a more or less immediate past. The manifesto calls up the overwhelming physical and psychological effects of the war. In so doing it means to insist on the necessary subjection of contemporary artists to the collisions that produced those traumatic effects, as well as the necessary recognition, on the part of artists  and their audiences, that those collisions had a history, that they belonged to the present as well as to a past that could be mapped, even if that past had taken place only yesterday, or last week…Thus Dada art emerged, at least prospectively, as an aggressively paradisiacal (kindheartedly malicious) counterpart to the exactness of photography, a new kind of art that would at once mimic cinema and instantiate the “real situation,” that is to say, the bodily disposition, of contemporary viewers…

Brigid Doherty, “Berlin,” in the catalogue for the exhibition Dada, curated by Leah Dickerman, 2006 [all illustrations from the catalogue.]

Trouble roils the land. Weak safety nets fray. Suffering displaces into rebellion. And we’re not talking about 1918. In such circumstances, the thorny questions of art’s imbrication in political and social change (not to utter the unspeakable challenge to capitalism) make their ghostly return. In the week after September 11, 2001, I was sent a few questions by a European art journal, asking whether I thought art and artists would be changed by the events of 9/11; would they change to be more politically relevant? In other words, how were artists subject to the “collisions” that produced the traumatic effects of that week.

My response was that if an artist’s work was politically relevant on 9/10, it would be politically relevant on 9/12.  Relevant, of course, is a word that is always open to questions.

Hannah Hochwith puppets she made, exhibited, and performed with, Berlin, 1920.

Hannah Höch with puppets she made, exhibited, and performed with, Berlin, 1920.

There is a sense in which Herzfelde’s introduction makes the case not only for the dadaists’ destruction of the cult of art, but also for their invention of a new kind of artistic production that refuses to “emancipate itself from reality” or to “disavow the actual,” a new art, or at least a new way of making pictures, tat seeks to intensify “the pleasure of the broad masses in constructive, creative activity (gestaltende Beschäftigung),” for example, by taking “the illustrated newspaper and the editorials of the press as [its] source.” Montage is the technique the Berlin dadaists deployed. 

Brigid Doherty, “Berlin.” 

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ABCD or Portrait de l’artiste, 1923-1924, Raoul Hausmann. Detail.

The last few decades have seen rampant growth in what is commonly called “mainstream” art. Mainstream art-  that term may not be descriptive of the work itself, but of its location in/distribution via the museum, the gallery, the market, the media, the art fair, the biennial. There has also been dramatic growth in smaller venues and nonphysical ventures, and an exponential growth in self-identified artists

More museums, bigger museums, more galleries, bigger galleries, more artists, bigger artists, more art media, bigger art media, more art fairs, bigger art fairs, more MFA programs, bigger MFA programs, etc. As determined as I am to avoid a declinist atttude, the diffusion of effect, and the dissipation of focus are unavoidable side effects of this growth. You don’t need to uphold the questionable form of the manifesto to wonder what has been lost of collective pronouncement when the numbers grow so big and the din is so loud.

I feel it is imperative to point out that in her introduction to Herzfelde’s argument, Brigid Doherty notes that “the affirmative attitude toward the production of a new kind of art that Herzfelde adopts in his ‘introduction to the Dada Fair’ represents a position the Berlin dadaists did not hold for long. In September 1920, Grosz, Hausmann, Heartfeld, and Schlichter renounced in their manifesto ‘The Rules of Painting’ the principles of montage on which Herzfelde’s conception of Dadaist pictues rested.” …Note, however, that the difference between Herzfelde on the one side and Hausmann, Schlichter, Grosz, and Heartfeld on the other had more to do with whether the Dadaisten were striving to recuperate art itself or whether the very idea of art had been so vitiated that it should be jettisoned and something new, wild, and life-affirming should take its place.

R. Bruce Elder, DADA, Surrealism, and the Cinematic Effect, 2013.

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Preussischer Erzengel (Prussian Archangel), 2004, John Heartfield and Rudolf Schlichter.

What artists making “relevant” work have to be satisfied with is the incalculable nature of such work (if it doesn’t slip into the  unfortunate but common trap of attempting to instrumentalize political policy, which is better left to other realms of action). This is the nature of work on representation that doesn’t have the benefit of the kind of institutional dialogues that create a discursive context for academia, another arena that works on representation. Artists, unlike historians and critics, tend not to respond directly to the work of other artists through their own work, particularly when the “bigness” demands – still, even, in 2015 – originality. But artists have done so in moments where aesthetic arguments and efforts and individuals coalesce publicly enough to be heard. The incalculability of aesthetic practice is arguably a very good thing, but shouting – disjointedly- into the wind is another. Eclecticism is identified with openness and freedom, but more often than not it masks disconnection.

…unlike the spaces which are the work of our hands, [the space of appearance] does not survive the actuality of the movement which brought it into being, but disappears not only with the dispersal of men — as in the case of great catastrophes when the body politic of a people is destroyed — but with the disappearance or arrest of the activities themselves. Wherever people gather together, it is potentially there, but only potentially, not necessarily and not forever. 

The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt, 1958

The non-declinist question is whether one can dissent from the cult of art in the age of the Klout score. What would I not give to hear Hannah Arendt’s take on the Klout score…

 

 

 

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In the 1960s there was a catchy American tv commercial for Canoe men’s cologne that ended with the homonymically and metonymically suggestive tag line, “canoe canoe?” As with most scent ads, it’s clear that the “message” was not about cologne. “Understanding” is a complex activity.

canoe 3canoe 9The other night, when I walked into the lower east side art gallery where French philosopher/playwright/poet Alain Badiou was giving a talk, I wasn’t surprised to see an overflow crowd, more than half of which was quite young. He has his critics within the worlds of philosophy and art, but he also has a surprisingly strong following in the art scene, maybe because, as I remarked to a friend, not many others are taking on the really big art subjects today, particularly in a face-to-face setting. The subjects that beg to be addressed through broad arguments, which can have an impact even when they are not transparently understood.

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The source of Badiou’s considerable appeal lies in the understanding of philosophy that he defends. He writes that ‘Philosophy is something that helps change existence.’ Philosophy is neither technical and largely irrelevant logic-chopping nor is it deconstructive, melancholic poeticizing, what Badiou calls, ‘the delights of the margin.’ On the contrary, philosophy is an affirmative, constructive discipline of thought. Crucially, this is thought ‘not about what is, but about what is not.’ Philosophy is the construction of the formal possibility of something that would break with what Badiou calls the ‘febrile sterility’ of the contemporary world. this is what he calls an event, and the only question of politics, for Badiou, is whether there is something that might be worthy of the name event.

Simon Critchley, “On Badiou’s Politics,” in” Democracy and Disappointment: On the Politics of Resistance, 2007″

Badiou4Badiou has an uncanny ability to swing from the abstract to the concrete referent and back. When he is abstract, he is unnervingly, intensely so. But in the talk the other day, he created a kind of complex clarity by repeatedly framing his argument about the potential “infinitude” of aesthetic practices of the future with references to the finitude of our capitalist regime, in which everything has its literal price. I looked around the audience during the talk and wondered how many were following closely his abstract argument. And the questions that followed the talk did reveal a chasm between two extremes. There were the arcane and myopically off-topic questions articulated from within a philosophy-specific discourse, which Badiou reservedly answered. And there were the extremely basic (overtly apologetic) questions asked by two young people who were likely artists. Those two questions, in fact, generated the most interesting responses from Badiou, as well as one’s own reflections on the talk.

The e-vite blurb had included the following:

Under new conditions, the arrival of the twenty-first century faces a technical challenge comparable only to the invention of the printing press, or to the emergence of oil painting: the ability to digitize, including basic creative gestures, affords a sort of independence to the term “art” from the notion of “craft.” Artistic contexts of a semi-industrial type have appeared, and moreover, the systematic occupation by artists in the West of wastelands left by deindustrialization has become a major symbol of the period: creation nowadays takes place in old automobile factories and workshops, in outdated giant cold storage warehouses, in the huge debris of assembly line labor, in sawdust, tar, and gasoline. What will come out of this? Let us make a few assumptions…– Alain Badiou

Interestingly, this blurb is itself somewhat outdated in relation to the title of the talk. Surely the most urgent questions about art and technology do not concern the taking over of the debris of assembly line labor. But Badiou’s talk was much more mind-expanding and challenging than the blurb suggested it would be. Attendees received a page of points that he was going to address, some of which he addressed directly, though interestingly not in a linear way, and some of which he spontaneously chose not to address. Those omissions were perhaps performative, and they had their transferential effects in that regard – his talk was presentation, as much as meta-discourse.

badiou1 badiou2 badiou3As with a lot of Badiou’s writing, there was a radicality in his projections of a future art. These were large propositions, and when asked later what art or artists of today he thought exemplary, he rightfully refused to answer other than to say that philosophy should not have to play the role of critic.

The other day, a young artist told me that some of his colleagues had been arguing, in the context of today’s vertiginous social disparities and global conflict, for the futility of the small “critical” art gesture as against the direct action of what is defined as political activism. This is an argument that crops up repeatedly in the realms of critical art practice. The most cogent argument against such positions is the one that recognizes public realms as existing at all scales; the argument that recognizes that both harm and change are enacted at all scales and temporalities, with elusive quantifiability.

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But Badiou’s projections that day so stretched ideas about a future art that they took it to another scale, a scale at which the status of art today (market fetish or critical endeavor) would be unrecognizable. Regardless of how extensively one understands Badiou’s work and the many arguments surrounding it, that form of projection is breathtakingly crucial in opening up definitions of art, and re-casting the importance we accord to today’s conventional art institutions and aesthetic production. It made, for example, the current chest-thumping proclamations for “collective art” seem ridiculously overblown. Here are some notes that I jotted down:

Art will become collective and anonymous in the way that science is today. We don’t herald or fetishize individual achievements on a personal level in science (except for every 50 years or so – Darwin, Einstein, etc.), and the future art will occupy the same status.

Art must position itself near politics and near science. Numerization is the organizer of knowledge and power today.  Art must be the master of númerization. Art must have something to do with science.

Art will (must) become more like what poetry is today – an exception to the globalized structure of capitalism. That is the definition of freedom. There are rich arts and poor arts – art will be a poor art.

In order to be an exception to the globalized structure of capitalism, the future art must be a surprise. The surprise of the infinite. The modern form of finitude is the market in which everything has a price and the price is always finite. The exception must resist this finitude. Must not be distributed along the structure of the everyday. It will not be distributed as we know it.

It is necessary to have a strong knowledge of the structure of power, politics, science. Nothing in politics that is not a surprise is of interest.

The law of permissiveness…Freedom today is defined as adequation to the existing capitalist system.  We need to organize ourselves through interdiction and other methods to resist the adequation.

 

 

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The third and last phase [of repression] is the ‘return of the repressed’ in the guise of symptoms, dreams, parapraxes, etc. What does repression act upon?

From the definition of repression,  The Language of Psycho-Analysis, J. Laplanche and J.-B. Pontalis

The fact that an idea’s emphasis, interest or intensity is liable to be detached from it and to pass on to other ideas, which were originally of little intensity but which are related to the first idea by a chain of associations. 

From the definition of displacement,  The Language of Psycho-Analysis

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Piene, Otto, Heinz Mack, and Howard Beckman. 1973. Zero. Cambridge, Mass: M.I.T. Press. Manfred Tischer “mouth” images.

Censorship takes many forms – juridical, personal, cultural, economic, authoritarian, legislative, social (within which resides the religious). Recent world events exposed, as always, national biases for defining acceptable censorship in a democracy. Satirical cartoons defying authority: acceptable; linguistic venting of reactions to events or groups of people: often a crime. But into what does something like so-called “hate speech” transform when it’s sent underground? How does it travel? Who does it meet along the way? Onto what is the censored expression displaced? And does the original object of uncensored hate speech suffer less as a result of censorship? In the short run? In the long run?

Without welcoming a return or increase of the blatant misogyny of decades past, for example, in some sense I found it easier to navigate earlier obvious misogyny in the world in which my work as an artist circulates, than to navigate the more insidious version that exists now, intended and unintended. I have yet, among other issues, to see significant effacement of the masculine as the privileged artistic “type.” And yet little mention is made of the resiliency of such types. Misogyny, though rife and palpable to many, is no longer so easily turned into evidence, other than when played purely as a numbers game.

Yayoi Kusama preparing for a performative event, 1967.

Yayoi Kusama preparing for a performative event, 1967.

Walking through the Zero exhibition at the Guggenheim recently, I blinked and missed the work of the one woman considered to be related to the group, Yayoi Kusama. From the online synopsis, it seems the curatorial intent was to look at the group directly, and indirectly. To identify materials and processes used, general as they are. To locate the aim of the artists as that of “transform[ing] and redefin[ing] art in the aftermath of World War II.” The exhibition is organized around “points of intersection, exchange, and collaboration that defined these artists’ shared history.” Would this online description of the show rule out tangents and associations that are historically readable but were perhaps not historically overt? Must a shared history always be interpreted literally? Curatorial parameters are not set in stone, but they are shaped by conventions that appear to be reasonable and incontrovertible. As much as I love the Guggenheim building, that ramp can become a schema for a particular kind of curatorial approach. You can move forward; you can move backward. Sideways is more precarious.

Photo by Dina Litovsky for The New York Times.

Photo by Dina Litovsky for The New York Times.

This from the one of the exhibition’s wall texts: In 1958 Heinz Mack and Otto Piene held a one-night exhibition in their Dusseldorf studios and released the second issue of their coedited magazine, ZERO – both revolved around the idea of vibration. The publication’s mesmerizing frontispiece, with nine irregular columns repeating the word vibration, illustrates the concept and speaks to much of the art of the emerging ZERO generation. …For Bury and TInguely, electric motors offered a means of activating elements affixed to the surfaces of wood boards…Soto’s preferred technique involved superimposing forms to generate the optical impression of vibration…Like Mack, Gunther Uecker and George Rickey recognized metal’s viability for creating the impression of vibration. …exploring dynamism in art.

There was something about walking through that show, after reading that comment, with its scintillating vibrations…

More scintillating vibrations…

Its pliable rhythms…

Its strokings…its strokings…

Well, somehow something of the female and feminine seemed to have come through after all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The vocal chords of a young tenor, December 2014, Voices of Ascension choir, New York.

Contemporary labor has introjected into itself many characteristics which originally marked the experience of politics…Politics, according to Hannah Arendt, has taken to imitating labor. The politics of the  twentieth century, in her judgement, has become a sort of fabrication of new objects: the State, the political party, history, etc.

A Grammar of the Multitude, Paolo Virno, 2004 [all bold type throughout; somewhat tweaked].

joseph dennis_2I maintain that things have gone in the opposite direction from what Arendt seems to believe: it is not that politics has conformed to labor; it is rather that labor has acquired the traditional features of political action…I maintain that it is in the world of contemporary labor that we find the “being in the presence of others,” the relationship with the presence of others, the beginning of new processes, and the constitutive familiarity with contingency, the unforeseen and the possible — those talents and qualifications which, according to a secular tradition, had more to do with political action, but are brought into play by post-Fordist labor. 

joseph dennis_3…this explains the crisis of politics, the sense of scorn surrounding political praxis today, the disrepute into which action has fallen. In fact, political action now seems, in a disastrous way, like some superfluous duplication of the experience of labor, since the latter experience, even if in a deformed and despotic manner, has subsumed into itself certain structural characteristics of political action.

joseph dennis_4The sphere of politics follows closely the procedures and stylistic elements that define the current state of labor; but let us note: it follows them closely while offering a poorer, cruder and more simplistic version of these procedures and stylistic elements. Politics offers a network of communication and a cognitive content of a more wretched variety than what is carried out in the current productive process. While less complex than labor and yet too similar to it, political action seems, all the same, like something not very desirable at all.

joseph dennis_6The inclusion of certain structural features of political praxis in contemporary production help us to understand why the post-Ford multitude might be seen today as a de-politicized multitude. There is already too much politics in the world of wage labor (in as much as it is wage labor) in order for politics as such to continue to enjoy an autonomous dignity.

joseph dennis_5The subsumation into the labor process of what formerly guaranteed an indisputable physiognomy for public Action can be clarified by means of an ancient, but by no means ineffective, category: virtuosity—defined as the special capabilities of a performing artist, the activity that finds its fulfillment in itself and exists only in the presence of an audience, without an end product or object which survives the performance,.

joseph dennis_7One could say that every political action is virtuosic—shares with virtuosity a sense of contingency and the absence of a “finished product,” the immediate and unavoidable presence of others. On the other hand, all virtuosity is intrinsically political. Think about the case of Glenn Gould.

joseph dennis_9This great pianist paradoxically hated the distinctive characteristics of his activity as a performing artist; to put it another way, he detested public exhibition. Throughout his life he fought against the “political dimension” intrinsic to his profession…declared that he wanted to abandon the “active life,” the act of being exposed to the eyes of others. (note: “active life” is the traditional name for politics.)

joseph dennis_8In order to make his own virtuosity non-political, he sought to bring his activity as a performing artist as close as possible to the idea of labor, which leaves behind products. This meant closing himself inside a recording studio, passing off the production of records as an “end product.” In order to avoid the public-political dimension ingrained in virtuosity, he had to pretend that his masterly performances produced a defined object independent of the performance itself. 

joseph dennis_10Where there is an end product, there is labor, no longer virtuosity…But in post-Fordism, labor requires a “publicly organized space” and resembles a virtuosic performance (without end product).

And now, to complicate matters further, there is Miim—both product and virtuosic factory of sound and movement.  Happy new year, readers!

 

 

blog map

A map of all the countries from which the readers of this blog have arrived. The darker the color, the greater the number of readers.

To all the readers of this blog, a thanks for sustaining the writing by reading it over the past year and a half.  I hope the posts have been of some value.

Many thanks to the staff and this year’s committees at the Artswriters Grant Program at the Creative Capital/Warhol Foundation for the 2014 grant I just received for this blog. It will help me continue to tweak this platform to refract events through words and images.

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All color images, unless otherwise captioned, by S.K. from the 2014 Originale, at The Kitchen, New York.

All color images, unless otherwise captioned, by S.K. from the 2014 Originale, at The Kitchen, New York.

Originale, composer Karl-Heinz Stockhausen’s 1961 music and theater work, written in collaboration with artist Mary Bauermeister, is typically called a response to the “happening.” Placing Stockhausen’s infamous composition Kontackte—music both pre-recorded and live that breaks conventional musical structures and tone and texturesat its physical center, Originale uses a written “score” of rudimentary timed instructions to give form to spontaneous enactment in place of familiar theatrical modes.  Music and actions are performed by professionals and non-professionals, and observed by an audience free to move around during the production. Re-staged infrequently, it recently turned up in a two-day run in New York, co-produced by The Kitchen and the Goethe-Institut, 50 years after it’s New York performance.

originale 5What questions arose in deciding how to re-stage something that depended on improvised enactment of brief directives tied to a temporal structure, re-staged from a time when “happenings” resonated to a current moment when they don’t at all? What survived of the original and what didn’t? More importantly, what should have survived? Might a more “authentic” re-staging have involved some sort of reproduction of the original, based on extant documentation, rather than an updating? Would a “dated” reconstruction have actually been more “true” to the original? Or does the improvisational aspect of the work preclude the option of a “vintage” re-staging?

Some period photographs and film footage and descriptions and reviews of the 1964 New York production survive, but in any case, a time-based, partly spontaneous work in-the-round can only be elliptically captured on film, even with a roving camera and montage editing. To wit the beautifully evocative little black and white film (Peter Moore and others) of the 1964 New York staging directed by Allan Kaprow at New York’s Judson Church. How much the audience moves around in the 1964 production is impossible to ascertain, especially since the camera seems to try to represent mostly performance activity, rather than audience.  But you can peruse the audience’s affect and hear their titilated laughter at several points, like when a costumed character walks through the space with huge dangling stuffed penis and balls.

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View from 1964 production of Originale, at Judson Church, New York.

Laughter and a kind of joyful dismay can be heard when various performers indulge in the absurd, or at least what registered as absurdity in 1964, such as when one character retreats into a space under the stage. Absurdity depends on the presentation of the unexpected, and in 1964 that inversion was not predictable. At The Kitchen, this space-man- or bee-keeper-like flasher seems to have been brought into the present through other kinds of excess – physical volume that distorted the body, screechingly surreal statements, mental instability, gender indeterminacy…and no audience reaction was audible or visible to me.

Image taken from https://twitter.com/wyszniewski

Image of 2014 production at The Kitchen. Photo: https://twitter.com/wyszniewski

Decisions seem to have been made in the recent staging to insert into the space of The Kitchen four symmetrically-placed stages paired with large elevated screens that showed continuous real-time video recorded by figures directing video cameras at the four stages or, less frequently, at the musicians in the center of the space.

originale 4originale 9The physical staging at Judson Church in 1964 seems to have been less organized, more amorphous. In fact, the stage at Judson is occupied fully by part of the audience. Not having witnessed the original Cologne staging, it’s hard to say whether this is a deviation from the original, but the symmetrical distribution of the four stages at The Kitchen seemed to be a strangely rigid spatial organization at odds with the music and ideas behind the project . Even though the “actors” left the stages periodically to rove around the central setting of musical instruments and musicians and amongst the audience, usually replaced by others on the stages, those four stages rigidly anchored the space and rendered symmetrical the movement and placement of the audience. That one staging decision set the tone for spectatorial perception in general. Among other things, it seemed to privilege panoptic visibility.

originale 23And what was accomplished in the recent re-staging by allowing spectators anywhere in the space to view on the elevated screens almost every action taking place on every stage in a given moment? This is in contrast to the Judson Church setting, where multiple vantage points were offered by the vertically layered space, in addition to the use of various ad-hoc “vertical” stages, and a greater use of the floor as a “stage.” A small TV monitor showing mostly abstract bands can be seen in the Moore film, as well as a brief projection of a montaged film, but these mediums don’t overwhelm other activities.

originale 1964 1originale 1961 2Although there is one working clock in the Judson space, on which the film camera lingers, there is nothing in the documentation of the early productions to indicate that the audience was to be made aware at all times of the exact minute and second of the duration of the production, which in this instance were continuously registered on the screens, so that the possibility of a distorted or open-ended perception of time was foreclosed. From what the Moore film shows, the clock could act as a reference for spectators, or not. At The Kitchen, it was overbearingly present.

originale 24Oddly enough, my most resilient memory of the “counter-cultural” in the late 60s was that of a transgressive attitude toward time—the experience of time without the enforcement of schedule, plan, or goal produced a visceral feeling of inhabiting the fringes of the normative world.

What was this re-staging trying to say about time-structure and technological simultaneity and omnipresence? The time-codes in this staging might have been meant to make a point about the distracted and infinitely trackable present, but the question is whether the point couldn’t be more critically made by not updating the production, and in that way establishing a visceral difference for the spectator. A visceral difference, for example, from today’s taken-for-granted aspects of technology’s ability to pinpoint us.

originale audienceGiving a re-staging, 50 years after the fact, a contemporary “look” is not equivalent to giving a work contemporary value. It’s clear that the attempt was to avoid a fly-in-amber approach to a work composed decades ago. Hence the transposition of “characters” and spectatorial activity into generally more contemporary images and imaginaries, such as the trans quality of a lot of the characters – human or animal, gender-amorphous. And transposition is an interesting strategy for a temporal re-staging, if the logic goes something like “how do we transpose the fringes of 1964 into the present when such historical fringes no longer have any relevance?”

Sometimes – as with so-called classical or traditional ballet choreography – a more heightened awareness of historical genre and trajectory can be created through a lack of temporal revision. In the 1964 New York Originale,  the characters called “models” dress and undress by taking clothes from racks surrounding the musicians, and primping and parading around the space like models on a runway or in a department store, selling both merchandise and femininity. The “models” in the Judson Church production fit the period’s Euro-American conventions of model femininity -slim, white, and beautiful by the standards of that moment.

screenshot originale 2

Screen grab from “Stockhausen’s Originale: Doubletakes,” by Peter Moore, 1964-94, 30:05 min, b&w, sound.

screen shot originale 3

Screen grab from “Stockhausen’s Originale: Doubletakes,” by Peter Moore, 1964-94, 30:05 min, b&w, sound.

screenshot originale 3

Screen grab from “Stockhausen’s Originale: Doubletakes,” by Peter Moore, 1964-94, 30:05 min, b&w, sound.

In the 2014 production, two different figures play the “models” (who I think are now generically called “performers”) – on one night it’s the black singer Bishi, who has described her body as “extreme” and “unacceptable to the fashion world.” On the other night, it’s a grey-haired Mx Justin Vivian Bond, a trans writer, painter, singer, and performance artist who has written “For me there is no opposite sex. For me there is only identity and desire.”

Photo of Bishi in Originale, taken from Three-as-Four Facebook page.

Photo of Bishi in 2014 Originale at The Kitchen. Photo: from Three-as-Four Facebook page.

Photo of Justin Vivian Bond in Originale. Image taken from https://twitter.com/wyszniewski.

Photo of Justin Vivian Bond in 2014 Originale at The Kitchen. Photo: https://twitter.com/wyszniewski.

The transposition of the 1964 “models” into these two figures seems to be an attempt to point to new “models” of femininity or sexual “identity,” and also to incorporate a shift from generic to particular models, to figures whose bodies are the support for work that is not passively offered up to the gaze. That move has all the hallmarks of the critical, but at the same time it passively retains the structure of the model – in particular, to performative figures who circulate through social media – when what we may be looking for in an update is a critique of the structure of the model itself. Could that point not have been made in a more radically nuanced manner by reproducing the anachronistic look of the 1964 “models,” and allowing spectators to judge them as models of femininity through a retrospective gaze?

Walking by the Manhattan Barnes and Noble on Union Square the other day, I encountered a demonstration about surveillance. That’s nice.

the truth is coming 3_smNo, wait, what’s with the clean coordinated outfits and chants and signs? What’s this, some  PR stunt to advertise the new documentary about Edward Snowden? Really, Laura Poitras?! How could you? Guy Debord is turning over in his grave.

the truth is coming 1Ah, it’s really for some obscure Hollywood film trying to ride that vast crest that is the Snowden documentary. Trying to selfishly skim off the massive American criticism of the US surveillance apparatus. Shame on you, mediocre Hollywood film. I’m not even going to put a link here for you. Well, at least these young people have jobs. They must be making good money as fake protesters. And the hours are good.

chanel march 2And at least this demonstration is real. Whew. RIght? I mean, who wouldn’t march for Free Freedom. Or Be Different!! Or for Ladies First. And Women’s Rights are more than Alright! And the press turned out. Yay.

steinem chanelAnd an ageless Gloria Steinem was marching. Feminism is HOT!

But…wait, there’re an awful lot of people sitting on the sidelines. At least they’re clapping, but…  Oh, wait…

515834919FB00005_Chanel_RunRight. It’s the Chanel Spring/Summer 2015 fashion show…

chanel march empty…taking place on a a real street in Paris. So it must actually be a real march. Wait, isn’t that the roof of the Grand Palais?

 

 

Farewell to Language 3D, Jean-Luc Godard, 2013

Image from Farewell to Language 3D (Adieu au langage 3D), Jean-Luc Godard, 2014

 …in French-speaking Switzerland where I live, in the Vaud canton, “Farewell” also means hello…
Jean-Luc Godard in Jean-Luc Godard talks to Canon Professional Network [about his new 3D film Farewell to Language], 2014

Jerry-rigged SLR cameras used to film "Farewell to Language."

Jerry-rigged SLR cameras used to film Godard’s Farewell to Language, 2014.

Bobby Waldrop oversees machinery for spinning yarn at the Parkdale yarn factory in Gaffney, South Carolina on Tuesday, February 12, 2013.                           NYTCREDIT: Mike Belleme for The New York Times

Bobby Waldrop oversees machinery for spinning yarn at the Parkdale yarn factory in Gaffney, South Carolina on Tuesday, February 12, 2013. NYTCREDIT: Mike Belleme for The New York Times

The ceilings are high and the machines stretch city block after city block — this one tossing around bits of cotton to clean them, that one taking four-millimeter layers from different bales to blend them.

Only infrequently does a person interrupt the automation, mainly because certain tasks are still cheaper if performed by hand — like moving half-finished yarn between machines on forklifts.

…truth be told, labor is not a big ingredient in the manufacturing uptick in the United States, textiles or otherwise. Indeed, the absence of high-paid American workers in the new factories has made the revival possible.

“Most of our costs are power-related,” said Dan Nation, a senior Parkdale executive.
“U.S. Textile Plants Return, With Floors Largely Empty of People,” by Stephanie Clifford, New York Times, September 19, 2013

Varvara Stepanova at her desk,1924, by Alexandr Rodchenko

Varvara Stepanova at her desk,1924, by Alexander Rodchenko

Composition is the contemplative approach of the artist. Technique and Industry have confronted art with the problem of construction as an active process and not reflective. The ‘sanctity’ of a work as a single entity is destroyed. The museum which was the treasury of art is now transformed into an archive.
Varvara Stepanova, text from 5×5=25 exhibition, 1921, Moscow

Compass and Ruler Drawing, 1914-15, Alexander Rodchenko

Compass and Ruler Drawing, 1914-15, Alexander Rodchenko

Thenceforth the picture ceased being a picture and became a painting or an object. The brush gave way to new instruments with which it was convenient and easy and more expedient to work the surface. The brush which had been so indispensable in painting, which transmitted the object and its subtleties became an inadequate and imprecise instrument in the new non-objective painting, and the press, the roller, the drawing pen, the compass replaced it.
Alexander Rodchenko, exhibition pamphlet at the exhibition of the Leftist Federation in Moscow, 1917, cited in Rodchenko, by German Karginov, quoted in “From Faktura to Factography,”  Benjamin Buchloh, October 30, Fall 1984.

Faktura also meant at this point, and not for Rodchenko alone, incorporating the technical means of construction into the work itself and linking them with existing standards of the development of the means of production in society at large.
Benjamin Buchloh, “From Faktura to Factography”

Having decided to stop painting in the mid-1970s,  for reasons of historical relevance, I had to devise a transitional medium for stopping, for coping with the anxious loss of familiar habit, but also with the loss of the tactile and olfactory qualities of painting that had been meaningful to me personally. A Winnicot-esque transitional object – a commercial paint-roller – took the place of my brush-bond, so to speak, with white and grey wall paint rolled on horizontal canvases. Once this transitional process had served its purpose, the canvases were thrown out. Had I been familiar with the artists of the Russian revolution, I might not have had to go the route of the roller at all; for those artists, if a transitional medium was needed, the tune of class equity and the death of bourgeois values sufficed as transitional objects. But I was a baby of the cold war, and the revolutionary period had been publicly repressed almost completely during my childhood and young adulthood.

Over the past 35 years, the subject of facture and faktura have intermittently preoccupied me. Not so much its aspects of medium self-referentiality as applied mostly in relation to, as Buchloh points out, European modernist art, but more so a persistent return to thinking about aspects of tactility, of the trace of the hand, of “the visual representation of material and constructional qualities.” Those qualities that revolutionary artists such as Stepanova and Rodchenko and others had moved beyond for historical and ideological reasons. That said, my work has become more and more attuned over the years to photography, video, film, and to the development of the algorithmic digital. Fields that do not register the hand indexically. But I was long put off by the compositing capabilities of Final Cut Pro, the non-linear video-editing software which for almost 15 years has allowed the hand, by extension of the mouse, to create “painterly” layers in film and video work, post-production effects that to me seemed a nostalgic throw-back to earlier aesthetic modalities and methods. (But perhaps even the temporally bi-furcated term “post-production,” still commonly used, is also growing obsolete.)

Structuralist and other film genres of the 1960s/70s did sometimes involve the indexical sign of the hand acting on cellulose, and so one could say that not too much had changed in the shift from mutilating the film strip to compositing effects in video-editing software. But 21st century Final Cut Pro encourages the solitary “painting” (with the mouse) that art could be presumed to have moved beyond.

Filmmakers such as Chris Marker and Jean-Luc Godard have made their technological early-adoptor stances a kind of political credo, even if they did/do jerry-rig their low-tech processes rather than high-tailing it to Hollywood.

The "camera train" used to film parts of "Goodbye to Language 3D," from En Attendant Godard (Paris, 2014)

Godard directing with the “toy train camera rig” used to film parts of “Goodbye to Language 3D,” from En Attendant Godard, by Zoé Bruneau  (Paris, 2014)

You can trace the development of editing software in the degrees of compositing and special effects found in Godard’s films after 2000, which may not consistently present the tech-critical perspective of Farewell to Language. This criticality I can only judge prior to the film’s commercial release by reading mostly between the lines of some reviews – the script, and montage, the visual/technical disorientation of the spectator (in addition to his signature aural disorientation), but also the inverting of the usual play with 3D – the pushing out rather than pulling in of the spectator, the use of fragment rather than heroic scenario in the 3D genre, etc.

In an early scene, Godard pretzels viewers’ eyes by overlaying one shot over another as a woman walks off-frame—and into a shot superimposed over the previous one, then returns to her original location as the images merge once more. (That scene in particular elicited a round of applause from the Cannes audience, which tittered when the technique surfaced again during a nude scene featuring both actors’ genitals.) 

Godard uses up-to-date digital mediums (indications are that the 3D effects in his latest are mostly developed in post-production, by which is meant in the realm of the digital) but the digital also affords him a kind of aesthetic decision-making that is extremely close to the painterly, especially when compared with the breaks with that approach realized by Duchamp in his reliance on chance, or with the Russian Constructivists who moved toward factography. The number of references to Godard’s painterly techniques in popular critiques of his work is stunning for someone immersed in the digital world of image- and sound-making, not to say filmmaking.

At one point, he includes a quote from Claude Monet, who instructs artists to “paint not what we see, for we see nothing, but paint that we don’t see.” 

There’s no difference between my life and my movies. I’m existing more when I’m making movies than when I’m not. That’s why someone might say to me, “You have no personal life; I can’t have a relationship with you. When we’re making love, you’re suddenly saying, ‘What a beautiful shot I’m thinking of!’ It’s like a painter only speaking of colors.”

But in this historical moment of Capitalism when the global means of production are all over the place in scale and modality – from sweatshops and cottage industry workers to massive assembly lines to the absence of workers altogether in robotic industries – why would facture be easily renounced…we might as well be living in pre-revolutionary Russia…

 

Level Five, Chris Marker, 1996/2014; 106 minutes; color. (Distributed by Icarus Films.)

Level Five, Chris Marker, 1996/2014; 106 minutes; color. (Distributed by Icarus Films.

“Participant observation” serves as shorthand for a continuous tacking between the “inside ” and the “outside” of events: on the one hand grasping the sense of specific occurrences and gestures empathetically, on the other stepping back to situate these meanings in wider contexts. Particular events thus acquire deeper or more general significance, structural rules, and so forth. Understood literally, participant observation is a paradoxical, misleading formula, but it may be taken seriously if reformulated in hermeneutic terms as a dialectic of experience and interpretation.

The Predicament of Culture, James Clifford, 1988

In the 1980s and 90s, texts such as Clifford’s were formative for me as an artist and continue to resonate, to illuminate my art practice and everyday perceptions. In the ’80s, such writings dove-tailed with post-modern analyses of the authoritative voice as found in all cultural mediums and genres –literary, visual, aural, and discursive. And without them it would be impossible to disentangle the complex knots of American foundational myths and neo-liberal capitalism, or to parse the behavior and effects of the increasingly larger category of shadow politicians, those private individuals or philanthropic families – revered for their mega-wealth – who step into the vacuums created by the widening breaches of democracy. These days it takes political acumen backed by intellectual inquiry to analyze the authoritative voice of boundary-less mediums and commerce.

Level Five, Chris Marker.

Level Five, Chris Marker.

Locating the ideological knots of authority in globalized politics and culture  is basically a survival test.

privileged informants, trained observers, participant observers, reliable informants— these are some of the terms questioned by ethnographic critical inquiry, and these are the terms that came to mind after recent screenings of Chris Marker’s films at BAM, specifically The Last Bolshevik (1993/1998) and Level Five (1996/2014).

Understanding how an authoritative voice is constructed in, for example, documentary (or a narrative film or even a newspaper), will always come up against the degree of a spectator’s identification with the voice – literal and figurative – in the work. When viewing a documentary on a subject about which one has limited knowledge, even a critical spectator will be caught between overtly interpreting the form of the work, and identifying with the filmmaker as an informant considered reliable. For me, even though I should know better, Marker falls into the category of reliable informant, transferential figure. Even as I follow the slippages of voice in Level Five (Marker speaking through a female interlocutor, through a male narrator, in the first or third person, in the plural; through a montage of found footage, digital screens, interviews, and studio mise en scene, etc.), I am willing to let him guide me through foreign territory – in this case, Level Five‘s exploration, through the language of video games and our digital counterparts, of what can be called the genocide resulting from The Battle of Okinawa during WWII.

Level Five, Chris Marker.

Level Five, Chris Marker.

I watch critically, but more often than not I am also absorbing, unquestioningly identifying with the speaker. I have the same reaction to watching The Last Bolshevik, his film about Alexander Medvedkin, the Soviet filmmaker, and his navigations of the  utopian and dystopian periods of Soviet politics. A film about the reasonable and not so reasonable judgments one can make about left-committed filmmaking.

The Kast Bolshevik

Medvedkin in The Last Bolshevik, Chris Marker, 1993/1998; 116 mins; color. (Distributed by Icarus Films.)

It’s not that Marker doesn’t raise his own questions about events and individuals. But his lilting scripts (usually spoken by someone else) have always made a fairly obedient student out of me. Oh, I’m deconstructing the montage even as I follow it, but often my regard for his “voice” – his intelligent observational mind, his poetically aphoristic rendering of political events, his combination of resignation and resistance – overwhelms my critical discernment, at least in the theater.

The Last Bolshevik, Chris Marker.

The Last Bolshevik, Chris Marker. Frame from Medvedkin’s film, “Happiness.”

I got a glimpse into just how compliant a Marker viewer I might be when I viewed his 1977/1993 film about mostly French and Latin American left politics in the 1960s and 70s, A Grin Without a Cat, in 2001.

A Grin Without a Cat, Chris Marker, 1977/1993; 180 mins., color. (Distributed by Icarus Films.)

A Grin Without a Cat, Chris Marker, 1977/1993; 180 mins., color. (Distributed by Icarus Films.)

I found the film very convincing until it reached the section covering his assessment of American resistance to the Vietnam War. It’s excessive to call it an assessment; it’s really just a brief dismissal that takes a couple of minutes in a three-hour film. My identification with the authority of the film was punctured. Now, one can’t fault an essayistic filmmaker for getting the facts wrong in the same way one can a historian. Marker might have intended to give short shrift to that period of American politics for a reason. But had I not known that period very well through readings and personal engagement, I might have found legitimate and not worthy of question — in part due to a classic viewer’s transference — his dismissive and elliptical way of rendering it. I’ve always been grateful to A Grin Without a Cat for making me see through my own identification with Marker’s voice, because it has made me a more active viewer of Marker in general.

The Last Bolshevik, Chris Marker. Final frame.

The Last Bolshevik, Chris Marker. Final frame.

Writing this has also made me understand more clearly some of the points that Sébastien Pluot makes about translation in my interview with him for this blog. Because “translation” is the ethical interface between spectator and cultural interlocutor. And one could think of transference as an ethical interface…

 

beads_smJust when you thought it was safe to assume that the term “kitsch” had lost all meaning…this little plastic bracelet above, found in a children’s store in a seaside American vacation spot, challenges the concept’s obsolescence. It includes a black bead filled with mud from the Dead Sea- “the lowest point on Earth,” and a white bead with water from Mount Everest – “the highest point on Earth.” The plastic bracelet is touted as an aid to emotional and spiritual balance.

All the academic tenets of “kitsch” have lost their energy through the near-indiscernible boundaries of the pseudo, the retrograde, the sentimental, the tragi-comic, the diminutizing, the memento, and the tasteless in relation to the avant-garde, the cutting edge, the authentic, good taste, etc.

And, no, this is not a reference to Jeff Koons.

jeff koons 2But the fetishistic dynamic of kitsch could be seen as persisting. Something stands in place of something occluded. Mount Everest, the postcard image. Elemental and pure.

mount everestA detail view of the 50 tons of rubbish that thrill-seekers have left behind on Mount Everest.

Everest PollutionThe Dead Sea, postcard image. Sublime and isolated.

the dead seaA Dead Sea Hotel development. Not so sublime.

dead sea hotelThe Dead Sea lies about 11 miles south of the Allenby Bridge, the only route in and out of the West Bank for Palestinians. In the last months, this checkpoint has been subject to an unexplained and governmentally unauthorized Israeli ban on departures and crossings, through the imposition of an obscure “blacklist.”

allenby bridge

Such fetishistic occlusions render a little trite many earlier obsessions with the fetish and the kitsch.

From Kitsch, The World of Bad Taste by Gillo Dorfles, 1969.

From Kitsch, The World of Bad Taste, by Gillo Dorfles, 1969.

subtlety 1_smGenerally speaking, defense is directed towards internal excitation (instinct); in practice, its action is extended to whatever representations (memories, phantasies) this excitation is bound to; and to any situation that is unpleasurable for the ego as a result of its incompatibility with the individual’s equilibrium and, to that extent, liable to spark off the excitation. …Defense is marked and infiltrated by its ultimate object-instinct-and consequently it often takes on a compulsive aspect, and works at least in part in an unconscious way. Definition of “Defense,” excerpt, Dictionary of Psychoanalysis, Jean Laplanche, Jean-Bertrand Pontalis.

I thought that braving a day-long, global-warming-downpour might have encouraged the giddily touristic spectatorship evident on the evening I went to visit A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant. But googling “Subtlety selfie” turned up 33,000 links, showing it was part of the general reaction to the work. On the evening i went, a manic fun-house atmosphere prevailed, with a constant flurry of spectator portrait- and selfie-taking.

subtlety 12One would expect a more somber reaction to the historical brutality that is the overt para-text of the project, and to a space that witnessed decades of suffering. Online and print theories accounting for the “tasteless” selfies abound. But one online site will actually selfie-suture you in if you cannot manage to get to the exhibition in person.

subtlety 13The newspaper and magazine articles and blogposts on the topic of Subtlety-selfies occupy a spectrum, with each being largely single-minded; there are conjectures about white disrespect for the black female body (although writers have also noted that a very diverse audience participates in the selfie-taking); about the self- and other-fetishization typical of the current technological apparatus of Capitalism, fetishization being a form of defense against unwanted thoughts; about the experience being an effect of spectacle culture in general, etc.

In some ways, the work sets itself up as the ideal object of the lens, oddly enough not because of its heroic scale; not because, as one writer has it, taking a selfie brings the giant-scale project down to human scale. Instead, my impression was that the scale itself is actually manageable in being (inadvertently, I assume) geared to the capacities of a digital phone camera lens. That is, standing in physical proximity to the mega-scale of the Egyptian Sphinx would not offer “The Subtlety”s frisson of self/object.

subtlety 5Well, it turns out that workarounds at the ancient sites have been found, and scales flattened thanks to the contemporary depth-of-field capacities of even phone cameras, as set in motion by consumer desire. But note the actual scale of the humans in physical proximity, and the distance required for “closeness.”

sphinxpyramid

“A Subtlety” – given the luminosity of the “sphinx” in the dark space, and the bittersweet chiaroscuro light around the smaller figures of boys made of resin and molasses – is eminently photogenic. The camera loves this work, in the Hollywood and cinematic sense of love.

sugar boy_subtletyAlthough in a popular sense the work can be fit into the category of the spectacular, in a properly Debordian sense the project doesn’t fit the “spectacle” bill, because for Debord, spectacle culture depends on the repression of the historical, and the occupation of a continual present. Here the para-text  of the project – the history of sugar-growing and refinement, with its attendant slavery of one form or another, even once workers started to be wage laborers – the para-text offered on the multi-media website, artist and curator interviews, press media, outdoor title banner, p.r., moves you back and forth in time.

subtlety 7But maybe it’s the attenuation of connection between the discursive para-text and the tactility, materiality, and sensory aspects of the project and its containing space that produces disinhibition in spectators. I wasn’t able to push the para-text out of my mind in experiencing the work. But it was clear that most spectators did it quite efficiently.

subtlety 9Perhaps “A Subtlety” produces a defended spectatorship, as in Freud’s observation that self-proclaimed boredom is sometimes its very opposite. Defendedness is not an ideal frame of mind for reflecting on history. Because if the internal conflict masked by the defense cannot be tolerated by the psyche, then it sets in motion a projection onto others of what frightens, scares, disturbs, so as to, following Jacqueline Rose on Christopher Berlatz, purify oneself and find fault in the other. The very purification that this work sets itself against. But maybe something always seeps through defenses. The psyche is not air-tight. And, as Rose says in regards to setbacks in feminism, the system (psychical, political, cultural) is not in a lock, or feminism would not exist at all. Norms fall apart in dreams and symptoms, perhaps prior to other dismantlings.

Maybe it’s also the case that “A Subtlety” is unwittingly produced at a scale that encourages, in dovetailing with the world’s most popular lens, a manic disinhibition, an unsubtle affect again not conducive to reflection. With spectatorship comes ethical responsibility, something that the popular equating of art with entertainment tends to obfuscate. Weeks later, the olfactory memory is still unnerving, now connected to the para-text. And the snap-happy spectators remain a central association.

subtlety 3

donelle 2I was friended on Facebook by a stranger – young, artist, black, female. Some frienders have an affinity for my work, or the algorithm sweet-talks to us about our shared affinities. This friend likes one of my posts, which is flattering. Then a FB post journeys algorithmically to my feed, a growing controversy springing up around this friend’s new-found success. Donelle Woolford. She’s the fabricated persona of an artist – white, male, head of an ivy league art program. He writes and rewrites her origin story for a decade, makes artwork for her, selects her avatars, maintains her FB page, her likes and dislikes, her thoughts and writings, hires black actresses to stand-in for his proxy, procures venues for the two of them, etc. etc. He is her broker. Recently, a Biennnial curator rewards them.

donelle 5Before this happens, I unfriend Donelle Woolford. I do not want to be tracked by this persona. Donelle doesn’t care; s/he continues to make FB friends; s/he now has almost 1500.

Every so often, FB alerts me to thoughtful, articulate, questioning, inchoate, passionate, combative, angry, superficial, frustrated, accusative, defensive comments on this project. Comments and links to texts by artists, historians, critics, journalists, curators; comments posted by the artist and his proxy. An artist collective withdraws from same Biennial in protest against the work’s inclusion; others publicly concur.  Misogyny and racism, institutional unresponsiveness. Methodological slippage is sometimes counterposed.

donelle 3The radio is on one recent morning. Ta-Nehisi Coates discusses “the taking of the black body,” the state-sanctioned plunder of black Americans…into its little-recognized fourth century, now.

The newspaper of record writes about rape jokes, and a poet critically breaking the taboo of rape jokes.

donelle 1Transgression is crucial. Methodological slippage is crucial. Image-play acts to loosen rigid and inequitable norms . Why throw the post-modern baby out? But without responsibly calibrated nuance and imbrication of the self, this project is just salt rubbed into long-persisting wounds.

donelle 6

Marcel Duchamp as Belle Haleine. Photo by Man Ray, 1921.

Photo of Marcel Duchamp as Rrose Selavy, Man Ray, 1921. Photo used in the assisted readymade,                      Belle Haleine, Eau de Voilette, Marcel Duchamp, 1921.

 

 

ImageThere looms, within abjection, one of those violent, dark revolts of being directed against a threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant outside or inside, ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable. It lies there, quite close, but it cannot be assimilated. Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, 1984 [all quotes]

ImageLoathing an item of food, a piece of filth, waste, or dung. The spasms and vomiting that protect me. The repugnance, the retching that thrusts me to the side and turns me away from defilement, sewage, and muck. The shame of compromise, of being in the middle of treachery. The fascinated start that leads me toward and separates me from them.

ImageDuring a photo shoot the other day for an upcoming project related to Rosa Luxemburg, I watched as our hair/makeup artist, Natalie Livingston, prepared the hair extensions for the shoot, and I thought of Julia Kristeva’s famous essay on abjection. The extensions were made from real hair, but holding them in my hands, detached from their source(s) and industrialized, my mind refused to accept that fact. Being real, they were most definitely in the wrong place. They had that quality of abjection that was only somewhat overcome when they were clipped onto the head of our actor, (artist) Abigail Collins.

It is …not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite. 

hair and there_2That day, we were turning Abigail into an extension of Luxemburg. Not a character recreation, but someone suspended between a historical figure and a present-day protagonist. The virtues of working with a non-art crew (Natalie, my photographer, Carolina Palmgren, her assistant Daniel Calatayud): not conversant with each other’s professional and aesthetic languages, for that day our own familiar discourses are disturbed by unfamiliar ones. The usual work boundaries have to be pushed against, while remaining present.

If it be true that the abject simultaneously beseeches and pulverizes the subject, one can understand that it is experienced at the peak of its strength when that subject, weary of fruitless attempts to identify with something on the outside, finds the impossible within; when it finds that the impossible constitutes its very being, that it is none other than abject.

ImageNarcissism…appears as a regression to a position set back from the other, a return to a self-contemplative, conservative, self-sufficient haven.  Actually, such narcissism never is the wrinkleless image of the Greek youth in a quiet fountain. The conflicts of drives muddle its bed, cloud its water, and bring forth everything that, by not becoming integrated with a given system of signs, is abjection for it.

Sometimes, my tech-assistant, (artist) Harold Batista, translates for us, providing an interface between Carolina and myself on technical details. But I have to translate myself to Carolina, and vice versa. Even Natalie and I have to arrive at a language we can both understand, because although in this instance i share her discourse of enhancement, for this project it’s not expressed through a typical vocabulary of beauty. Carolina has a particular knack for translating my aims to Natalie, in spite of the fact that Carolina and I share no discursive background. She confirms my sense that theory doesn’t arise from nowhere.

ImageThe photo studio is a detached space (except for the multi-level car garage view). It’s the place where we try to will that suspension between the past and present by stepping into the body of another, without losing our own.

The abject is perverse because it neither gives up nor assumes a prohibition, a rule, or a law; but turns them aside, misleads, corrupts; uses them, takes advantage of them, the better to deny them.

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The various means of purifying the abject – the various cartheses – make up the history of religions, and end up with that catharsis par excellence called art, both on the far and near side of religion. Seen from that standpoint, the artistic experience, which is rooted in the abject it utters and by the same token purifies, appears as the essential component of religiosity. That is perhaps why it is destined to survive the collapse of the historical forms of religions.

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Team links: Harold Batista , Abigail Collins,  Natalie Livingston , Carolina Palmgren

 

 

The timing in itself felt strange, like the delayed – and more effective – late appearance of the chief character in a play.

Jacqueline Rose, “The Haunting of Sylvia Plath,” On Not Being Able to Sleep, 2003

genzken 3Walking through the Isa Genzken retrospective at MoMA the other day I noticed that if I looked at a work before reading the wall label, I was always wrong in guessing the date of the work, thinking it was earlier. In general, I was off by anything from 15 to 20 years, and sometimes more, although in some rooms a 20-year difference was common.

Virtually all the works seemed to me to have been made earlier than they were. It’s as if the works occupy an obliquely parallel temporal relation to earlier works by other artists (like a rhomboidal tracking of those earlier works). The “lateness” of her work didn’t seem to be that of an artist who fixates on a particular historical modality or style and repeats it out-of-time, like a repetition compulsion to stave off the anxiety of a present moment. If so, her work wouldn’t be rhomboidal; it wouldn’t progress. And there’s an acute thoughtfulness to the Genzken work, particularly through the 1990s, that belies nostalgia, academicism or simple borrowing. The word “derivative” does not apply to it. The work conveys an unusual attention to art that has come before it. It has about it a deliberate un-mindfulness of historical timing, as if the works pause stubbornly and un-self-consciously to reflect and filter pre-existing modalities, processes, materials, subjects, forms, events.They take their own time.  In their un-mindfulness they create a glitch in the more typically untroubled movement of museum-time. Viewing the exhibition, I sometimes wanted the work to have been made earlier, but that desire was always frustrated.

genzken 1The curators refer to her “radical inventiveness.” But to me, the most interesting aspect of the work is that it’s not “radical” as we’ve come to understand that term. Nor is it “inventive” as the word is typically used by curators and critics. It seems to be insistently un-inventive, unconcerned with the radical, unless we define as radical a subtle reflection on and recalibration of what has come before. This work depends on the time-lag. And this begs the question of whether we understand timeliness in art. It also begs the question of how we define “influence.”

genzken 5Can someone who lags behind in a critical manner be considered an influence as typically defined? (And maybe a few less qualifiers of her purported influence could have been omitted from the MoMA website text altogether – “Isa Genzken is arguably one of the most important and influential female artists of the past 30 years.”)

genzken 6The fact that the Genzken work reflects on, processes, and filters earlier practices without employing the use of language is particularly interesting because it means the spectator has to think through one visual language to think about another visual language differently. I don’t doubt that I saw an exhibition that many others, less historically-minded others, have not. But that may just speak to defining more broadly – less broadly, more subtly? -the contemporary challenges of curatorial and critical work.

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