Event detail of 12 Weeks in May, 1977, by Suzanne Lacy.

Event detail of 12 Weeks in May, 1977, by Suzanne Lacy.

A few weeks ago I invited Emily Apter, Emily Liebert, and Siona Wilson to discuss some recent and historical art projects that address the issue of rape. [Participant bios can be found at the foot of this transcript.]

Silvia Kolbowski I’ll start with the brief text I sent to all of you in advance of our in-person conversation. In the last few years there has been substantial reporting on the lack of responsiveness- on the part of American universities, police departments, and prosecutors – to the epidemic of rapes, both on university campuses and off. The 2015 film The Hunting Ground documents this criminal negligence as it takes place in universities. The film delves into some reasons for this behavior, including the willingness of universities to ignore allegations in order to maintain the positive branding (and therefore competitiveness) of tuition-hungry institutions in the U.S. education marketplace, and their reluctance to risk alienating, by holding them accountable, the fraternities and sports players that are the strongest generators of alumni donations.  In addition, a recent report revealed that even repeat rapists are often not pursued by police departments and prosecutors because rape cases pose difficult challenges to both, and career-promoting successes in rape cases can be elusive. The fact that police departments are reluctant to engage in connecting database information across the country, which would greatly contribute to capturing and successfully prosecuting repeat rapists, indicates that there’s something in excess of careerist pragmatism at play in ignoring reported rape crimes.

The reporting and documentation of the rape crisis has been direct and thorough, backed up by compelling, not to say devastating studies and statistics, although of course the issue deserves even greater distribution. But such facts do not always convince when a culture doesn’t value women’s sovereignty. This is where non-legal and non-documentary representation comes in, raising the question of what art can contribute to intervening in a problem that is never disconnected from other aspects of cultural misogyny.

To that end, we’ll look at a number of art projects of the last few decades that deal with rape. I’ll start with two general questions – What are the particular ways in which art can intervene in the rape crisis? Which projects come to mind in this regard?

Siona Wilson Thinking about the range of different artistic projects that address the question of rape, from the late 1960s through the last few years, they seem to occupy the position of activism, assuming the voice of the artist as an activist voice. It’s striking that even the film The Hunting Ground, represents a range of artistic projects. There’s the photographic art project through which one of the central protagonists, from UNC Chapel Hill, came out to the campus community about her rape. And of course there’s the central example of Emma Sulkowicz at Columbia University, with her Carry the Weight mattress art project, in which she uses a performance project as a way of putting pressure on the University to act on her accusation of rape by another student on campus.

Kolbowski Siona, are you defining an art project as activist if it has a direct goal, if it addresses the institution directly with a demand? Is that what defines the work as activist for you?

Wilson In this case, I think so. It’s the act of taking on the role of advocacy, with a speech address directed to the institution. And I think there’s another level in which we can see, if we go back and look at some of the historical examples, such as the Ana Mendieta work from 1973 – Untitled (Rape scene) – that the activist dimension of such a work was tied into a feminist politics of consciousness-raising, of discussions. It may not have been what she intended, but that was what arose from the work.

Kolbowski I would say, based on what you’re describing, that the Suzanne Lacy works on rape – the 1977 “Three Weeks in May” and its 2012 recreation, fit into your description. But I wouldn’t say that the Mendieta project did.

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Event detail of 12 Weeks in May, 1977, by Suzanne Lacy.

Wilson I think it does in the sense that it’s a live work. The audience is invited into her apartment, where they witness her with blood on her body, a re-enactment of a rape/murder case that was recent in her college community, and the audience response is to stage a discussion about what happened. So that became part of the work, with a response that was actually the development of a discourse around the issue of rape. Even if Mendieta hadn’t intended it, it took on the role of advocacy.

Kolbowski I thought the point of the Mendieta project was to position the spectator as a voyeur through their witnessing a tableau in a personal setting. There’s an echo of the Mendieta piece in the Sulkowicz web video piece – Ceci n’est pas un viol. By virtue of using a surveillance camera format with a split screen to show sex enacted by herself and an anonymous male, Sulkowicz positions spectators as voyeurs.

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Documentation of Untitled (Rape scene), 1973, by Ana Mendieta.

Liebert I think a crucial difference between those two pieces is that Mendieta is showing us a kind of after-image, so the spectator by necessity has to project what has preceded the tableau. But in Ceci n’est pas un viol, we’re actually watching the act start to finish.

Wilson But Ceci n’est pas un viol also provides an after-image, because it’s not the actual act.

Apter Ceci n’est pas un viol raises the question of address, of how you come to the work. Are you supposed to have the foreknowledge of Carry That Weight, and of the media spectacle around Sulkowicz’s rape accusation on campus and the fallout from all of that? There are several levels of reference involved.

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Ceci N’est Pas Un Viol, video, 2015, Emma Sulkowicz.

Kolbowski In that regard, what is different now – which didn’t exist at the time of the Mendieta piece, or with the first Lacy rape project– is the search algorithm. With somebody like Sulkowicz, everything gets attached to everything else, which is the nature of the algorithm. So you would have to assume that anyone looking at Ceci n’est pas un viol would be aware of her earlier accusation and of Carry That Weight.

Apter The Mendieta and the Lacy pieces, as you mentioned, Siona, were made in reference to actual rapes that had occurred to others. But the difference with Ceci n’est pas un viol is that this supposedly happened to Sulkowicz. So it’s not the re-presenting the rapes of even anonymous others, based on information that could have been taken from police files or blotters, but instead a level of self-situating that is very different from the other works. That’s a huge difference. The fact that with post-millenials it’s all about “me.”

Siona When I first watched Ceci n’est pas un viol, I was struck by that shift from a collective connection or advocacy to an individual perspective. But it’s really important to see this as a web project and this connects back to Silvia’s point about the connectivity of the internet. You immediately wiki Sulkowicz and find information. And that’s how she staged this work. I also think that the text that she put as a preface to the video on the project webpage, which raises a trigger warning, evokes a collective viewing response. And I thought the comments were crucial to the work.

Kolbowski Ceci n’est pas un viol is an enactment at a personal level, as you’ve pointed out, Emily. But of course the artist means to be representative; her claim on the project website is that she’s setting out to change the world. But to some degree that video as an artwork has a tendency to simplify and to reduce what rape culture is in general. There’s a lot of complexity around the role that rape plays in contemporary culture – whether it’s an aspect of a military war or something that takes place on a university campus, or if it is carried out in an urban context that delimits which areas women can traverse alone and which they can’t.

Apter And sex trafficking…

Kolbowski Exactly. So although I think that one of the main things that Ceci n’est pas un viol does well is allude to the way that rape is sexualized, when in fact rape has little to do with sex, I also think that the project does not bring to light the complexity of rape in our culture. What do you think?

Apter Yes and no. When I watched the video for the first time, it felt very staged and almost like watching something on a stage; a mock enactment. She doesn’t want to use the word “re-enactment”-

Wilson – a demonstration.

Apter But it’s very unconvincing as sex.

Wilson Absolutely.

Apter So the fact that some of the comments left on the site refer to what takes place in the video as porn –in order to undermine her project, or to hurt her – maybe some porn has the same effect, but it really wasn’t very good as porn. It wasn’t convincing to me in that regard. But when I watched it the second time, I did think that it actually problematized the question of consent. And this gets into something that is maybe not critically profound, but I think that there’s a general misunderstanding about sex. People can enter into having sex, and it can be very pleasurable at one moment, and“consensual,” and then suddenly it’s not. Sex is risky in that way. And the question raised for me in this regard is, where is this pointing? Is Sulkowicz saying that sex should not be risky? That sex should always, in a sense, have an institutional eye looking out for you? Or the old cliché of the contract, where you’re signing onto this and this, and having everything spelled out? You don’t have to be a libertarian feminist to say, no way, I do not want that; I do not want the state intruding into my body, just as I wouldn’t want the state telling me whether I could have an abortion or not. So these are the kinds of contadictions that were raised for me on second viewing, where I felt that it did capture that menacing moment when she – maybe because the slap was louder the second time I heard it, and the “ow,” and I looked more closely at the moment where violence and risk come together, and not so much the sex itself, which I took out of the picture. So the question of consent and the question of a feminist position about risk within sexuality – that was what was raised for me the second time I viewed the video, linked to some kind of performative dimension. I would say that the work problematizes that issue for me.

Kolbowski I thought it was interesting that the sound of the slaps seems to be imposed in post-production. I’m almost positive that he’s not generating that degree of sound during the course of videotaping, because it has a different quality than the rest of the sound in the video.

Wilson Really?!

Apter That actually changes what I’ve just said…

Kolbowski It seemed to me that the sound of the slaps was heightened in post-production. In regards to what you said, Emily A., I wanted to raise the article recommended to us by Emily L., written by Carrie Lambert-Beatty, in part on the 2008 senior project by the then Yale undergraduate art student Aliza Shvartz. The project was described in a Yale newspaper as “…a documentation of a nine-month process during which she artificially inseminated herself ‘as often as possible’ while periodically taking abortifacient drugs to induce miscarriages. Her exhibition will feature video recordings of these forced miscarriages as well as preserved collections of the blood from the process.” One of the things that struck me in Carrie’s text – although obviously the piece by Shvartz is about abortion and not about rape – in terms of how an artwork can intervene, is Carrie’s point that Shvartz’s piece was intended to and did engage institutional mechanisms -the institutional frameworks of law, public discourse, popular definitions of morality, the media’s role in defining an act, the university’s enactment of what it perceived to be its legal privileges, the revealing alignment of pro- and anti-abortion public discourses, etc. And by virtue of smoking out these institutional elements, as Carrie points out, the work highlights the different definitions that could be accorded to the act in different frameworks. In one institutional context, the artist is thought to have performed self-abortions; in another context the event is considered a menstrual period; in another  it’s a performance. Reading about the Shvartz piece made me question whether Ceci n’est pas un viol frames the existing levels of complexity in rape culture. That’s not to say that rape isn’t simply rape. In other words, where consent doesn’t exist, it’s rape.

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Apter The question is, what is the act? Is the accent here on the consent or is it on something called genital penetration? I think you can be raped in different ways. It can shade into something metaphorical, a form of psychic violence that is absolutely devastating and leads to trauma, but doesn’t involve physical penetration or a form of violence with an object on your body…

Kolbowski Did you notice that in The Hunting Ground they refer to anything that is not penetration by a penis as sexual assault? And rape is the word that they reserve for the penetration of an orifice by a penis.

Wilson I wonder if they were using a legal definition?

Kolbowski But even if it were a legal definition, it’s still interesting that they chose that demarcation for the documentary –

Apter – even if it were legal, it doesn’t mean it’s true. It doesn’t mean that there isn’t a blur line between assault and penetration.

Kolbowski Right.

Liebert The questions that you’re bringing up about consent and risk, which are maybe the complexities raised by Ceci n’est pas un viol, did they map onto issues of spectatorship for you or did they seem like they were located exclusively in the sphere of rape?

Apter Siona brought up the question of address. The question of spectatorship or auditory reception is important because there’s an active way of looking at the video, and then there’s the address of the instructions, the proviso or warning text on the Ceci n’est pas un viol website page. Sulkowicz writes “Do not watch this video if your motives would upset me, my desires are unclear to you, or my nuances are indecipherable…Please don’t participate in my rape. Watch kindly.” Many of us would find that manipulative. And that’s what a lot of the comments on the blog are reacting against – “Oh, well, I guess I just raped Emma Sulkowicz.” But the text presents a taunt – please, please don’t participate in my rape. Ceci n’est pas un viol – for me it’s spells “don’t do it, but do it.” It’s one of these double negative affirmatives. It’s Octave Mannoni’s “Je sais bien, mais quand même..” I know, but still.

Kolbowski But doesn’t that echo a large aspect of rape culture — the masculinist assumption that when women say no, they really mean yes?

Apter That was the most shocking thing in The Hunting Ground, the sign at a Skull and Bones fraternity that had on it “No means yes; yes means anal.”

Kolbowski Then how do you interpret the written preface to Ceci n’est pas un viol ?

Wilson I found it annoying when I first read the webpage preface, but only in so far as it seemed naïve. But that’s the nature of a student art project. She’s no longer a student with this work, but still it had that I-want-to-save-the-world naivete to it. But I also found the preface interesting, because it stages the very problem that the video itself seems to be presenting. And here I want to go back to the point that you made, Emily A., which is that Ceci n’est pas un viol raises some very difficult questions that The Hunting Ground as a documentary cannot raise; for example, the question of sexual practice in a more general sense, when it really isn’t clear whether consent is being given. Consent doesn’t cover the whole issue. I thought, how could anybody watch her video if you followed Sulkowicz’s directions, because how can we really know what she feels? It poses an impossibility.

Apter It leaves you with the possibility that if consent is ultimately unknowable, then what are you saying to the university, to the institution?

Wilson Exactly, this opens up a whole other issue.

Kolbowski But then isn’t there an element of so-called acting out in that preface?

Wilson That’s another form of juvenilia.

Kolbowski But what she’s setting up in the webpage preface is the very complexity that she’s denying in both her public accusations and in the video. I’m not, let me be clear, suggesting that she didn’t get raped. She may have been. But I prefer to treat this artwork as an artwork.

Apter But is this a site-specific work, in the sense that it has to refer to knowledge about her case in order to make sense?

Kolbowski The preface implies that she would say no.

Liebert I agree that there’s a promise in the title and in the textual framework that the piece is about the impossibility of proof or of naming rape, and that in the space of that ambiguity is where the spectator would project. In the title and the framework there’s a promise that the piece will turn back to the spectator, and then to me that space is collapsed in the visual material, or reduced.

Kolbowski In that regard I would return to the Mendieta piece. Mendieta sets up only one condition for viewing – that of voyeurship. She sets up a peephole, in effect. She doesn’t prescribe viewer reactions and outcomes. It’s interesting that although the Mendieta work is owned by the Tate, they describe the work on their website, but there is a blank where the image would be, and yet the image is searchable. That raises the general question of what gets shown and what doesn’t get shown. In other words, in the legal courtroom the word and forensic evidence should suffice. The least likely thing is that there would be a visual representation of a rape. At the very best you’d have corroborating evidence, as in one of the cases presented in The Hunting Ground, where the rapist’s schoolmates witnessed parts of the assault, although it didn’t seem to help the case.

But in an artwork that addresses rape, if it isn’t a work that depends solely on data, the tendency is to visualize.

Apter And that ties into the Black Lives Matter movement, and whether seeing the footage is changing the nature of the trials or the possibility of a grand jury indictment. What seems to be so shocking is that you can come up with forensic evidence and even have footage and it’s still not making a difference in terms of how the law is responding.

Liebert I think this also goes back to Silvia’s framing. You asked what art can offer in situations where facts don’t convince. Black Lives Matter arose when proof was ineffective. In the incidences of rape – when facts don’t convince, what can come in? In important ways, the Sulkowicz mattress piece had real impact in terms of catalyzing a very broad activist effort, and there she used a symbolic object and her body’s relationship to that object to disrupt the routines on [at?]the site of an institution.

Wilson She used that project to connect it to the institution, and also to complicate the situation.

Kolbowski The mattress piece used a metonymic strategy and also the engagement of identification in a collective sense–

Wilson –because of those who helped carry the mattress, and offered support.

Kolbowski And maybe not only offered support, but also engaged in an experiential identification.

Wilson With regard to the question of the visual, the Eric Garner case on Staten Island made it very clear –since the whole assault was recorded on video, which did not aid in indicting the officer–that it’s always discourse that frames the veracity of the visual. I think it’s Ariella Azulay who has written that it’s impossible to photograph rape. The question of rape does not reside in the visual. It has to reside in a discursive framing of the visual. So even if you have a kind of reenactment of a rape event, the reenactment is doing other things than providing veracity and proof. Maybe it would be interesting to think about what kind of work the visual is engaged in.

Apter Just as a footnote, I can’t help pointing out that the subtitle of the Magritte piece, Ceci n’est pas une pipe is La Trahison des images. The Treachery of Images. It seems to me you could also apply that subtitle to Ceci n’est pas un viol.

Wilson, Liebert Right.

KolbowskI But the fact remains that the artist chose to–

Wilson–to represent.

Kolbowski Images, whether they be videos or photographic images, often serve to reinforce the prejudice of the viewer. Because that is an aspect of viewing. A comparable example that I’ve used in teaching is Slavoj Zizek’s point about the Austrian election in which Kurt Waldheim ran for president. The Socialist party that ran against him exposed as the major part of their campaign the facts of Waldheim’s Nazi role. And Waldheim won! So, as Zizek points out, by telling the truth, by exposing something that Waldheim himself could not have exposed but something with which voters identified or at least condoned, the opposing party was doing the work of electing Waldheim. That’s where the limitations of the image come into play. It’s like saying, I use this video to prove that something that is considered consensual is actually part of rape culture, part of a rape. But then you read the 4600 comments on the website, and you have your proof that people will distort by projecting themselves onto the image. The image confirms what they want confirmed. And that to me points to what you quoted, Siona, that…

Wilson …that discourse determines the image. It shapes the meaning of the image. Azoulay’s point that rape cannot be a visual thing.

Kolbowski Well, it is for both the perpetrator and the victim, but…

Apter And let it not be forgotten that in the culture we’re in, very often it is precisely for viewing that many women in these initiation rights of fraternities are gang-raped, and it’s filmed and sometimes distributed. So it’s not just that they are violated in terms of a legal notion of consent but that any sense of their privacy is violently attacked. And the loss of privacy doesn’t fall under sexual assault. But it does become rape by spectatorship.

Liebert In The Hunting Ground they discuss one fraternity that has a “conquest wall” of photographs.

Apter So even though a “post-feminist” generation describes itself as empowered, as sex-positive, as initiators as much as they’re being hit on, there is nonetheless – though perhaps it’s linked to backlash –also this idea of the woman-hunt. Silvia, you mentioned rape in war situations, but it’s also a form of sport that gets incorporated into hazings. One of the things that’s so troubling is that rape is ignored and blatantly condoned, especially when it’s to do with sports heroes on campus. Universities and police departments won’t go there; there’s too much money at stake, there’s too much male heroism at stake. So that old idea of the woman-hunt is strangely reinforced in such settings, and especially with the spectatorial aggression that’s attached to it.

Liebert And it’s interesting that there’s a sort of dualism, or an unfortunate contradiction here. On the one hand we’re talking about an extreme visiblity that you’re rightly saying is part of the rape, and on the other hand an invisibility that perpetuates rape culture. It’s exposure in the wrong places.

Kolbowski I wonder if it wouldn’t be more important for art to pursue the rape issue obliquely. Because one of the things that’s clear in reportage about rape, and documented in The Hunting Ground, is how the shame that rape victims experience often shapes their hesitation to report the crime. Even today, shame is often the reason why they don’t tell family or friends, let alone the police. And yet it’s telling that the women who are expressing shame in the film are the same ones whose rapes involved no nuances of consent at all. Female shame is a part of rape culture. By addressing the question of shame that women feel when they’re violated by rape or sexual assault, you’re not necessarily going to change the ways universities or cops react to accusations, but you would start to chip away at a huge part of why we’re not making any headway against the statistic of a rape every six minutes in the U.S.

Apter I just went to see a very interesting film by Sylvie and Florence Tissot about the French feminist Christine Delphy, which was, interestingly, titled Je ne suis pas féministe, mais…. A title in the line of those denials that affirm. There was a discussion afterwards with a group of feminists. I think it was Sarah Shulman who said in the discussion that there was no feminism anymore. And I objected by pointing out that there are many discussions of rape. Her point was that there was no real feminist engagement at the moment because there’s no anger, because there are no issues that women are angry about.

Kolbowski Wow.

Apter I didn’t buy that. But it relates a little to what you’re saying, Silvia, in that we could ask if rape is a galvanizing issue. The focus on rape often refers to privileged women on campuses, but not always, or to date rape, and that kind of focus often get media attention. But is the focus on rape gaining traction as a rejuvenation of feminism at this particular moment? Is it one of those issues that crosses generational, class, race, and professional lines?

Kolbowski It should. Think about, for example, the link I sent to the performative piece by the art collective Blank Noise that was done in India, which has the third highest rape statistic in the world.

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Activists converse with strangers on a road near Bangalore, India, as part of the public art project, Talk To Me, by Blank Noise art collective, begun in 2012.

Wilson I think that’s a great point, Emily A., and I do think that it’s a class-defined issue. For example, at the public college where I teach, we’ve only had student dorms for a couple of years. So students are not living on campus. If there isn’t a social life around the campus, if students work at night, if they don’t have social events–

Liebert –if they’re not drinking together.

Wilson They’re not drinking together.

Kolbowski But the one-rape-every-six-minutes in the U.S. is happening to women whether they’re on campus or not.

Apter But when the rape occurs on campus, the media is giving it another level of attention.

Kolbowski True. To bring the topic back around to art, I would reiterate my initial question. There’s obviously a necessity for data, for legal activism, for demands placed on institutions, and also to rewrite the discourse of women’s sovereignty, let’s say, but what do we see–

Apter – a necessity for sexual citizenship!

Liebert, Kolbowski, Wilson Sexual citizenship!

Apter But that’s for another discussion, since we should bring the discussion back to art.

Kolbowski Well, we’ve talked about visualization and non-visualization, and we shouldn’t exclude the auditory in discussing art about rape. Because there is an auditory dimension to rape, even though typically no soundtrack to rape travels beyond the perpetrator and victim. These are the things that art excels at – it excels at the visual, it excels at the auditory, and even at the discursive and the affective. So is there something that art can contribute to this ongoing crisis that it’s particularly well-poised to do?

Apter This isn’t a direct answer to your question, but it is something that comes back to the formal construction of Ceci n’est pas un viol. We haven’t discussed its four frames and what the different camera angles do or don’t do to the viewing of the act. The project overtly refuses the term reenactment, but it quotes surveillance footage, the way the surveillance camera is used when you’re reviewing a crime scene. The different angles – they’re probably false angles into a truth, but to address your question directly, there is still in art some claim to authenticity, some claim to truth – even if it is refuted or denied. In art there’s some claim to a higher angle of vision or a multiplicity of angles of vision, that may bring you to the aporia, to the unknowable, but they may also bring you to critical parameters. So the question is whether the technique that Sulkowicz used, of the four frames and the different angles is intrinsically important to how we approach Ceci n’est pas un viol? Does it actually go somewhere in answering the questions you raised about the topic?

Kolbowski It’s interesting that a lot of the comments on the Ceci n’est pas un viol website have to do with the surveillance aspect of the work. I read one comment that shocked me. The writer pointed out that the window in the room is not covered. The commenter then reasons that because of the exposed window, the impression that the man would have gotten in going into the room is that the woman was into voyeuristic sex and therefore the man would have gotten mixed messages about what sort of sex she wanted to engage in. I didn’t even notice that window when I watched the video a couple of times, and in fact there’s no way of telling from the window in the four frames whether anyone could actually look into the room. So for that reason among others, the comment is exposed as pure projection. In some ways, the most reprehensible and stupid comments on the site are the work of the piece. And that’s where I think art has the potential to intervene– at the level of the psychical. To understand that it isn’t just about proving a violation to a spectator, but rather to show how the spectator frames that violation.

Wilson And frames it through their own experience, through their own investment in their own sexuality, their own…sexual citizenship!!

Liebert Related to your comments on the piece itself, and to your question, Silvia, I think that art informed by feminism, specifically, can intervene in the rape crisis. The most successful elements of Ceci n’est pas un viol and Carry That Weight are in the ways they turn back toward the spectator, and that is one of the legacies of art informed by feminism that Sulkowicz is carrying forward.

Kolbowski Would you say that it’s art informed by feminism and psychoanalysis? Do you think that there’s an awareness in the work of the psychical dimension of spectatorship?

Liebert Yes, the work engages questions of desire—conscious and unconscious—in spectatorship.

Kolbowski Shall we end on that note?

Apter Sure, except there’s one last thing I’d like to bring up.  You’ve said, Silvia, that there are several ways in which you find Ceci n’est pas un viol to be problematic. Can you pin that down for us? What was most problematic for you about the piece?

Kolbowski It has to do with what I pointed out earlier in comparing Ceci n’est pas un viol to the Shvartz piece. For me, Ceci n’est pas un viol doesn’t expose the institutional/discursive framework of how people are positioned in rape culture. There’s too much investment in Ceci n’est pas un viol in proving a smaller point – no less traumatic, but smaller. Sometimes a smaller focus can stand in for the larger, but for me in that work it doesn’t. Maybe it does for others. For me, the Shvartz piece continued to resonate after I read about it because of the way that it exposes framework and because of the nuanced ways that work displays how women are contained through naming. Because ultimately, while rape is a physical violation, so much of the violence of rape concerns language…in its aftermath, and in the continuation of that culture.

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Emily Apter is Professor of French and Comparative Literature, and Chair of Comparative Literature at New York University. Recent books include Against World Literature: On The Politics of Untranslatability (2013) and Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon (co-edited with Barbara Cassin, Jacques Lezra and Michael Wood) (2014). Recent articles include “Occupy Derivatives!” in October, “Planetary Dysphoria” in Third Text, and “Women’s Time (Again)” in differences. In 2012 she was appointed Remarque-Ecole Normale Supérieure Visiting Professor in Paris. Together with Bruno Bosteels she co-edited Alain Badiou’s The Age of the Poets and Other Writings on Poetry and Prose (Verso 2014).

Emily Liebert is a Curatorial Assistant at The Museum of Modern Art in the Department of Painting and Sculpture since 2013. Prior to her current position she curated the exhibition Multiple Occupancy: Eleanor Antin’s “Selves” (2013-2014) at Columbia’s Wallach Art Gallery and ICA/Boston, which was a finalist for an AICA “Best Exhibition” award. From 2008-2011 Liebert was a Joan Tisch Teaching Fellow at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and participated in the Whitney Independent Study Program (2009-2010). Liebert holds a B.A from Yale (1997) and a Ph.D. from Columbia (2013).

Siona Wilson is author of Art Labor, Sex Politics: Feminist Effects in 1970s British Art and Performance (Minnesota, 2015). She is Associate professor of art history at the College of Staten Island and the Graduate Center, CUNY. Her research interests are grounded in issues of sexual difference, sexuality and the intersection of art and politics in post-war and contemporary art in relation to experiment film, video, photography, performance and sound/music. Recent publications include an essay on Yvonne Rainer’s Film About a Woman Who… (October) and a reflection on digital media and Kara Walker’s A Subtlety (Brooklyn Rail).

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Installation view of Halka/Haiti 18°48’05”N 72°23’01,” Venice Biennale, Polish Pavilion, 2015. C.T. Jasper and Joanna Malinowska.

This year, the little that I experienced of the Venice Biennale came through social and digital media. An intriguing post on my Facebook feed drew me to the project produced for the Polish pavilion. I searched for the project online and read about it on a few sites. There aren’t that many art projects of subtlety and complexity that travel and translate well through social media, but this project seems to be one, and it made me ponder why.

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Halka/Haiti 18°48’05”N 72°23’01.” Performance view.

The project is Halka/Haiti 18°48’05”N 72°23’01,” by the artists C.T. Jasper and Joanna Malinowska, curated by Magdalena Moskalewicz. In brief, the project entails the recent staging by the artists of a production of an 1858 Polish “national” opera – Halka – in a village in Haiti in which reside descendants of the Polish soldiers who, brought by Napoleon to put down the anti-colonial rebellion in Haiti, are thought to have deserted Napoleon’s troops to fight alongside the Haitians who defeated the French in 1803.

In the curator’s catalogue essay, Moskalewicz has written a fascinating account of the histories of the opera and its place in the Polish imagination, and of the histories and mythologies that have grown up around the possible role of the Polish soldiers in the revolutionary event in Haiti. The account is fascinating because of the subtle intricacies of Moskalewicz’s argument, which she develops as a backdrop to the work, but also because Moskalewicz chose to write very little about the project she selected to curate for the pavilion. Even in an official video, she doesn’t really explain the project to spectators. The table of contents in the catalogue for the exhibition indicates that there are interviews with the artists and some statements by the participants, as well as a few other historical texts. But Moskalewicz devotes the great majority of her text to an analysis of the national mythologies that underpin the project; for example, the national identity role that the 1858 opera – stylistically retardataire even at its arrival – has persisted in playing for so many decades.

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Traditional presentation of the opera Halka, composed by Stanisław Moniuszko to a libretto written by Włodzimierz Wolski. First performed in 1848.

I don’t know why Moskalewicz chose to address the project this way. Perhaps she felt that the project could represent itself. Inversely, maybe she felt that the project needed a historical backdrop in order to represent itself. In any case, her choice creates a kind of respectful space around the project. By sticking largely to questions of how histories play out in the national imagination of the present, she allows the work to take on its separate role as art. She neither inflates nor underestimates its political and cultural role. Ultimately, she makes a case for questioning “nation” in general, which is a way of looking at the larger picture of an exhibition based, as she points out, on the very idea of the nation.

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Halka/Haiti 18°48’05”N 72°23’01.” Detail taken from performance image.

But why does the project itself succeed in traveling so well in such a condensed way through social media? There’s no question that being present in the space of the exhibition must have produced a different affective spectatorial experience of the work than reading about it and viewing images. But it’s unique when a work conveys the depth of its layered meanings through a several-sentence description and a few photos, unique when it can work at opposite scales without losing subtlety, and while still resonating and provoking thought.

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Halka/Haiti 18°48’05”N 72°23’01.” Detail taken from performance image.

Some of it must have to do with the sharp contrasts that the parameters of the project create. The inclusion of indigeneous and non-indigenous participants, for example (the opera is sung by professional Polish opera singers). But even there, the issues involved are complex. Because some of the indigenous Haitian participants in the project are descendents of the Polish soldiers who are thought to have aligned themselves with the revolt of the colonial Haitian subjects in 1803. And the insertion into that contemporary context of an opera that has been popularly and stubbornly accorded the status of Polish national representation – when Polish “nationhood” has been so historically fraught in general, and with a narrative about class disparity, no less – foregrounds how troubled the notion of the nation is once the colonizer’s ships hit the water, or soldiers cross national land boundaries or, for that matter, once money travels along digital signals. Even the word itself, indigenous, is ambiguous. It doesn’t depend on a definitive temporality of origin.

If we’re going to be subject to the dispersal of art by digital media, would that many other projects would travel this well. In this instance it’s especially important that the work travels well, because it’s discourse applies to so many contexts, while being intensely specific to one.

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Halka/Haiti 18°48’05”N 72°23’01.” Detail taken from performance image.

In the “overture” to her essay, Moskalewicz sets the scene by describing the anxiety felt by the artists and production team at the start of the filming of the project, due to what looked like impending rain that would have ruined the scheduled performance and filming. I wonder whether filming the project through the chaos of rain wouldn’t have added a fortuitous dimension to the project, given its allusions to the traumas of imperial and colonial legacies – in Haiti, in Poland, and elsewhere. Because the performative event that is just history, not art, is usually subject to chaos.

We may be closer than ever to Warhol’s contention that everyone will achieve their 15 minutes of fame, but the focus of mass voyeuristic interest is still reserved for the few and the particular.

yoko camera 3Sometimes that voyeurism is sought out and cultivated, developed as a business model and monetized to the nth degree.

kim and kanyeSometimes mass voyeurism is dreaded and feared by its objects for its capacity to break down the ego’s fragile borders, as with singer and musician Amy Winehouse, made clear in the frighteningly explicit documentary, Amy.

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The film has to be seen to grasp the level of sadistic media hysteria that dogged her every move. Sadistic because the mass media (those who took the photos and those who displayed them) saw a ready opportunity to exploit the very deterioration they helped to precipitate. See the film to understand why drugs were the least of her problems.

yoko camera 1_smSometimes mass fixation and voyeurism have the quality of being attached to a particular person, but in part as a displacement from a related figure, as I experienced when I went to see the Yoko Ono exhibition at MoMA and encountered the artist herself, coming out of the exhibition and being mobbed by hyper-excited fans.

Not to diminish Ono’s own accomplishments and talents, but she may be the only conceptual artist in the world who could be mobbed by museum-goers. She will eternally be the object of displaced cathected energy directed at John.

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Installation view of Yoko Ono exhibition, MoMA, 2015.

Thinking about both the Amy film and the encounter with Yoko Ono’s hyper-excited fans brought to mind the new video by Emma Sulkowicz, the Columbia University art student who accused a male Columbia student of raping her and held that the University did not take her accusation seriously. Sulkowicz subsequently set in motion an art work, Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight), which involved carrying a dorm mattress around campus, with the intention of carrying it, or having supporters carry it, until the subject of her accusation was expelled from or left the campus.

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Emma Sulkowicz, Ceci n’est pas un viol, 2015. Video still.

In the new work, a video called Ceci n’est pas un viol, Sulkowicz seems to literally enact what took place on the night of her alleged rape, captured in the form of a surveillance camera split-screen. In addition to what appears to be a literal enactment of sex, unforced and forced, the work’s website directs viewers as to how to perceive the video.

Why would thinking about Amy Winehouse and Yoko Ono, about the Amy film and the attention directed at Ono – or even the attention sought by mega-media-stars – make me think about this video? Because all involve being placed in the position of voyeur. There are cultural and political questions raised by all such gazing. But Ceci n’est pas un viol raises different cultural and political questions than viewing paparazzi shots or videos because it is an artwork, and not a cultural phenomenon per se. The main question raised for me by the work (and its 444 posted comments) is whether the work isn’t strongly compromised by its literal enactment by the enunciator of the accusation, the artist herself. Her own didactic interpretation aside, the work remains a literal enactment.

At the level of the law, a literal re-enactment is beside the point. On a political level, we should not need a literal enactment, a viewing of an actual sex act, to arrive at an assessment of whether we believe that someone could have conceivably been raped in a situation where the accused claims the actions were consensual. Language should suffice.

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Ana Mendieta, Untitled (Rape scene), 1973. Detail of documentation view.

On a cultural level, shouldn’t the work contend with decades of distance from literalism, distance from verisimilutude in art? Because to make work that elides that challenge is to skirt the significance of why genealogies of aesthetic form have crucial meaning.  Ana Mendieta’s  Untitled (Rape scene), 1973, comes to mind, though significantly it was not her own rape that Mendieta was physically enacting in her art work, and that distance is a crucial aspect of that work for the viewer. Hopefully some of these issues will be explored in a future discussion posted to the blog.

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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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On March 16, Eyal Weizman – Director of the Centre for Research Architecture, a graduate program at Goldsmith University, London, and of the European Council-funded Forensic Architecture project embedded within the Centre for the last 4 years – gave a talk at The Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility entitled “FORENSiS: Space and Violence at the Threshold of Detectibility.” The announcement included the following:

Forensic Architecture turns its counter forensic gaze to the frontiers of contemporary war. Forensic Architecture, an agency composed of artists, filmmakers and architectural researchers, uses architecture and its media representations to analyse and respond to political conflicts in Israel/Palestine, environmental violence in Guatemala and their research for the UN on drone warfare in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia. Weizman will show how architectural methods and new sensing technologies could be used to expose the logic of violent conflict while raising a host of conceptual problems to do with the thresholds of vision and law.

Screen Shot 2014-03-19 at 1.15.37 PMIt’s interesting to think about the use of the word “agency” in the above blurb, following my last blog post on Alain Badiou’s talk about art of the future. The word agency connotes not just the world of business, but a realm of collective generation in which the individual status of each contributor to the collective process is not publicly trumpeted, at least to the subject of the address. And this is one of the projections that Badiou made about how an art of the future would differ from the status of art today. Badiou uses the example of the arena of science, and the infrequency with which science innovators achieve an individuated public persona. In this regard, one can also think of other contemporary connotations of the word agency. A successful ad agency figure, for example, may receive the occasional award within their arena, but their individuated talent is important, if at all, only to the client. (It raises the question of whether the Mad Men craze can be seen as a retrospective layering of a current-day obsession with individual personality and hyper-branding onto an anonymous group of players in an agency past.)

Screen Shot 2014-03-19 at 1.20.41 PMThe Centre for Research Architecture officially welcomes “architects, urbanists, filmmakers, curators and other cultural practitioners from around the world to work on expanded notions of architecture that engage with questions of culture, politics, conflict and human rights.” The impressive work of the program and the projects presented in detail in the talk don’t publicly foreground leadership, despite the fact that Weizman occupies a very public representative position for it. The program emphasizes collective generation, and seemingly depends on the different technical talents of the participants in order for the case studies to be produced. These are the “virtuosos” of the post-Fordist economy of which Virno writes. That said, the approach of the Centre for Research Architecture/Forensic Architecture doesn’t mean that individual contributors to such multi-disciplinary groups today don’t also pursue very individuated solo practices. (i.e. Lawrence Abu Hamdan, a young sound artist who is a contributor to a recent Forensic Architecture project.)

HoB calculation 1 amendedIn its authentically multi-disciplinary and collective approach, in its degree of engagement with urgent spatio-political-juridical issues, and in its recognition that cultural production has something important to offer to public realm discussions of such issues, which other categories of research cannot provide, The Centre for Research Architecture may be the only truly 21st century graduate arts program around. This is not a case of artists or architects trying to compensate for what corrupt government ignores, or what capitalism destroys (the trap into which much progressive art today falls); this is an approach that rewrites cultural roles altogether.

Here’s a short video of one of the program’s cases, presented by Weizman the other evening. The video represents both their working method and acts itself as a form of forensic evidence identifying the Israeli soldier who killed Nadeem Nawara, a teen on the West Bank. The case study is “a field of practice and…an analytical method for probing the political and social histories inscribed in spatial artefacts and in built environments.” The motivation for the forensic study was to refute Israel’s contention that no investigation was warranted because no live ammunition was fired; the work proves where the shot came from, and its lethality through a spatio-aural-temporal investigation of the event. There are credits at the end of the video, with their own hierarchy. But in part because it would be hard to identify such work – today – as cultural production, the main role of the credits isn’t individuation in the sense of the contemporary branding of artists or architects.

Although it was developed out of the discipline of architecture, the Centre redefines what a cultural practice might be today for artists. Its approach to the generation of cultural material is more genuinely collective than the collective label loosely attached to some art practices today. It breaks new ground in the ways in which it includes artists in re-shaping a public reading of spatial languages and the dense meanings they hold, as they are imbricated in zones of cross- and intra-national incursion. Significantly, it steers cultural production away from a speculative marketplace of aesthetic signifiers (i.e. the auction house and the gallery model), or at least creates a new space for cultural production and a new spectator for it. This type of program has the potential to offer a way out of the American M.F.A. impasse for artists committed to critical and politically engaged work, who upon graduating (often with massive debt) are abandoned in an economic tundra, or left to parlay their technical skills in the world of advertising and marketing. In this sense, The Centre for Research Architecture can be thought of as concerned with ethics at many scales, including the pedagogical one.

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This work utilizes the technologies of Computer-aided Design (CAD) to achieve a counter forensic. Weizman’s talk included quite a few different discourses – technological, cultural, historical, juridical, human rights, spatial, political, and philosophical. Several brilliant questions were raised after the talk. But what lingered for me was an unasked one. What seems under-examined in this remarkable work is the question of what place it can occupy at a time when “truth” has so little currency. In other words, the work recognizes that juridical appraisal is not guaranteed to be accurate, let alone just, and insists on the vital importance of bringing out of the shadows –through innovative methods– the occluded actions that cause destruction today (another project focuses on the secret life of drones by reconstructing with stunning precision the exact location of a secret attack). But an attention to the psyche of the addressee, and the reception of truth, seems to be missing. It may be present in the more academic part of the program (I haven’t seen syllabi), but it wasn’t present in the lecture.  And the psyche is an essential focus because it would allow for a more nuanced strategic presentation of the material in the public realm. Ideally it would also affect the very language and imagery and sound of their counter-forensics.

forensic 3For example, by an oblique analogy, it’s futile to try to convince supporters of capital punishment in the U.S., through a medically proven argument, of the suffering caused by botched lethal injections. Those who support capital punishment support the suffering of the sentenced, in part because they don’t identify (with) the convicted as human. To be effective at all, a discursive argument would have to be focussed on that lack of identification. Weizman pointed out that they don’t function as conventional forensic experts do, in that for them the timing of the output of results into the public realm is strategic, and differs from how the law might typically use forensic experts. He also pointed out, in response to a question, that the affective dimension of the conflicts have to be taken into account (in addition to the diagrammatic science). The value of their approach exists at a discursive level as well as at the level of forensic proof. But to aim for truth – or even for its discursive value – one has to examine in depth the contradictory ways in which the psyche transforms it.

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canoe canoe

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.

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

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

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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

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