Parallax Is Practical:
Perceiving the Digital Textile
for the exhibition Picks Per Minute featuring Phillip David Stearns & Peter Wilkins
Commissioned by InterAccess, Toronto
See the printed version as a PDF.
In 1784, Edmund Cartwright designed the world's first fully realized power loom. Driven by hydraulics, the loom could reach 60 picks per minute, or the number of times the harness raises the warp so the shuttle can pass through and create the weft“Warp and woof”. Wikipedia.org. Accessed Apr 2, 2016. «https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Warp_and_woof». Human weavers could rarely achieve this speed with consistency, and Cartwright hoped his invention would push the textiles industry to the peak of technological achievement. However, Cartwright's loom still required a human worker to monitor the machine for "broken picks" and size the warp while the gears were in motion. Accordingly, the machine failed to garner commercial success. Collectives of highly skilled hand loom weavers also rebelled against the notion of automating their craft, going so far as to allegedly burn down an entire factory outfitted with Cartwright looms in 1790Guest, Richard. “Modern History Sourcebook: The Steam Loom, 1823”. 1997. Fordham.edu. Accessed Apr 2, 2016. «http://legacy.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1823cotton.asp».
The irony of this revolt was not that handloom weavers would eventually be laid off in masses anyway—47 years later when Kenworthy and Bullough’s fully automated loom hit the market. Rather, in the face of fervid opposition to semi-automated labour, the irony is that textiles have always been essentially cybernetic and posthumanPosthumanism is a philosophical movement that redefines our conventional understanding of subjectivity and embodiment—ideas that have largely gone unchallenged since the Renaissance. Posthumanism allows for the potential of hybrid states of being that go beyond human faculties such as human-machine, human-animal, human-object, etc. For an excellent introduction to the topic see N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. University of Chicago Press. 1999.. If one accepts that textiles are a) technology, b) ancient, and c) definitively cybernetic in the way they augment our bodies and mediate our interactions, then it follows that textiles are perhaps the preeminent posthuman artifacts. Eighteenth century handloom workers could have been the veritable mascots of a posthuman revolution. Instead, their rebuff was another benchmark in a longstanding tradition of modern society to mythologize realities of progress and ignore the implications of its own inventions.
Fast forward to the Digital Age: Textiles are now the product of fully automated machines, computerized designs, biometric devices and wireless transactions. As virtual fashion collectives and wearable tech start-ups seem to double by the day it’s difficult to fathom that the ancestors of such craft and commerce were resistant to living as cyborgs. Still, contemporary culture is not without blind spots. While many fibre artists and software developers are quick to point out how the loom and its binary code of warp and weft is a predecessor to the computer, one would be hard-pressed to find members of either camp professing the prospects of digital textilesBy “digital textile” I mean a radical conception of a textile that has no physicality; not to be confused with the conventional use of the term that describes fabrics designed and printed digitally—an industry that is quite prolific in its own right..
As technology advances, what constitutes a surface or a material is increasingly malleable. Yet little to no discourse thrives about the evolution of textiles, which already depend on principles of code, pattern and scale, into non-physical formats that would place this data-driven infrastructure at the forefront of the medium.
Picks Per Minute: The Language of Digital Textiles features two contemporary artists, Phillip David Stearns and Peter Wilkins, whose work necessitates this discourse—challenging what currently defines a textile and making explicit the gap between our conventional understanding of the artifact versus its conceptual underpinnings. Works in the show range from tapestry to installation to video, but an aesthetic dialogue of surface, repetition and geometry blurs the formal differences between such categories.
The work of Phillip David Stearns derives splendor from error and situates information as a material equitable to needle and thread. His mesmerizing and frenetic ‘glitch textiles’ use raw data from computer software to create non-traditional patterns for weaving on a Jacquard loom. Series like Vestigial Data (2015) which are sourced from found, crashed hard drives manifest as 5 by 6-foot fabrics of noisy stripes, punctuated in black and white with pixel-fringes of greens, blues and pinks. While not immediately discernable as the product of digital to analog translation or programmatic failure, Stearns’ textiles capture the liminal beauty of flux. Culled from the refuse of highly engineered software, then re-processed through a different kind of computation (the loom), each glitch textile exists as a kind of reincarnate digital artifact—an object that could never have become a physical reality without a virtual equivalent.
Stearns’ installation, A Consequence of Infinitely Discursive Vison Technologies (2014) is a more immediate example of a digital textile in its hybrid composition. A contemporary meditation on landscape art, Stearns employs projected colour-fields and strips of neon light to create a collage of digital imagery and electrical luminescence. Intersecting like patches of a technicolor quilt, this version of Stearns’ textiles is mostly intangible but still far from immaterial. The historic reference to depictions of landscape conjures notions of location and temporality that are essential to how we interpret physical space while the scalability of the piece from miniature to mural-like sizes invokes the sublime.
Peter Wilkins’ series of video works are ‘built environments’ that demand the viewer’s attention through subtle movement and calculative detail. Constructed from footage taken during visits to public sites in Toronto, Wilkins mirrors and clones individual frames to assemble seemingly infinite bands of moving imagery. In Walking Stripes (2016) Wilkins captures the complexity of human bodies in transit as they navigate the subterranean tunnels of the PATH system. Amongst an ivory lattice of scrolling architecture bustling pedestrians ebb and flow into one another, evincing the density of the urban landscape while alluding to the invisible social matrix that sustains it. And though the screen lacks the tactility of fabric, the pendulous motions of Wilkins’ patterns embody the ability of textiles to modulate a given surface and extend our own bodily sensations. Similarly, the kaleidoscopic Toronto-Subway (2016) transports the viewer to the centre of a subway platform between forever arriving and departing trains. Multiple vertical bands of this scene play at different intervals and scale up and down in tandem, as if breathing in and out, expelling and swallowing passengers like particles. In watching this piece, spellbound by the tension of its organic precision, one’s own breathing comes to the fore and seems suddenly vital to understanding its logic.
Through their respective processes, Stearns and Wilkins weave their creations with algorithms of light and numbers. Yet, like Cartwright’s loom, each makes space for a cybernetic relationship where the viewer must deem the work as-textile through human perception and association. In a time when the concept of the network is so key to navigating the world, Picks Per Minute points toward this other, pervasive human invention as the real isomorph between digital information and textile production. To elevate the notion of networks in our understanding of textiles means engaging with interstitial spaces and the axiom of tenuous but flexible connections. The exhibition as a whole then propositions this strategic straddling of physical and virtual realities as integral to the definition of a digital textile, or, at the least, demands new vocabulary for a more hybrid materiality in which parallax is practical.
That Teenage Feeling:
Volatile Bodies and Fluid Identities in Contemporary Video Art
for the screening That Teenage Feeling at VideoFag in Toronto on December 5th, 2014. Part of ///WADE IN: an international artist-share series of screenings and workshops.
For the millennial generation, which entered adolescence during the rise of mobile, networked technologies, the vernacular of online video became customary for exploring a new, augmented reality in tandem with navigating intense emotional and bodily changes. YouTube ballooned with bedroom cabaret and Twitter turned the notion of the diary inside out. And, while these exhibitionist tendencies on social media are often dismissed as little more than youth mirroring the spectacle society that raised them, their confessional character signals catharsis over carnival. As most will attest, the teenage condition is a potent mix of self-reflection and social anxiety. These sensations, challenging as they inherently are, are now also augmented (cybernetically) by the way that virtual communication allows one’s identity to be immediately visible and fragmented across spaces and times. Teenagers in the post-InternetThe term “post-Internet” refers to visual culture and sociological models that are based upon and inextricable from the context of the invention, commercialization and development of the Internet into a ubiquitous technology and ideological force that shapes contemporary perceptions of politics, economics, communication and reality, in general. age are not only negotiating how to represent themselves in social groups IRL but also continuously re-presenting themselves through digital tools and online platforms. The myriad notion of self constructed through these behaviours illustrates the paramount quality of teenagehood: endless transformation.
The video works presented in this screening sketch a contour of this ‘teenage feeling,’ and evoke the liminality of constant transformation. Though disparate in their formal approaches, each work adds to an emerging lexicon in Canadian contemporary video art that speaks to this unstable, juvenile sense of identity and suggests (to varying extents) that merit lies in sustaining moments of fantasy and volatility in favour of a greater social mobility and fluidity of identity. This conceptual thread is complemented by a high level of production and, in many cases, digital manipulation made possible by nearly ubiquitous access to and knowledge of software for imaging and video editing. Accordingly, many works utilize assemblage, montage and glitches to convey the programmable nature of identity in the 21st century, as protocols of digital culture increasingly shape our perceptions.In fact, recent neurological research has shown that successive generations in general are emotionally maturing at a slower rate than their predecessors and that this may be linked to earlier exposure to mobile, networked technologies. See: Elmore, Tim. The Marks of Maturity. Psychology Today. Nov 14 2012. Psychologytoday.com. Accessed Jan 28 2015. «https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/artificial-maturity/201211/the-marks-maturity»
In an effort to deconstruct this emergent and complex aesthetic, the program was split in three parts, Bodily Changes, Mirror Mirror, and Technical Difficulties, each one addressing a particular facet of that teenage feeling. While Bodily Changes focuses on the manipulation of anatomies (some human, some other) and allude to a conflicted if not violent coming of age for the female figure, Mirror Mirror references Jacques Lacan’s theory of the mirror stage—that decisive moment when the infant sees its own reflection for the first time and has to reconcile the reality of its external image with its internal self. Finally, Technical Difficulties includes four works that employ visual techniques based on intentional corruption of the image. Failure as a fundament of teenage angst and an inevitability of continual transformation is channeled through these works as expressive self-sabotage upon which one might tack the terse motto: “If you’re going to fuck it up, at least make it consistent.”
In This is the way they make us bend, Allison Hrabluik uses stop motion animation to create a surreal and tense dance between a pair of headless cut-paper bodies. They are nearly identical, joined at the neck and dressed in black leotards. As the ideally proportioned yet disfigured bodies somersault and tendu, a story of self-doubt and loss of control over the body manifests. The disturbing quality of this is heightened by the precision of the movements and the delicate pencil lines in the background that map the choreography of their constant struggle.
In Rug Hooker, Kailey Bryan presents us with a simple but provocative action—a close-up shot of hooking her own pubic hairs through a pair of pantyhose. Using an actual rug hook, a tool which has traditionally been relegated to the feminine realm of textile work, the literal and explicit nature of her action effaces notions of the female subject as controllable, decorative or demure. Instead we see a device of artifice (the pantyhose) punctuated by the reality below, and a performance of ecstatic puberty—the young girl ‘teasing’ out her womanhood.
Still Life by Marisa Hoicka is a perversion of Dutch master vanitas compositions in which we see white-gloved hands carving into an ambiguously shaped loaf of faux fur, only for the insides to erupt into a grotesque reservoir of meat, peanut butter and jelly. The absurdity of the juxtaposition and the visceral action capture the gaucheness of teenage bodies.
Peter Wilkin’s Whale (2014) is a brief but entrancing dance of a whale in the North Atlantic. Mirrored through digital effects, the twinning of this magnificent creature combined with the glimmer of the ocean’s surface evokes wonder and transcendence as it swims toward but never reaches its counterpart. The tension between the figures as well as their synchronous movements mimics the teenage quest for kinship and recognition.
Brianna Lowe’s PreTeen Dreams (2014), while different in its motif of girl power-era animé also recognizes the self in the image of an other. Created in the mid 1990s, at the peak of political correctness, each series and scene that Lowe has culled (Sailor Moon, Card Captor Sakura, Revolutionary Girl Utena) portrays “strong young women” as princesses in short skirts wielding magic wands. While the viewer is hypnotized by the kaleidoscopic mirroring of animated heroines flying through the air, a palpable dissonance is felt between the fantasy of empowered femininity and the crude realities of the struggle to achieve it.
Rounding out part two is Memorial (2013) by William Andrew Finlay Stewart, wherein the moviegoer’s perspective is reversed; the gaze of the camera set on the audience as film credits roll. Over the course of twelve minutes, the cast of characters whittles down to a curious few: a listless couple cast in shadow and the theatre attendant sweeping up the aisles. Inevitably the viewer conjures a narrative between them, but it is a forced one, based only on the anticipation and the comfort of being alone together.
heart <br/> (2013) by Adrienne Crossman and Wrecking Miley (2014) by Josh Studham utilize a technique called data moshing in which the video file is intentionally damaged to produce glitches. In heart
we see this as a progressive dissolution of a beating human heart into an almost unrecognizable pattern of fluctuating pixels. In Wrecking Miley we see only a few seconds of footage from Miley Cyrus’ music video “Wrecking Ball” aggressively glitched, spliced and remixed to the point that may warrant the term “image abuse.” Both pieces, though distinct, encapsulate the fascination of a generation of artists with ‘breaking’ digital images and restoring materiality to video. This disregard for the continuity of the image foregrounds the potentiality of failure.
On the heels of this rebellious gesture, Conor McGarrigle’s Breaking Bad: the bitTorrent Edition (2013) appears to be the work of data moshing but is actually the visualization of collective peer-to-peer downloading. By partially torrenting the season finale of Breaking Bad upon its leak, the interrupted download is an index of the thousands of users who were simultaneously ‘seeding’ the data to one another’s computers. Consciously or not, the video is a collective document of anonymous participation and exchange, unified in its concept and incomplete in appearance.
Finishing the program is Peter Rahul's Modem Mantra [redux] (2014) which re-interprets one of the most iconic millennial memories: logging onto the Internet through a dial-up modem. However here the dial-up process is equated to transcendental meditation. A seated figure in lotus pose disassembles and reassembles, first into a crystalline form and eventually into a swirling menagerie of patterned light as the modem plays—a gloaming drone, slowed down thousands of times. The sound shrinks and grows with the discombobulated figure suggesting that wisdom can be achieved in limbo, in the waiting for change.
While obviously layered in its message, That Teenage Feeling is ultimately a time-based portrait of the teenager archetype. More than a developmental stage of our biology or even a key consumer market, the Teenager is the simultaneously hapless and heroic figure onto which society projects its fears and desires. In times of unrest—politically, economically, culturally—the ever-changing Teenager becomes the discursive site to direct collective hopes and public scrutiny. Much like the figure of the Nomad described by Gilles Deleuze, the teenage identity is suspect because it is in perpetual motion. As contemporary video art continues to blur once distinct mediums and disciplines, recognizing this fluidity is increasingly vital to understanding its relevance and its resonance.
The Cyborg Epiphany of Pascal Dufaux
for the exhibition The Cosmos In Which We Are by Pascal Dufaux
Commissioned by Eastern Edge, St. John's, Newfoundland
See the printed version as a PDF
There is the old adage, “better living through chemistry”. It was a marketing tactic to change the minds of post-war consumers, naturalizing them to the integration of science and big business. And indeed it succeeded. We live in quite the artificial landscape these days, made of polymers and pharmaceutical cocktails and digital projections. And while the wise are rightfully wary of what is motivating the embedded level of technological mediation in our culture, we have also arrived at an unprecedented matrix of organic and synthetic ecology. The virtue of rapid technological development has been the extension of the human condition.
When considering the installation work of Pascal DuFaux one could adapt this adage to,”better sensing through cybernetics”. The comprehensive study of systems, cybernetics is a term and philosophy coined by Norbert Wiener in the 1940s. A cybernetic technology is one that deals in units of information and the now ubiquitous concept of feedback—where the thing affected is also involved in its own manipulation by way of a circuit or loop. Using information as a kind of material, cybernetics seeks to augment the individual with a collective sense of mind, body and even spirit.
In Dufaux’s The Cosmos In Which We Are, the viewer’s perceptions of space and time are altered and augmented through the ‘eyes’ of Kinetic video sculpture #2. A brand of what Dufaux deems his “vision machines”, Kinetic video sculpture #2 is a surprisingly pleasant amalgamut of lenses, legs and fluorescent lights. Resembling a glowing space probe, it sits centred in the darkened gallery capturing various views of the space through its multiple cameras. This footage is then projected as a live feed onto the walls. Like the stilly nexus of a black hole, the artwork quietly fragments its surroundings into superimpositions of the immediate past.
This visual inversion also means that gallery-goers observe themselves as the subject matter of a real-time “extraterrestrial” vision—they are outside the looking glass. Not unlike the effect of Swarm (2013) by James Coupe, a Cronenberg-inspired installation that uses CCTV and facial profiling to ‘classify’ its onlookers, Kinetic video sculpture #2 provokes important questions about the influence of surveillance technologies on the perception of our bodies. Although Dufaux’s piece does not harbour the dark undertones of Coupe’s Cronenberg homage, the recognition of our own image, disembodied by the projected image, disrupts our physicality. Space becomes metaphysical, if only for an instant. And, much like Donna Haraway’s legendary dream of the cyborg, such instants free us from materiality: We become less attached to our bodies, even ‘alien’ to ourselves.
It comes as no surprise then, that the artist cites NASA footage of the Mars landscape as a major inspiration for this project. Upon seeing the pictures, “the whole of the cosmos and its extraordinary phenomena suddenly entered [his] field of quotidian representation.” (Dufaux) The alien visions offered by his work are deeply rooted then in its origins as both transcendental moment and technological achievement. The Mission Mars Explorer that transmitted these breathtaking images was a conduit in a cybernetic system, a feedback loop of visual information. Appropriately, this symbiotic gesture remains embedded in the experience of his work. The Cosmos In Which We Are is the dutiful recreation of Dufaux’s cyborg epiphany. But decidedly, the cameras are not heaven-bound this time—they are firmly pointed back on us. The cosmos in question is of the micro, interior scale. Dufaux is daring us to look closer at our own surroundings and ourselves. His work encourages us to stare sideways into the here and now, and, with any luck, catch a poetic glimpse of the present.
Dufaux, Pascal. “The Cosmos In Which We Are _ A Sculptural Kinetic Video Installation”. 2013. pp. 1.
for the exhibition Screen Test at Vtape in Toronto, Ontario, January 11th–February 7th, 2014
Commissioned by Vtape as part of the Curatorial Incubator v.11: Stop with the Performance Already!
See the printed version as a PDF
"The appearance does not hide the essence,
it reveals it;
it is the essence."
A screen test is a film-industry method to test the suitability of an actor for a potential role. Typically, the actor is provided with a portion of the script and instructed to perform for the camera. These recordings often capture visceral moments, as the pressure of the audition promotes exaggeration and disclosure. Later, multiple screen tests are compiled into a single reel and evaluated by the casting director and production crew. The intensity of the original performances is mediated by their transfiguration from flesh and blood to a two-dimensional, backlit image. Uncomfortable and grotesque I am using grotesque here in the purest etymological sense, which means to exist liminally between recognizable forms. For the case of the actor, this indicates a sensible blur occurring between the character and the person playing the character. The earliest use of grotesque in this sense came about to describe the animal and human hybrids occasionally found in the Christian frescoes of Southern Italy.  moments of unrehearsed performances are subdued through flattening and miniaturization. Yet the processing of the image (its compression, scaling, resolution) contrasts and complements its emotional content: errors, hesitation, and breaks in character are transfigured by the prescriptive requirements in the production of what we see on screen. The ambiguous oscillation between pure performance (the role) and performativity (the act of playing the role) produces a fragile but visible threshold joining fiction and reality.
The video performances in this program are not screen tests in this traditional sense. None were shot under the context of an audition or portray a character per se. However, each performance does reveal itself to be a test—a challenge to bridge a carefully constructed reality and awkward moments of intensely human behaviour. By enacting uncomfortable tasks for the camera, the artists featured in Screen Test ask the viewer to witness their human foibles and the subjectivities of being. The evident difficulty of enduring the tasks performed in each video betrays the authorial image of the artist and destabilizes the viewing experience. Mediated by the restraints of their medium, the artists are restored as earnestly human subjects, delivering frank and honest engagements with the camera and the viewer. Adding to this effect is an intimate, almost claustrophobic aesthetic in all seven of the works. The reoccurrence of the 'close-up' and the 'single-shot' connect a spectrum of unsettling scenarios, ranging from weeping to brutally honest monologues. When used in combination, these formal qualities create a microscopic condition. The space of the viewer is tight—pulled in and locked in—purposely brought too close for comfort. This confrontational negotiation with the image and, subsequently, the screen's condensation of fiction and reality, amplifies these scenarios into the realm of the uncanny. The axiom of the ‘screen test’ becomes evident as the more basic challenge to endure the works and engage their subversive contents.
This notion of the test, however, can be extended further. Each work could easily be reframed as an empirical study in self-inflicted trauma. This is not to imply that the artists or their practices are masochistic. Instead, they should be thought of as distinct exercises in physical and psychological distress. The traumatic aspect of each emerges in the act of viewing—in the durational nature of performance itself. The concept of trauma here shifts from its usual connotation of personal affliction to a more collective dimension, where spectatorship is key to its sensibility.This is an allusion to Jacques Rancière's idea of the distribution of the sensible, in which political regimes dictate the division between what is sayable and what is visible. I reference it here to suggest that the role of the spectator, when viewing these works, is a political one. Accordingly, these traumatic trajectories are nuanced, initially obscured and revealed over time. Although, the physical peril implicit in some works make the possibility of trauma more apparent than others: in Tom Sherman's Hyperventilation (2011), the artist,isolated before the camera, asphyxiates himself until passing out. There is nothing else but Sherman in the frame, and his lunging toward the camera while rapidly inhaling and exhaling creates a pervasive anxiety. The next breath always seems to be the last before he blacks out. This action sustained challenges the viewer to remain unaffected by such a blatant, bodily gesture.
Physical distress is also central to Marisa Hoicka's Insides Out: Head, Shoulders, Knees & Toes (2012) and Erin Hael's Souvenir (2013). Insides Out confronts us with on screen croppings of the artist's body, bound or encased in treacly foreign substances. Connotations of blood, mucous and feces run rampant as Hoicka wriggles and wobbles, exploring the textural and kinetic qualities of her aberrant dressings. As her body struggles to move, the viewer struggles to make sense of what is organic and what is synthetic. Souvenir shows Hael being slapped across the face repeatedly. Her assailant is never seen. No dialogue is exchanged. Only her face fills the frame, and sporadically a hand enters to strike her cheek. Although the assumption that the artist is consenting to the act makes the experience less alarming, over five minutes one realizes—watching her sideway glances, her lip clenching, her skin becoming pink—that the artist may have lost control over the intensity of her own performance.
Rodney Werden's Say (1978) presents another spectacular, ethical predicament. The artist performs as a voice off-camera commanding a young stationary actress to repeat words after him. Gradually, his word choices begin to infer images of bodily movements and sexual pleasure. As the actress's face becomes visibly more unsettled and aware of her manipulation the viewer grows equally unsettled by their complicity as witness. The question arises: who is really being manipulated here? What seems at first to be an innocent exercise takes on a perverse complexion.
This triangular power dynamic is less aggressive but equally present in Zeesy Powers' ERIN—I Will Tell You Exactly What I Think Of You (2013). Part of a larger series of videos published to her YouTube channel, I Will Tell You… is predicated on a complete stranger sitting outside the frame as the artist gives a litany of first impressions—all of them unrehearsed and point-blank. ERIN is a special case, however. Typically, the 'patron' of the performance is present. In ERIN, as Powers explains on its YouTube page, she received the request via e-mail and the message states, "cannot make it live or in person", but to "lay it on me". What follows is a parabola with vulnerability at its base and offensive at its apex. In the background, a visual stream of consciousness plays itself out using found Internet imagery. Sometimes these backgrounds strike a strange parallel with what's being said. Others are pure automatism. What results is a frantic interplay of signifiers between Powers' monologue, the assemblage of imagery flickering behind her and the invisibility of the subject matter—Erin.
Other traumatic instants exist still, in reliving painful or unfulfilled memories. Tad Hozumi's Thinking About Someone While Listening to Mariah Carey is a willful display of unabashed emotion. Hozumi, clad in headphones, thinks about someone (presumably a past romance) and alternates between a stoic stare directly into the camera and a scrunched face of teary anguish. For the length of Mariah Carey's Always Be My Baby (1996) the viewer is front-row to an emotional ride, witnessing Hozumi decompose to an intense psychological breakdown. Again, the traumatic aspect of the piece is ironically not found in the gesture itself. Watching Hozumi in mental and emotional pain is clearly difficult to 'enjoy'. Yet, our disconcert primarily arises when he gazes out uncertain of and exerted by his own performance. His effort in sustaining this awkward interaction is palpable. Crying and self-deprecation are reframed as forms of labour and the emotional potential of the piece is transfigured by the visible mechanics of its production. A sense of ambivalence towards the artificial nature of the act begins to supplant any sympathy reserved in the viewer.
In Paul Wong's Perfect Day (2007) the artist is also encountered as a desperate figure re-living a memory through music; in this case, Lou Reed's ironically somber Perfect Day (1972). Promenading through his apartment half-naked and high on a mixture of cocaine and heroine, Wong films himself on a maddening domestic quest to locate the song in his CD collection. Frequent movement of the camera evokes a sense of anxiety throughout the seven-minute video, but also suggests Wong is experiencing a kind of ecstasy in the throes of his melodramatic sequence. Accenting this are hackneyed transition filters that infuse the narrative with comic relief and satire. Each element works to envisage an inner world that is vibrantly self-indulgent, reveling in its spectacular trauma. This welcome debauchery proves to be its most radical and potentially traumatic characteristic, for it champions the narcissistic facet of art making—an exhibitionist, self-interest in continually constructing one's image.
In a medium so closely associated with publicity and distribution, the construction of identity in video performance supposes alterity. It relies on a parlous splicing of spaces and times, a bifurcation. Again, the screen should be recognized as the conduit for these congruent channels of perception. Its membranous qualities provide just enough circulation to permit different understandings of time and space to temporarily cohere. However, the function of the screen is also, ironically, to largely operate unseen, camouflaged by the very images it projects. In this way, it distracts us from its essence by its appearance. As a means of visual communication, the screen's appearance is its essence. Hidden by its two-fold condition as aesthetic artefact (a "window onto the world") and technical instrument (communication device), the screen pre-occupies the senses and distances viewers from recognizing other, equally fascinating paradoxes unfolding before their eyes.
When screened with an audience the arresting content and paradoxical junctures in these works become most present. While the screen undoubtedly privileges visuality, the presence of multiple viewers is required to visualize the properties of the work into social realities. The shared viewing space represents the final strata of tests residing in this program. The publicized screen test is a challenge to endure various forms of trauma together—a dare to maintain our critical distance and achieve reconciliation in our solidarity. Flashes of anxiety and doubt, sympathy and disinterest must not only be registered and re-negotiated on an individual level but also collectively. The shared viewing environment effaces expectations and aligns these representations as personal yet political (and therefore public) opportunities for affiliation and recognition. Screen Test calls upon both its performers and its audience to meet in the mercurial middle, at the nexus of the screen, where identities and actions are not so clearly partitioned.
Powers, Zeesy. ERIN—I Will Tell You Exactly What I Think of You. Posted February 7th, 2013. YouTube.com. Retrieved August 20th, 2013. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NNkgP2AIqYE
Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness. 1943. Washington Square Press; Reprint edition, 1992. Print.
Creating Discursive Space & Functional Sites in Exhibitions of Networked Art
This essay is an excerpt from my Masters thesis, Net.cromancy: Methods for the Revival of Virtual Exhibitions.
if you are interested in obtaining a copy of the full text.
i. virtual graveyards
The vista is looking bleak for the virtual exhibitionexhibition [disambiguation] In the context of curatorial practice, an exhibition is not only a public display of artworks, but also a carefully constructed presentation that incorporates interpretive devices such as the show's title, labels and panel texts, curatorial essays, interviews or auxillary programming that function to convey an overarching message, and to frame the works within a particular discourse. . Gone are the days of its novelty—when the combination of those words would garner a raised eyebrow or earn a featured review in an art publication. In our cybernetic society (Nichols par. 3) experiences of the virtual are quotidian, and a generational and ideological shift among net artists has all but dissolved the institutional critique and penchant toward the avant-garde that once typified the genre (Peralta par. 4)This is speaking from a North American perspective and does not adequately address developing nations or regions where access to the Internet is difficult or impossible due to cost or infrastructure.. Accordingly, exhibitions of net art that are solely virtual are losing their appeal to users as innovative aesthetic experiences and to net artists as valuable sociopolitical projectsI am using the term "net art" to describe any artwork that is made on and disseminated through a network. The most common form of this today is art accessed through the World Wide Web—just one 'sector' of the larger network we call the Internet. Other forms of net art occur through smartphones, GPS tracking devices, web cams and e-mail.. Instead, they are being abandoned in favour of more traditional and embodied display strategies that utilize a physical venue as the locus of interaction. As a result, the [art]scape The use of the suffix "scape" is an allusion to Arjun Appadurai's theory of the mediascape and four other dimensions of global cultural flow as discussed in his essay, "Disjuncture & Difference in the Global Cultural Economy," (1996). Appadurai illustrates scapes as discursive dimensions that are analogous to landscapes in their organic formations, and in which groups and individual agents 'move'. To extend his idea, I am bracketing the prefixes to suggest that they are relative and encompassed by the larger scape that is the totality of 'movement' through virtual space. of the Internet is increasingly a graveyard of virtual exhibitions—host to broken URLs and obsolete plugins that await potential users where collaborative online projects once 'stood' as nodes of aesthetic engagement In the sense of a critical or committed interaction with art and its respective audience. and cultural expression. Without a revival of the virtual exhibition through curatorial innovation and experimentation, the critical social potential in non-physical, networked aesthetic experiences is doomed to an early grave.
This is not to say, however, that the [land]scape is bereft of net art. As a genre, its rate of production is at its most prolific. But 21st century net artists are of a different mindset than their predecessors when it comes to the means of disseminating their work. It can no longer be assumed that the interests of net artists lie in positioning themselves on the periphery of contemporary art and culture. The anti-canonical philosophy of net.art in the 1990s that sought to circumvent the established acculturation systems of galleries and museums through virtual exhibition practices has essentially vanished net[dot]art indicates a historical period in net art practice that has yet to be concretely defined. Most practitioners and theorists agree on the relative dates of this period occurring between 1995 & 2000. During this time, individuals like Vuk Cosic, Alexei Shulgin, JODI and Olia Lialina became pioneers of Internet art through experimental websites and browser scripts. These works are largely characterized by a lack of traditional formal aesthetic qualities as well as subverted conventions of Internet use through tactics of graphical and navigational malfunction and intervention.. As early as 1997, with the inclusion of a net art section in that year's Documenta, net art pioneers such as Vuk Cosic, Alexei Shulgin, Heath Bunting and the duo known as JODI all vocalized disenchantment with the progressively museological treatment of the artform by its curators. Egregious misconceptions were executed in the 1997 Documenta in regards to how the space of the Net was often negated as a conceptually integral premise to the artworks. Instances included storing files of each artwork on local hard-drives rather than linking to their existing URLs, and the documentation of Cosic's selected piece onto a CD-ROM that was made available for purchase. In a post-exhibition interview with Tilman Baumgartel published to Nettime.org, JODI said that they felt their work had been denied its "net-specific status," and that the way in which the works were installed felt dismissive in its office-like qualities (par. 13).
Increasing curatorial efforts to materialize the art, by superimposing qualities of origin and authenticity onto fundamentally distributed works, sparked a debate in the early 2000s amongst net artists and theorists. This discourse focused on the inevitability of the artform's museumification and questioned the merit of continuing to pursue extra-institutional ideals. These sentiments were edified seven years later when the sudden absence of a web art section at the Whitney Biennial This is the terminology used by the Whitney for the artworks they presented in the biennial. However, it is unclear if they used the term correctly in the classification of the works. Technically, web art indicates a piece of networked art that is accessed through the World Wide Web (WWW). However, other forms of networked art use alternative server protocols such as FTP, TCP/IP, UDP and SMS. caused New York Times art critic Ben Sisario to write:
"Internet art may have little direct connection to the dot-com financial bubble, but its reputation has suffered as the Internet itself has lost cachet. Many who work in the Internet art world report a sense of digital exhaustion… There may be lots of Internet art out there, so it cannot be dead. But if it has lost its sense of novelty and excitement, is it really alive?" (par. 5)
Sisario's question is a valid one, as it highlights the importance of social interest and an invested public in the longevity of artistic movements. However, the logic of his interpretation is both consumerist and modernist in its equation of newness to progress and of entertainment to artistic expression. It was a logic that indicated a curatorial formalism had indeed taken hold—one that historicized net art at its best as a heroic period of dissent in the progression of new media art, and at its worst as a trendy blip on the timeline of the art market (Quaranta 11).
Consequently, throughout the last decade the integrity of net art curation has been subject to much scrutiny. Across online forums central to
new media I've chosen to strikethrough the "new" of "new media art" to indicate the passage of society into a post-convergent media epoch, and more so that this term is historically specific to a period of artistic experimentation in emergent technologies spanning from the mid 1960s to the early 2000s. Thus, the term "new media art" should not be perpetuated as accurate nomenclature for the contemporary exploration of technology in artistic production. This topic was the focus of the 2005 exhibition The Art Formerly Known as New Media, curated by Sarah Cook and Steve Dietz for the Banff New Media Institute. communities such as Nettime, The Thing and Turbulence, voices in the field have asserted that the institutional influence seen in contemporary net art practice and its exponential presence on the secondary art market have drained it of its dynamism (Lichty par.7). Cosic and Shulgin have even gone as far to say that net art is not just over, it's dead. Others, like Rhizome.org founder Mark Tribe and net artist and curator Olia Lialina have been more nuanced in their critiques, citing the emergence of a paradox. They note that while net art is still very much alive in terms of productivity, the cultivation of a politicized postmodernism—what Hal Foster has called an "anti-aesthetic", once considered essential to its conception, has certainly died (16). In this way, net art has become undead (Tribe in Sisario par. 11)—a manneristic shell of its radical potential (Cosic in Hustic par. 9) [disambiguation] I believe that Hustic uses "manneristic" to convey the exaggeration and theatricality of the Mannerist painting period in 16th century Europe. It describes a hollow gesture, or the feigning of appearances..
This precarious status of net art—its figurative undeath—is in turn complicated by other factors that are broader in their scope, and ones that reflect a generational shift within contemporary artists in general. In particular, there is a growing complicity among new media artists in the specularization of their work as well as a complacency of pastiche over thoughtful appropriation (Drucker 44,161). Thus, net art is gradually being pinned down and hollowed-out—chiseled into a determinate genre in a canonical typology and a proverbial victim of technology fetishism. Without the proposal of new curatorial methods that seek to revive and better align the curation and exhibition of net art with its virtual, networked environment it will continue to exist grotesquely—neither here nor there, inconsequential in its undeath. The distributed nature of the network in which net art is produced and virtually enacted presupposes a social and a public dimension that are foundational to the 'work' of art itself. Accordingly, these attributes demand to be equally reflected in the format of its exhibition. To use JODI's expression, the "net-ness" of networked art is compromised when experienced through the physical and conceptual enclosures of the institution. If this axiom goes unrecognized exhibitions of net art risk becoming exhibitions in vain and antithetical to the works.
ii. rise of the alchemists
Given the institutional character of contemporary net art, it would seem that the figure of the curator has been the proverbial undertaker of the artform's experimentalism. However, there are a number of unorthodox display strategies that have emerged in recent years seemingly positioned to dispel this notion. Since 2005, there has been a notable increase in the use of 'hybrid' exhibition models. These models combine virtual and physical exhibition strategies simultaneously, seeking to extend the artworks beyond the intimacy of a PC-to-single-user relationship into the publicized realm of the social. While these efforts are perhaps virtuous in their progressive aspirations, they are often still problematic to the work. From the traveling-net-exhibition-for-hire model used in Michael Takeo's Net:Reality (2006) to the most recent iteration of the Web Biennial, Regeneration .011 (2011) that merged a physical and virtual opening reception, the desire of net art curators to bridge gallery space and virtual space has become apparent. A critical question to be raised however, is what is motivating these curators to create such a bridging effect?
In lieu of the growing number of net artists making work that is more aesthetically driven and approachable to the average gallery-goer, the rise of hybrid exhibition models can simply (and uncritically) be interpreted as a strategic acknowledgement of a more formal aesthetic. Accordingly, an increase in the use of such exhibition models signals a direct response by curators to the primacy of visuality in contemporary net art production. Through simultaneous physical and virtual exhibition, so-called immaterial artworks are anchored and commoditized through their presentation in a material, and materialistic, site of value production that the gallery represents. Still, this reading neglects to take into account influential meta-discourses of democracy and relationality that have been thematically popular in contemporary art and curation since the mid 1990s. These discourses within artistic and curatorial practices are resurging in the heightened proletariat-focused political climate of the global economic downturn, and are helping to raise the profile of new media art as a form of cultural production already incorporating technologies and philosophies of decentralization and distribution. Such discourses highlight that true democracy occurs only through the absence of a foundation or a unified structure, and create a greater conceptual affinity between experiences of distributed types of new media art such as net art and democratic action (Deutsche 272). This has given more cultural currency to net art, and has equally opened up questions regarding its influence and possible role in the construction of a networked public sphere (Geiger par. 30). Looking at the relative success of large-scale tactical media initiatives such as those executed during the Arab Spring, in which virtual, immaterial public formations manifested as very much tangible, physical rallies and demonstrations, the net art community has been left to wonder: are similar congregations possible under the proposition of aesthetic engagement?
In turn, a methodology of curatorial alchemy in net art has come about, wherein conventional, physical terms of the exhibition are expanded through a philosophy of creating a simultaneous physical/virtual experience. The goal of this is to create a phenomenological fusion—a transcendent moment, perhaps—in which the distributed and translocal qualities of virtual art are juxtaposed with the experience of physical congregation and social interaction. In doing so, these exhibitions challenge preconceptions of virtual aesthetic experiences as immaterial and isolated. No longer rendered as an artifact-to-human interaction relegated to a physical exchange between person and personal computer, alchemic net art exhibitions revise this formula of interaction, interpolating it with multiple levels of social interaction and institutional navigation. Social and political processes inherent to networked forms of communication and production become visible in the activities of assembly and conversation that exhibitions encompass.
Strategies of curatorial alchemy are therefore symptomatic of a lacking visibility in experiences of virtual art, where evidence of a public space for social interaction within the nature of the work is often imperceptible to the single user experiencing it through a personal device. While the premise of a virtual exhibition allows for a translocal visitorship, it is rare that the design somehow graphs or measures the presence of other visitors to the site and even rarer that the exhibition interface allows (and subsequently encourages) visitors to directly interact with one another. In contrast, this visibility is easily satisfied in physical exhibitions of so-called plastic arts through the simple sight of other viewers, as well as the interactions between them and the physical boundaries of the space as a homogenizing force. Thus, alchemists in net art curation are looking to emulate this triangulation in the experience of virtual art by (for all intensive purposes) getting multiple bodies around a single computer screen. Strategies within alchemic models like the tandem virtual/physical opening of Regeneration.011 or the advent of Speedshow, a mobile net art exhibition kit developed in 2010 by Aram Bartholl, have both done well under this paradigm, attracting swathes of physical visitors to view net art in each other's presence. But is this sufficient or appropriate to the artform? The physical congregation of users around net art creates the image of a crowd and a literal space for interaction. It is unclear, however, whether this act of congregation actually generates and facilitates interactivity. In what ways do alchemic exhibition models enable and encourage acts of communication and collaboration, either through the interface of the artworks or their virtual environment? How are the strategies of alchemic models addressing the virtuality of net art and activating its exhibition as a site for critical social and aesthetic engagement?
While alchemic exhibition models may help to raise awareness of net art in their physicality, they also promote an ideology of social interaction around the work that is physically determined, and therefore antithetical to the unique properties of the artform. As digital and distributed artworks, their presentation in a physical venue wrongly binds them conceptually and culturally to a finite experience of time and space. This diminishes the social capacity of the virtual exhibition to act as a site for dialogue and exchange, and to become visible through communal use and activity. Instead, as the historical precedent of socialized art experience, the physical exhibition tends to remain the key signifier and interface of interaction for the majority of the viewing public. Perhaps on a subconscious level, but nonetheless within the minds of those viewers, the virtual exhibition is reduced to a form of documentation—functioning only as auxiliary content to the gallery experience in the form of an online archive or a digital catalogue.
Alchemic exhibition models tend to construct a simulation of net art, as exhibition-goers navigate and experience a distributed and decentralized artform through an institutional lexicon. At the same time, the physicality of the gallery works to edify the social dimension of virtuality. The space of the gallery becomes an illustration of a networked experience for gallery-goers. Through the act of physical assembly and interaction within the gallery, the 'image' of a place societally reserved for aesthetic experience is constructed. Gallery-goers begin to conflate the idea of a 'distributed' aesthetic experience that networked art represents with the geographic and ideological centralization of their institutional environment. This conflation produces an antiquated perception of networked art that is materialized and located; one that fails to challenge and destabilize those concepts within the social consciousness. This denies the artworks from their most radical proposition: the distilling of predetermined spaces and times in which participants can engage in aesthetic experiences.
Rather than working to create visibility through alchemic models, net art curators need to devise models that return to a studious and critical engagement with virtuality as an axiom for the exhibition's design and interface. A revival of the virtual exhibition is only possible if curators consider the unique properties of virtual space as a sociological territory—as a "tabulation" in which people and art are deterritorialized
(Deleuze in Negri par. 9).
It is in the act of exhibition that the subjective nature of aesthetic experiences is politicized through the intersubjective construction of operational and discursively determined spaces (Kwon 29). The non-physical terms of virtual exhibitions lend themselves to this discursivity to a greater degree than geographically specific exhibitions, because the 'movements' and expressions of their constituents are mediated through the highly textual, and thus largely linguistic, terms of the digital interface. Each step of the exhibition-experience in net.cromantic exhibitions is therefore a visualized and technologized procedure of reading and writing that again necessitates more than a passive consumption of the artworks. Instead, exhibition-users are required to constantly translate their subjective experience of the works through the terms of the textual and graphic elements present in the exhibition's interface. This concomitance of navigation and translation, which is present in the social codes of physical behaviours in physical exhibitions but foregrounded through the text-based protocols of the interface in virtual exhibitions, more closely aligns the aesthetic experiences of users in a virtual exhibition with the linguistic and discursive nature of publishing artistic content on the Net. In the interest of better understanding the significance and complexities of discourse and discursive space as essential properties of networked art production and communication, net art curators must move beyond visions of alchemy towards visions of futurity and dispersion in their exhibition frameworks and strategies. They must move towards a curatorial methodology evocative of necromancy.
The study of necromancy—often exoticized through images of medieval witchcraft and gypsy voodoo—actually contains many principles that relate to virtuality and disembodied notions of space and communication. It may seem macabre, but applying the metaphor of raising the dead when speaking of net art curation is salient for creating a curatorial methodology that addresses the not-quite-disembodied but surely non-physical experience of navigating and communicating in virtual space. Despite necromantic traditions being quite diverse, they span many ancient civilizations and are surprisingly unified in their philosophical pursuit of a greater, divine knowledge through studious engagement with the immaterial and the imperceptible. Dating back to ancient Greece, necromancers have believed that through a regiment of trance-like experiences it is possible to divorce the soul from the body in order to grasp the limitations of time and space, and essentially to exist liminally between states of life and death. The ultimate goal of this exercise was to establish non-physical pathways of communication—a porous connection and dialogue with 'the other side' that would allow for spiritual growth and eventual divination (Halliday 244).
In a similar fashion, the net art curator should recognize virtuality as an ethereal plane with capacities for generating aesthetic experiences otherwise impossible in physical terms. Accordingly, virtual exhibitions should be understood as primarily experimental endeavors in the definition of a virtual 'aesthetic' and as essential contributions to a branch of knowledge in curation still largely undeveloped. The fluid medium of virtuality presents opportunities for unprecedented and unique forms of communication and interaction to transpire with networked art as a driving force. The capacity for the convergence of not only various forms of media (graphic, photographic, textual, audial, cinematic) but also of communicative procedures and processes inherent to navigating the Internet, enables an overlap and integration of art and action to occur; a relationship that Jacques Rançière has described as a sentence image. In the sentence image, "the clash of heterogeneous elements provides a common measure," by which communities and connections are exhibited, "through a fraternity of metaphors." (55) This clashing effect of which Rançière speaks is also evocative of Benjamin's conception of dialectical montage—an unfamiliar juxtaposition of familiar elements that possesses the "liberating potential to pry art away from ritual and toward the arena of political engagement." (Nichols par. 15) Both of these concepts advance the understanding of image from passive consumption towards activity and a procedure. But the sentence image differs from Benjamin's dialectical montage in that its aesthetic qualities are not exclusive to the visible (Rançière 7). Its montaging consists of a considered unification of seemingly heterogeneous visual and procedural elements in which a noun and a verb assemble to create an operational image. It is the pairing of subject and action enacting image. Traditional conceptions of the image as an object and a stable entity become inextricable within its function and navigation.
If applied to virtual exhibitions, the concept of the sentence image implies that the transcendentalism of aesthetics traditionally relegated to the private, meaning that viewing or 'appreciating' art is experienced internally, is externalized by combining it with the publicized and contingent protocols of navigating and communicating on the Net. This intentional overlapping of art viewing, navigation and communication through virtual means forms the basis of net.cromancy, wherein the exhibition is conceived of and designed as an augmentation of networked art through networked communication and virtual interaction. As an experimental curatorial methodology, net.cromancy strives to generate new knowledge about the aesthetic dimension of virtuality, explored and implemented through integrations of networked communication, interaction and participation into the exhibition-experience.
However, it should not be mistaken that net.cromantic methods are solely technologically driven. Effective net.cromancy requires more than just including opportunities for communication and interaction by incorporating various plugins and widgets into the exhibition's interface. Net.cromancy also presupposes an agonistic framing of those interactions within the curatorial thesis of the exhibition, and a general interrogation of the theory of exhibitions that extends beyond modes of presentation into platforms for exchange, critique and collaboration. The inclusion of a video conferencing option in a virtual exhibition, for example, certainly creates the ability for networked communication and engagement between visitors to occur, but for what reason? How does the manner of interaction inform the experience of the exhibition as whole? A net.cromantic methodology demands that both the design and the interpretive content present something that is at stake to locate the exhibition discursively. Whether conveyed by the artworks or through the process of navigating them, a net.cromantic exhibition should offer a proposition that incites critical dialogue and participation on the part of its visitors. By doing so, net.cromantic models function site-specifically, presenting the artworks as a 'microcosm', or a series of positions within a social and relational matrix (Bourriaud 26).
Although traditional definitions of site-specificity have regarded virtual space as its antithesis, both concepts involve the construction of networks and relational forms that spatialize discourse and otherwise invisible social forces. Just as for centuries practitioners of necromancy—from the ancient Egyptians and Etruscans to modern day occultists—have sought to attain liminality through their work, so too have site-specific artists sought to position their work between recognizable locations in order to elucidate and excavate the hidden structure of their relationships.
A relational conception of the site can be traced back to the 1970s, present in the works of a number of European and American artists practicing institutional critique such as Hans Haacke, Andrea Fraser and Michael Asher. The performativity of their actions destabilized the conventions of their subject matter, and the works ceased, "to be a noun/object, but a verb/process, provoking the viewers' critical (not just physical) acuity." (Kwon 24) This evocation of the sentence image allowed a discursive dimension of the site to emerge and prevail as the most conceptually vital 'space' of the artwork. Dematerialization and deterritorialization of the site continued in the durational and relational art of the 1990s. Artists like Ritsuko Taho, Gillian Wearing and Christian Phillip Müller created works that were propositions to the viewer, inviting them to take action and become constituents in the formation of a temporary public—an ephemeral but invested group of participants tethered by an event and a discourse.
James Meyer has identified this phenomenon of a participative constituency within site-specific works of the past twenty years as instances of the functional site. Once again, this conception of site goes hand-in-hand with the liminal aspirations of necromancy, wherein 'space' is predicated on the sustained 'between-ness' of communication and exchange. The functional site is thus an essential framework for creating net.cromantic exhibitions in which the site of the exhibition is not experienced as a singularity but as, "an operation occurring between sites, a mapping of institutional and discursive filiations and the bodies that move between them." (Meyer 25)
Commenting on Meyer's concept of the functional site, Miwon Kwon has also noted that this mapping is a process parallel to the series of "movements" that occur within electronic spaces such as the Internet, where navigation of content is entirely transitive (29). Meyer's illustration of a continuous series of movements also references Umberto Eco's scenario of the open work, in which the work is not open in the sense of incompleteness, but rather is open as a perpetual process of (re)interpretation that constitutes the meaning of the work itself (2,8). Therefore, the process-driven experience of virtual exhibitions innately lends itself to the formation of functional sites, provided that their conceptual frameworks integrate a temporary public as the catalyst for the realization of that exhibition. An exhibition operating as a functional site must provide some kind of interface for members of the temporary public to directly influence or even determine the exhibition-experience. This is an important point of difference in relation to the alchemic models of net art exhibition discussed earlier, where there is evidence of a temporary public in the form of a physical congregation of individuals interacting, but it is unclear how that public is in fact intended to actualize or direct the outcome of the exhibition. Even in the case of the Speedshow series, where exhibitions of net art 'pop up' in disparate Internet cafés, it could be said that there are instances of the functional site occurring. But, what is the dynamic effect that is produced upon and within the site if there is no direct means to participate in the act of presenting or contextualizing the artworks? The assembly of a physical audience for net art attains visibility, but generates little impact upon the reading of the artworks if elements of the exhibition are not conditional and subject to change. In contrast, the premise of transitive and collective actions in functional sites encourages indeterminacy through participation. The uncertainty of the outcome of the exhibition as an event expresses the highest power of democracy
(Deutsche 273) to manifest "openness" and instances of "revolutionary pedagogics," produced in the aggregate meanings that are collaboratively developed by its usership (Eco 7) usership [disambiguation] The sum of individual acts of usage performed through a particular interface..
New media art curator Joasia Krysia takes up this line of thought in her explanation of software curating as a possible paradigm to reflect the shift from mechanical reproduction to distributed and cybernetic systems in cultural production (8). As new media art increasingly incorporates software philosophy through conceptual integrations of participatory systems and open-source development as well as software programs in its technical executions, Krysia proposes that curatorial methods should facilitate these processes in the exhibition of such works.
The rise of web platforms in the early 2000s re-envisioned the conditions and conceptions of cultural production as an ongoing communal activity, equally expanding the definition of net art to include these communal activities. Platforms such as the software art repository Runme.org or the 8-bit music peer-to-peer community Micromusic.net are prime examples of this era that continue to operate and grow today as functional sites. For nearly ten years, each has been maintained by an invested temporary public—moderated and updated through the collective management and open-source development of their respective usership. In both Runme.org and Micromusic.net the lateral system of file sharing that constitutes the basic function of the platform has been mimicked by its temporary public in its lateral functionality as a discursive site. This mimesis of the software platform by the site's temporary public demonstrates how practical and theoretical aspects of software align with open and decentralized paradigms of cultural authorship (Goriunova & Shulgin 261).
As an experience also constructed through digital and networked technologies, why not apply such a paradigm to virtual exhibitions? And furthermore, why not to those that strive for functionality? The net.cromantic exhibition, as a type of functional site that is already experienced through the vernacular of programs, systems, files and codes, must also be considered for the ways in which it emulates software. As constituted by a temporary public, the functional site of a net.cromantic exhibition is a process and a series of conditional statements—or algorithms, per say. Thus, like an open-source piece of software, the net.cromantic exhibition is never a stable body of actions or participants—its collective identity is continuously shifting in a nomadic narrative (Meyer 32).
As an exhibition that strives also to be a transitively navigated participatory system, the base of the net.cromantic exhibition's usership decentralizes and reorganizes as it repopulates. In turn, the particular interests of the temporary public shift as individual constituents 'come and go' from the exhibition. A net.cromantic exhibition can then be seen as a perpetually evolving and democratic entity. It is an exhibition model that figuratively grows its own internal mechanism for contextual renewal—a collective project folded into the entire experience of the artworks, resulting from and producing it simultaneously.
So far, the methodology of net.cromancy incorporates many theories—of the sentence image, of agonistic discourse, of the functional site—but what are the practical elements that will demonstrate and synthesize these ideas? What exactly would such an exhibition model look like?
First, it should be assumed that the net.cromantic exhibition will live on and be navigated through the Net. Under which server protocol the exhibition is accessed will vary. Most often virtual exhibitions take the form of websites. However, it is possible that a net.cromantic exhibition could exist as an app on a smartphone or as a whole program that is downloaded and run on a personal device. In any iteration, content of the exhibition would be experienced through a digitized, graphic interface. The layout of the content would produce a sentence image of networked art and networked communication, and the design of the interface would emulate software by allowing for user input as well as visible effects of that input altering or augmenting the exhibition-experience. This creates the conditions for a perpetually evolving discursive space, indexed through the exhibition. But, how can elements of the interface help to structure this process? How can the design encourage that user input to be channeled into critical engagement, or ensure that the engagement is agonistic?
This question again elicits Krysia's proposition for software curating; specifically how a distribution of production in exhibitions can examine and test the democracy of open-source environments. Through a methodology of distributed authority and cultural labour, software curation looks to reveal how power relations are expressed between curator, artist and audience in the context of network systems (8). Accordingly, interactivity within net.cromantic exhibitions, because it is predicated on a discursive space, should aim to reveal the power relations of such interactions within the exhibition by visualizing an equal 'playing field' within a discourse. Users of the exhibition should have equal access to features of the interface and equal privileges as contributors in a discourse. This leveling creates the potential for a democratic forum, and prevents the formation of hierarchies and cliques within that discourse through automated features of the interface. Instead, the plateauing of discursive space in net.cromantic exhibitions demands that any instances of collaboration or critique be arrived at collectively by a temporary public, and that the members of that public work productively through conflict to establish a community.
However, this ideal can only be accomplished if the discourse is envisioned as one that is not just critical, but a true critique—an immanent and highly subjective dialogue (Massumi 338). This is key to the formulation of the options and protocols available to users in the graphical and navigational interface of the site, because the contestability of the discursive space in the exhibition is a prerequisite for it to become functional and mutable. If there is no instability to the discourse—no sense of immediacy for defense and persuasion necessitated by the subject matter—then there is no force to sustain the interest and engagement of a temporary public within that site.
The most logical art-related activity that can be incorporated into the net.cromantic exhibition that satisfies these requirements is that of an art critique—the integration of virtual critique into virtual exhibition. As the direct subject matter of the critique, the artworks are poised to become visual, conceptual and navigational nodes of a discourse that is inevitably agonistic. The act of critiquing art is decisively an agonistic endeavor due to the subjective and irresolvable nature of experiencing, interpreting and communicating thoughts about art. The intense rhetorical exercise that critique involves in the task of expressing an aesthetic experience requires constituents to assume the possibility of conflicting viewpoints—the elucidation of which is the very point of engaging in critique. The many vantage points upon the artwork and a subsequently deeper and more communal understanding of it, gained through the collage of those perspectives, is the very point of discussing its possible readings and meanings. The subjective nature of critiquing art also drives what cannot be considered ethical concerns in the discourse (e.g., the labeling of particular perceptions of the artwork as right or wrong) into a more socially and culturally governed arena of thought that pivots on an exchange of ideas rather than a censoring. This move from a mode of dialectics into the spectrum of social and cultural variables that produce conditions and preconceptions of viewing art, propels those involved in the critique to engage the alternative perspectives of others in order to better understand and defend their own position in the discourse. In this light, the function of critique is akin to a type of sensor or exploratory operation in which intersubjective blockages, breaking points and fundamental obstacles between participants are identified. Conclusive moments are never sought after—consensus is the myth that agonistic discourse seeks to dispel. Instead, the constraints of intersubjective blockages serve to elucidate and delineate points of difference between experiences, which, "pass together through the generative filter of the enabling frame." (Massumi 340) This shared discursive space of unresolvable differences constitutes a true cultural or artistic exchange and best expresses the agonistic dimension of net.cromancy.
To facilitate this, the technical design and layout of the virtual critique should take the form of a pre-existing scheme for textual exchange that archives user input in a navigable sequence. Thus, the most effective format is one that is already 'indigenous' to the Net, both in terms of graphic design and navigation. A critique facilitated through a blog, message board or chatroom-type application would be ideal in this respect, because they propose the smallest learning curve in terms of the level of media literacy required to use them. The protocols of accessing and using these formats are already familiar to most users such as logins and the use of screennames, posting to comment threads, uploading files and discerning information using timestamps, subject lines and search functions. This presents a smoother transition from the daily networked communication protocols of most users into a contemplative, critical activity. This transition encourages users (on a subconscious level) to renew or reconsider their own relationship to art and partaking in creative endeavours. The familiar virtual environment that the blog, chatroom or message board presents has the potential to empower its users when employed for critique by converging protocols of critically artistic and casual social activity through networked communication. This convergence should also be reflected in the layout, visually reinforced through the sentence image. Users of the site should be able to view the artworks and the critique simultaneously as interrelated and active content in separate frames of a website, or as independent but adjacent windows. Confronted with the montage of interactive and participatory processes such as this, the User is introduced to a number of different signifiers, voices and individual interpretations that then become intertextually linked to the experience of viewing said artworks.
Consequently, the sentence image of the exhibition is no longer a single proposition, but a medium through which continual sentence images are constructed. In its most idyllic manifestation, the net.cromantic exhibition is a perpetual 'art machine', revealing the process of engaging in aesthetic discourse as the veritable 'work' of art. Conforming to user interest and participation, the net.cromantic exhibition could theoretically take on a life of its own—a dramatically public life in its utter distribution. It would become an exhibition of the act of exhibition, constantly reframing its original content through the newly generated content of social interaction, and reformatting its entire mandate contingent upon its temporary public. A particularly compelling possibility in this, of course, is the heightened politicization of the virtual. Depending on the interest of its users, the fully functional work of art could have overt political motivations, becoming an evolving mechanism of tactical media that would address the lag time of collective-action to respond to institutional action—the pitfall of an accelerated 'temporality of democracy' that plagues contemporary society (Hassan par.2). Alternately, the exhibition could amend its function to act as a virtual headquarters for activism, a laboratory for open-source projects, a theatre for performativity in virtual life and so on. Where the expanse of conceivable use for the exhibition as a social and performative, yet productive, act meets the manipulability of digital technologies and networked communication; this is the pinnacle of net.cromancy.
The possibility for continuous renewal and eventual evolution in the functional site again evokes necromancy in the quest not only for divine knowledge, but also utter dissolution of the self. Although a mostly allegorical relationship, the guiding principles of futurity, perpetuity and fluidity common in the vernacular of necromancy are also present in the vernacular of new media artists. Net.cromantic exhibitions symbolize a conceptual synthesis of these vocabularies and ideas by the perpetual transformation and reorganization of interests and constituents in the functional site. A successful necromancer seeks liminality in order to become a conduit for communication with the dead, and as a result assumes the position of becoming a medium—a non-physical site in him/herself that is open and perpetually reinvented through the channeling of other voices and actions. Analogously, a successful net.cromancer, in the process of designing and facilitating a net.cromantic exhibition also becomes part of that functional site, working as the primary node from which all sentence images and discursive spaces emanate.
It is in this larger, metaphysical terrain of Art and Exhibition, that the pursuit of net.cromancy questions the role in society associated with the figure of the curator, who in the case of net.cromantic exhibitions must be the catalyst for the orchestration of critical social engagement through virtual means. While individual works of net art are catalysts for individual acts of critical engagement with the work themselves, the orchestration of socialized, communal acts of critical engagement simply cannot be accomplished without curatorial perspective. This is not to say that the specific title of "curator" is necessary to carry out net.cromancy, but rather that the methods undertaken in creating net.cromantic experiences are decidedly curatorial in their nature. And, as such, there are implied civic obligations—to audience, to providing accessible experiences (through technology, through language, etc.) and to creating relevancy by addressing salient social and cultural issues.
In net.cromancy the virtual exhibition has the opportunity to live again, but providing the tools does not equally produce committed curators to pick them up and make something of them. The rationalization of theories and conjectures does not guarantee that change will actually take place. Contemporary net art curation must be committed to experimentalism, and at the same time work harder than ever to consider the ethical implications of cultural authorship. The paradisiacal connotations of open-source are not derived from the complete liberation of authority, but rather the democratically shared responsibilities of maintaining flexible and functional cores that make open-source communities possible (Manovich par. 20). Therefore, the curation of experimental models does not end once the project goes live; it is an ongoing endeavor. The proceedings of those exhibitions need to be analyzed, further theorized, written about and disseminated as social and cultural research contributing to a broader understanding of virtuality in society. Until this attitude is adopted by net art curators, the gallery will continue to serve as the default site of subjective value production, and users will continue to perceive virtual exhibitions as dislocated experiences.
In a recent CBC interview with Nora Young, Mark Jeffrey, owner and key developer of the chatroom environment The Palace, gave a prediction for resurgence in the public desire for real-time networked communication. While there already exists a diverse range of networked modes for public interaction, nearly all—including the most popular of social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Google+— happen in a delayed, flattened time-space. For Jeffrey, the emergence of alternative models that address phenomenological conundrums of networked communication like the 'temporality of democracy' is bound to occur within the next decade. And, while this prediction is certainly encouraging of net.cromancy as an attractive methodology, exactly who is paving the way, and for whom these alternatives are directed is a serious question—one that should occupy the minds of every invested net artist and net art curator. A successful revival of virtual exhibitions, while beneficial to the profile of networked art, equally presents new opportunities for institutionalization and commodification. New curatorial methods, no matter their level of innovation, create commodity in their novelty. In addition, the focus of net.cromantic methods to integrate participatory elements into the exhibition-experience is an appealing 'angle' of human-interest to would-be marketers and curators. As such, new opportunities for the dubious commoditization of the art and the exhibition-experience are created, including the troubling possibility of functional sites or of collective-action itself to become fetishized. The failure to critically consider why and how users are integrated into future virtual exhibition-experiences ignores these caveats, and undermines the possibility in cybernetic society for the emergence of what literary critic Peter Bürger has called 'new praxis' in reference to his theory of the avant-garde—a dissolving of the boundaries between life and artistic activity (101).
Although net.cromancy focuses on the revival of virtual exhibitions specifically, it is not a great conceptual leap to ask: What general experience of networked life cannot incorporate experiences of networked art? This is where the net.cromancer must go, bravely and faithfully. Surely, there are practical and conceptual hazards ahead. No amount of experimentation in art curation will ever produce an answer, per say—such is the nature of art, to provoke further thought and valuable questions. However, the introduction of experimental models for virtual exhibitions is the only way to ascertain whether it is a path worth pursuing, or truly a dead end. Subsequently, a critical perspective of curatorial formalism in virtual exhibitions, gained from the 'near-death experience' of the practice, can only be realized in the conscious effort of its revival. The theoretical and practical strategies outlined here are only one interpretation of how to go about accomplishing this, and thus do not promise a figurative panacea within critical issues of virtual exhibition practice. Yet, one thing is for certain: the dead will remain assuredly so until we as practitioners get our hands dirty, until we dig deeper.
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The Exhibition of Net Art as Activism
Written April, 2011
Published May 2012 by Art & Education:
Q: Where does net art exist? I am using the term 'net art' knowing that it technically refers solely to networked artworks and is distinct from 'web art' which refers to artworks made for the World Wide Web. However, because the World Wide Web exists as a subsidiary of the Internet, I am here similarly employing the term net art to include web art as a facet of a larger art form.
A: The answer is: everywhere and nowhere.
Net art, which can be loosely defined as any digital artwork that uses a network as its means of dissemination, is by nature immaterial and distributed. As a 'gaseous' form of art, it has infinite points of access and is reproducible at any scale. There are no spatial coordinates for net art—no markers, no physical geographies or fixed positions. Net art abnegates distance and, to some extent, it can be experienced simultaneously by an unlimited number of users for an indefinite period. In this way, net art has great presence, a type of omnipresence, or perhaps only the imminent potential thereof. It has the ability to publicize and visualize social commentary on an unprecedented scale. The role of net art then to catalyze counter-hegemonic subcultures would seem an inevitable byproduct of its value as a possible Fourth-EstateOriginally coined by the English politician Edward Burke in 1787, The Fourth Estate is a concept that describes a socio-political force or institution whose influence is not officially recognized or mediated by current power structures. It has been historically used to refer to the news media; especially print journalism. However, since the advent of new media and the World Wide Web, the Fourth Estate has become synonymous with the potential for grass-roots political activism and unmediated content via networked technologies.. So why haven't we seen this come to pass?
A possible explanation may be that there are problems inherent in the reception of net art, and more specifically in its aesthetic—a 'net aesthetic'. Pure net art (as opposed to art-on-the-net 'Art-on-the-Net' refers to the use of the Internet as a virtual gallery space where reproductions of artworks in the physical world are displayed on a webpage.)consists of an entirely graphic, designed environment. It exists outside reality in that its visual language has no referent in the physical world—a simulated reality and a semiotics of abstraction. Even net artworks that include photographs or illustrations do not truly reference the physical world; they present simulations of imagery in which there is no material difference between their constructions. All of the net is a single 'material': a sequence of numbers, a code giving the illusion of form. The whole space of the digital behaves in this way, as what Baudrillard would describe as a cellular space, employing an aesthetic of infinite reproductivity. As such, it comprises the most "considerable dimension" (98) of simulation, and must be interrogated according to new (and largely undefined) parameters when used as both 'material' and 'space' for artistic production.
Confined to this aesthetic—made of elements that exist only in relationship to themselves—net art would also seem detached from causality. There are actions in this 'space', but are there consequences? What measurable effects can a practice of creating simulated or virtual environments have on the Real?
Initially, these questions may seem basic and warrant a somewhat cynical response: That which is simulated cannot alter that which is real. However, the inherent interactivity of net art complicates this inquiry. Net artworks require human beings to engage with them, and, more importantly, in a way that goes beyond the average protocol of Internet usage. Net artworks require their viewers/users to conceptually navigate and ultimately enact them as art. (Coleman, 2005: 20) Thus, the simulated 'spaces' of net art become temporarily reified or bridged to the Real through their users.
What then, is implied by this bridging when net art is given a fixed position? For example, in a gallery or a museum? The institution can't contain it; it can't truly control its access or its translocality when it is not (and never will be) physically present in the institution. What does this liminality suggest? Does this constitute the physical exhibition of net art as a turning point that both dissimulates the art institution and escapes Baudrillard's rules of simulation? (Baudrillard, 1983: 12) A hybrid space of the Real and the Hyperreal in which the gallery is not a gallery in the conventional sense, but a threshold? The visible scape of a Fourth Estate? I am loosely referencing the larger term "mediascape". In particular, I am referencing Arjun Appadurai's conception of this term, which is used to describe the dynamic 'flow' of images and information across networked communities and mass media.
Before attempting to answer these questions, it is germane to examine the history of Web Biennial and its evolution into a simultaneous physical/virtual exhibition platform with its most recent installment in January 2011. An initiative of the Turkish contemporary artist and director of Istanbul Contemporary Art Museum, Genco Gulan, Web Biennial began in 2003.
It existed/exhibited solely online as a way to escape issues of national representation and commodification in the biennial format. (Gulan, 2005) Along with providing a placeless alternative to the touristic enterprise of its contemporaries, Web Biennial also adopted a non-curated, non-thematic exhibition model in which the artists worked collaboratively and disregarded the goal of a visual or conceptual unity. In Refresh, his 2005 quasi-manifesto that tracks the develop of the Web Biennial project, Gulan cheekily asserts that, "the collaborative model not only helps a different technical structure to function but also to prove that nonmonetary artistic cooperation can still exist in the 21st Century."
In its first three iterations, Web Biennial achieved its ideals by manifesting solely on the Internet. It did not align or oblige itself to a geographic locale, avoiding becoming a spectacle of nationalist rhetoric while offering continuous and unbiased access on a global scale. Its artists continued to host their works on their own servers, and the biennial's programmers even built a custom search engine through which viewers/users could access the works, providing a means to circumvent even the institutions of widely-used search engines that serve as a capitalist 'containers' for the art. ("Net.Art & Real-Time Revolt", 2010)
However, for its 2010 edition Web Biennial deviated from this formula in one crucial aspect: it employed the theme that all artworks embody a political message. More specifically, many of the participating artists focused on themes of protest and anti-war sentiments. Although the 2010 biennial maintained a non-national framework by continuing to only exhibit virtually, its focus on political net art—that, by nature of its medium, questions the notions of borders and identity—resulted in the visual and conceptual problematizing of nationalism. The biennial, formerly unhinged from the principles of space, quickly became a kind of political 'space' that implied the dominance of certain physical territories and identities.
This phenomenon, albeit complex, precarious and perhaps dangerous, is far from counterproductive. It reflects the continuously shifting institutional discourse that spawned the Internet in the first place—an illustration of Gramsciian hegemony Here I am referring to the aspect of Antonio Gramsci's definition of hegemony in which there is no truly dominant ideology, but a continuous flux of ideologies that allude to a power structure.. Essentially, the technologies and infrastructure that produced the Internet as we know it were, "the product[s] of the most organizational of institutions – the Military. It was then passed to another – the education system. Now, perhaps it is handing the reins to another – the corporation. The point is, the Internet is the technological child of these organizational constructs."(Castle, 2000) The question then becomes: How can one utilize the net as a medium and yet manipulate the terms of the institutions that keep it in place so to move outside their systems? This is a rhetorical question, of course. Any net artist would be daft to assume that his/her work can truly move outside institutional discourse through absolute distribution or immateriality—just by means of being on the Net. Rather, it is more productive to think of net art as tactical media, a term coined in the mid 1990s by theorists David Garcia and Geert Lovink for the use of media against the institution of itself, or media infecting media. Tactical media works within the present code of signs and conventions only to subvert those conventions and disrupt the mainstream.
A remarkable example of this was the 1999 "Battle of Seattle", in which a transnational demonstration against the World Trade Organization (WTO) Ministerial Conference was organized months ahead of time by a coalition, or 'network', of activist groups. Approximately forty thousand protesters (certainly not all, but many, organized via tactical media) swarmed the streets of downtown Seattle, blocking intersections and forming a ring of bodies around the Washington State Convention and Trade Center. Concurrently, the Internet activist group Electrohippies Collective (Ehippies), based out of Oxforshshire, England launched an online campaign against the conference by using a denial of service (DOS) action to "jam" the network servicing the WTO. This computer protocol continually sent thousands of download requests to the WTO's server, overloading it and periodically disrupting activities of the conference over a five-day period. (Radcliff, 2000)
This redeployment of conventional media not only transcends geographies but also links the interests and resources of activist groups for whom it might otherwise be impossible to assemble and connect. The lasting effect of these events then is the realization (or the reinforcement) that the parameters of Democracy and Community have radically expanded in the last twenty years with the development of networked communication. Tactical media fulfills the role of a digital underground that runs in opposition to globalization (or, at least the commercially driven aspects of globalization), making users reflexive and raising awareness of the System as a medium.
Many of these ideas can be applied to net art, because it also behaves in a transgressive manner Net artworks are often visually indistinguishable from 'regular' content, enabling them act as conceptual Trojan Horses that 'persuade' viewer/users to engage with them through a familiar aesthetic and means of navigation (cursor, window, hypertext, etc.). This implies a rhetorical dimension of net art that connects it to activist techniques like tactical media, whether or not its message is itself political.. However, there is a key difference between the eventual physical assembly/action of tactical media deployments like "The Battle for Seattle" versus a private interaction with a work of net art with no successive physical event inherent to its programming. This is where the gallery (or any venue, for that matter) can provide a metaphorical threshold for the assembly of the physical and the virtual. Because the museum/gallery supposes a social space and an active space it has the potential to become a forum and a site of activism, with the appropriate shift in thought. Although it may be easy to dismiss the gallery as a site of recreation and passivity, as it primarily functioned for its Bourgeois predecessors, the view that 'art speaks for itself' has lost ground. Contemporary visitors to museums and galleries expect to engage in exchanges of information. (Blunden, 2009) And, this is only going to intensify, both in the context of the museum/gallery and beyond. As Howard Besser so eloquently prophesized in an article in Wired Museum, "that the public would come to 'view culture less as something to consume and more as something to interact with'." (Hin & Hecht, 2007: 60) The contemporary gallery is becoming synonymous with visitors who are prepared for interaction, receptive to learning and have a heightened awareness of sensory and textual information—preconditions to the successful reception of net art.
In January of 2011, Gulan tested this new visitor aptitude when he decided to exhibit a selection of works from Web Biennial 2010 at Plato Art Academy (Plato Sanat) in Istanbul. Curated by Marcus Graf, Regeneration.011: A Selection of The Web Biennial Revealing The Poetics and Politics of Net Art ran from 20 January through the 20 March 2011. It featured twenty-three artists from Web Biennial 2010 as well as a complete archive of the works exhibited in previous biennials and auxiliary programming such as online discussion panels. In the curatorial essay, Graf and Gulan describe the exhibition's title as an analogy for the cultural/spatial renewal that occurs with the translocation of the artworks from the virtual space of Web Biennial to the real one of Plato Art Academy. They then go on to call the exhibition an "artistic bridge," that raises particular questions, "regarding the need of its representation in a real location."
It is clear that Graf and Gulan were aware of the layered issues evoked by such an exhibition, and the irony involved in its display. The installation of the works was flippant, with a series of polygonal computer 'stations' connected to the ceiling by melodramatic groupings of cables. In a similar gesture, the computers reserved for the archives were given neon signage of their respective folder names to hang above them.
Some works were purposely skewed, projected into corners and onto "various surfaces". (Graf & Gulan, 2005) Others were displayed on larger flat-screen monitors set in grid-like shelving that stood over the stations—the only 'spectacular' aspect of the show.
But, even then, the shelving was devoid of any visual treatment, made of unvarnished and unpainted two-by-fours. Wires were not necessarily exposed, but there was no attempt to hide functional equipment. It seemed an exercise in techno-minimalism; underscoring the absence of ornament and object akin to net art while parodying postmodernist sensibilities of emphasizing the banality of gallery space.
Though this treatment seems to mock the display of net art, it does suggest a simple and viable format for a hybridized virtual/physical exhibition model. The polygonal computer stations were large enough to accommodate multiple computers and users at the same time. Their heights were set at waist level, inviting viewers/users to lean, sit, observe and converse.
This encouraged viewers/users to break with behaviors of quiet stoicism in the gallery, as well as ideas of net art being a private viewing experience. Instead, the exhibition moved from a trope of demonstration to one of discourse.
Viewer/users of Regeneration.011 interacted with other visitors in the physical space; interacted with other viewers/users of the net artworks (directly or indirectly); conversed about the works and their concepts, and created a temporary community around a set of issues and a subsequent discourse. This movement into discourse and beyond geographies is the defining characteristic of the simultaneous exhibition platform for net art—the creation of a translocal public sphere. The attendance at Plato Art Academy, being comprised of both physical and virtual visitors, expanded the scope of Regeneration.011 from the purely physical or virtual into the metaphysical, where the aesthetic of net art registers as a practice of cultural discourse within the history of art objects. The aesthetic employed in such a discourse is then focused on an 'object' of perceptions rather than something material. Artists, and particularly new media artists, have long understood this immaterial dimension of art making, but is a recent development to expect the viewer/user to do the same. (Chandler & Nourie, 2005: 38) Exhibition models such as Regeneration.011 necessitate a translocal social exercise around the works to perceive the full experience of those works. Subsequently, this social exercise begets a social authority and a political body. (Habermas, 1995) The concurrent physical and virtual exhibition of net art can then be considered activism, because it politicizes its viewers/users, allowing them to play an, "active role in attempting to restructure elements of place," (O'Lear, 1999: 165)—the gallery remaining the only constant, or the nucleus of a new sphere.
However, it would be foolish to assume that the gallery is the most effective venue for this kind of exhibition. To say that the works 'presence' in the gallery in Regeneration.011 allowed their individual messages to become more immediate or effective is illogical. With net art the most immediate and ideal reception—truest to its context of utter distribution—takes place outside the walls of an art institution. Consequently, an ideological tension arises from this situation of net art 'on display'. The activist sentiment as its impetus is often hollowed out by the priority of 'aesthetic effect' in museum/gallery displays. Although net art does deploy itself visually (and here is where we see a breaking point from the majority of artistic practice) the curation and display of net art according to formalist aesthetics—as opposed to a relational or perceptual aesthetics—relegates it to the level of an interactive novelty. In particular, net artworks that function as tactical media run the risk of being received as 'scenarios' or 'theses' when put on display; as microcosms or prototypes of activism that have yet to be tested in the 'real' world, even though they're already out there, existing in the hyperreal of the network.
A similar but different tension arises with the display of net art because it also represents the antithesis to autonomous art production. And, as a result, this challenges the autonomy of museums and galleries. Because net art is by nature embedded in a medium of interconnection and simultaneity, its origins are so imbricated that it becomes impossible to define net art as an utterance (Bahktin) or singular, autonomous work in the way that the majority of society conceives of artistic production. Furthermore, museums distinguish themselves and become known for their specialties through the accession of works, and galleries do the same by retaining the rights to show certain artists. How can either of these tactics truly be accomplished in regards to net art, when a single individual or institution cannot own the artwork, or monitor its access or, in some cases, identify its creator(s)? Similarly, how can a museological rhetoric be established around the artwork (i.e., cataloguing, provenance, material history and preservation) when it is, for all intensive purposes, inextricable from its medium, which doubles as its means of display? The problem posed to institutions then is that net art cannot be 'processed', or assimilated into conventional practices around display, classification or collection; the artwork refuses to adapt to the codes of the institution. Instead, museums and galleries are forced to adapt to the artwork and invent new methods that are more collaborative and less concerned with autonomy as a prerequisite to a system of canonization. Essentially, this threatens to destabilize their conceptual foundations.
But prized-concepts like autonomous art cannot live on forever in the stasis of the gallery space, detached from the trends of the outside world. Museums and galleries must respond to the evolving needs of their audiences and the shifting (dis)interests of their artists.
The increasing disinterest of net artists in autonomous art production is both a postindustrial fantasy (Barney, Warf & Grimes, 1997) and a reflection of a society that is increasingly less interested in autonomously authored media and broadcast culture I am using broadcast here to mean more than the transmission of television or radio signals. Instead, I am referencing the philosophy behind broadcasting practices that supposes a passive, and generally uneducated, mass public as its audience.. From voting via cell phone for contestants on reality television to Yelp.com user reviews superseding newspaper columnists, there is a popular culture movement underway toward more lateral and interdependent information structures. This turn has, of course, been facilitated by networked technologies, and so the artists who are utilizing these technologies realize that these relationships must be reflected in their work. In respect to the works included in Regeneration.011, pieces like:
Ian Wojtowicz's Aspects of Polishness
Newspeak by Immo Blaese
Martin John Callanan's I Wanted to See All the News from Today
illustrate this interdependency by integrating search engines and social media sites as content generators. Wojtowicz's piece, which takes two keywords and graphs their popularity against one another using the image of the Polish flag, relies on Google to perform a live search for each keyword and determine its number of hits. Set against a backdrop of the Polish flag, the viewer/user selects two words at random to enter into a transparent window with search fields. When s/he clicks the 'compare' button the search field disappears and his/her terms become respective labels for the red and white blocks that halve the flag. The proportions of the blocks fluctuate up and down as the search calculates, and they eventually settle to show which is the 'bigger', popular keyword. In this way, Google, which exists as a separate piece of software designed and maintained by multiple programmers, is a necessary component to the concept and the functionality of Wojtowicz's piece. Aspects of Polishness is not only dependent on Google to generate the content, but also the viewer/user to define the search terms, and the billions of Internet users who generate those search results. It is intrinsically a collaborative work of an extreme degree (whether any party is aware of their involvement or not).
Newspeak by Immo Blaese is made through an equally collaborative process. But, instead of integrating a 'monster' search engine as a functional component, Newspeak continually rakes the content of Flickr and Twitter. Designed by Blaese to resemble breaking news segments, the website randomly displays images from Flickr which play in succession like a slideshow. In the center of the site posts from Twitter feeds are superimposed. The imagery and the text in this situation, obviously, have a completely arbitrary relationship. Nonetheless, Blaese's use of bold and capitalized sans-serif type, a sleek charcoal background and motion graphic headlines infuses a familiar narrative structure of a television newscast. Blaese's 'original' artistic contribution then is the aesthetic framing of the content, and none of the content itself—which is continuously being generated in real time; a sort of perpetual art machine.
In I Wanted to See All the News From Today, Martin John Callahan creates a topography of current events by sampling online news sources. Each day, Callahan's piece, which has been ongoing since 2007, gathers the front-page image from 600 news publications in six continents and displays them in a grid against a white background. The density of images created by the grid of cover-page designs almost cancel one another out, creating an ironic flatness in contrast to the depth of information that they represent. This flatness is reinforced by the fact that none of the cover-pages are hyperlinked to any of the content they picture. However, there is visible linkage between the cover-page designs. International news stories and political figures, repeated celebrity sightings, and even duplicated publications produced in other languages; all begin to emerge as patterns that eventually construct a narrative of their own—a map of globalized identity.
Like Blaese, in I Wanted... Callahan has constructed a perpetual art machine that feeds on a continuous generation of content. But, it has a different conceptual agenda than that of Newspeak. Where Blaese is interested in a completely unfiltered sea of user-generated content, Callahan plays with the highly filtered and crafted practice of journalism where authorship is key. In this way, Callahan's piece not only functions to critique the globalization of media, but also produces a critique of authoritative media sources. These are news media sources whose content is driven by underlying economic agendas as businesses and political agendas as businesses of information. So, while contemporary news sources appear to lend many 'voices' to pertinent issues, many perspectives are "frequently stifled by the conservative corporate ownership of newspapers, television, and other media outlets." (Barney, Warf & Grimes, 1997: 260)
This critique of authoritative media is a facet of the larger critique of the Author that has been explored in Western cultural production since the late 1970s. While, it's fairly clear (whether a direct result of Postmodernist inquiry or not) that since then the persona of the artist as Genius has been put to rest, it is unclear if society continues to argue for the true 'death' of an authorial figure. (Barthes, 1977) A death implies finality and a permanence of loss. In contrast, if we take the diverse collaborative models of net artists as our example to counter an epic and singular sensibility of the Author, then it is not so much a death but a deterritorialization of the concept. (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987) As a highly distributed and participatory kind of 'writing', net art epitomizes a dissolution of the modern author function (Foucault, 1979), both liberating the artist from the obligatory role of a historical figure and empowering the viewer/user to recognize his/her own stake as a maker of meaning. Some net artists and new media scholars suggest that, similar to the oeuvre of Joseph Beuys, net art practices engender a kind of social sculpture. They "expand" the concept of writing from a meticulous and internalized activity into a spontaneous and externalized one, "that performs with and in the networked space of flows [which] may open up one path toward a form of social-utopian network culture." (Amerika, 2007: 188)
If the physical exhibition of net art does, in fact, generate a translocal public sphere, then the word "author" becomes a term that is independent from the 'work'. Instead, it is embedded within a process of visual and linguistic discourse surrounding the work—the transition of "author" from being understood primarily as a noun to a verb. Although this authoring is not exclusive to the gallery (for instance, blogs embody this procession of collaborative authorship), the physical exhibition of net art provides a unique opportunity for its viewers/users to participate in concurrent virtual and physical authorship. It is this simultaneity of authorship, or a complete translocality of discourse, that is the revolutionary product of such an exhibition model.
Of course, this paradigmatic shift of creative genius to collaborative authorship is not new or unique to new media:
Think of medieval cathedrals, traditional painting studios which consisted from a master and assistants, music orchestras, or contemporary film productions which, like medieval cathedrals involve thousands of people collaborating over a substantial period of time. In fact, the romantic model of a solitary single author occupies a very small place in the history of human culture. (Manovich, 2002)
It would seem that the view of an authoritative, creative figure who is seen apart and largely above the rest of culture is specific to Modernity, and should be viewed as a temporal perspective on the creative process. It is the opening up of the terminology involved in its discourse that has facilitated a turn in authorship. This can be seen in the way that the vernacular of musicians, game developers and software programmers has infiltrated the lexicon of 'art-speak'. Throughout the 1990s, as practices such as multi-player online games and digitally DJing became more prevalent, words like 'remixing', 'open-source' and 'sampling' became applied to a wide range of artistic production. (ibid.) In particular, 'sampling' has interesting implications for the authorship of net art. In its original musical production context, 'sampling' refers to the unrestrained use of others' digital sound recordings as central compositional elements in a song. The term then can be applied to net art as a better encapsulation of the extremist collaborative processes of Wojtowicz, Blaeme and Callahan, who rely on pre-generated content from a wide array of users and sources to compose the 'cores' of their artistic projects. This kind of wording is positioned alternatively to terms like montage or collage that are characteristic of the dialogue between Modernism and Postmodernism, where even 'original artists' working in such ways were appropriating their content—implying that their work was 'owed' to a preceding author. "[One] can say that with sampling technology, the practices of montage and collage that were always central to twentieth century culture, became industrialized," (ibid.) or perhaps post-industrialized for the information age. This reform to the language game (Lyotard) of authorship in contemporary art is where we can (finally) begin to see a move away from the stalemate discourse of Modernist and Postmodernist values.
Lastly, I would like to consider a critique of Baudrillard in order to bring the conversation of the hybrid exhibition of net art as activism into a greater historical and art historical significance. While Baudrillard's theories of simulation and hyperreality are still relevant to net art, they were constructed in the early 1980's—what some would call the height of the Postmodern era—before the grand proliferation of net art practice in the 90s. If the hybrid exhibition of net art presents a possible departure from the Modern/Postmodern paradigm, how do the meanings and implications of Baudrillard's terminology change?
In, "A Critique of Baudrillard's Hyperreality: Towards A Sociology of Postmodernism," a 1998 essay by Anthony King, the concept of a hyperreal dimension is debased by the concept's dependency on two key factors: 1) That it is built upon a fully closed circuit of referentiality, and 2) that it claims (either through its direct visual and textual attributes or through the rhetoric that surrounds them) to be realer than the Real. King's essay is a debunking of these stipulations, after which he posits that Hyperreality, as a self-determining dimension of semiotics is impossible on a pragmatic level. Instead, he suggests that hyperreality functions solely on a theoretical level, and more specifically as a metaphor to describe the sociological conditions predicated by the postmodern condition.
To take up King's first point, that the closed circuit of hyperreality is practically impossible, applies to and complicates my own claim that net art occupies and functions from a hyperreal environment. With net art, and especially in the case of Web Biennial 2010's political subject matter, a fully closed circuit of referentiality cannot be maintained. In Baudrillard's definition, "hyperreality emerges when cultural representations (and therefore our knowledge) no longer have a social or human reality against which to verify themselves." (King, 1998: 48) But, due to its subject matter being deeply embedded in "human reality", political artworks like those exhibited in Web Biennial 2010 and Regeneration.011 are inseparable from the Real. Their references to reality are heightened when one considers that the works exhibited in each is intended to produce an awareness of Reality, which aimed to 'extend' the viewer/user's concerns beyond the convincing, but limited digital environment.
Still, in respect to the majority of websites and the protocol of their navigation, there are many aspects of Baudrillard's definition of hyperreality that do apply. For one, although most websites picture and reference events or products in reality, their use of totally digital and designed interfaces that simulate those events and products behave as persuasive substitutions. In other words, the digital reproduction of events and products constitutes a digital reproduction of experience. The simulated versions of objects and occurrences create a parallel system of values and behaviors, supplanting the empirical value of the Real with the textual value of the Hyperreal. This relationship is exceptionally true for online games and virtual environments such as World of Warcraft and Second Life that present a completely graphic and simulated mode of perception and an insular social structure.
However, once again, in terms of net art this tenet of hyperreality—the simulation of a reality that claims to be realer than the Real—does not hold true. As King is so adamant (and correct) to point out this is largely due to hyperreality's narrow phenomenal basis. Baudrillard's initial conception of hyperreality was derived from the advent of television, which not only represented a one-way transmission of a simulation, with no opportunities (at the time) for interaction or intervention, but it also aimed to persuade its viewers into conflating fantasy and reality. King affirms this reading of hyperreality as narrow by citing Baudrillard's heavy reliance on what is generally considered the first reality TV series, the Louds, which originally aired in 1971. The characters featured in this series were not an actual biological or even a platonic family, but a troop of actors simulating a family. In Baudrillard's view, "this programme was hyperreal then because it tried to be realer than Real; it denied that it was a representation of family life, claiming, instead, that it captured this life as it was." (King, 1998: 49) From this, Baudrillard asserted that television posed the greatest danger to the verity of human experience, because it was based on ambivalence towards the distinction between fantasy and reality, and therefore symbolized the death of the Real. However, the interactive and collaborative behaviors associated with the Internet and its byproducts, such as net art, are far different and less illusionistic than television. This, in combination with the impossibility of an exclusive referentiality and Baudrillard's underpinning premise that this phenomena is occurring within a society recently unhinged by the realization of its own fragmentary nature (Postmodernism), led King to surmise that, "the notion of hyperreality is not…a critical concept providing a means by which sociologists might analyze contemporary cultural change; rather, the notion of hyperreality is itself postmodern."(47)
Nevertheless, even if the theory of hyperreality is inherently faulted (or at least the notion of hyperreality being a 'space') and instead symbolizes a social edification of the Postmodern ideology, net art still qualifies as a hyperreal phenomenon within that context. For the short period in history that net art has occupied, its practice and its practitioners have firmly reinforced it as the epitome of postmodern culture, in which the notions of access, distribution, translocality and authorship, as I have discussed, are prime and triumphant over a top-down societal structure. Hyperreality takes on a different meaning as a sociological model, but still pithily summarizes the goals and ideals of net art activity. Hybrid net art exhibition models such as that of Regeneration.011, still construct a bridge between the Hyperreal and Real; the Real being that museums and galleries continue to proliferate (or, at least, contain the ghosts of) the societal values and behaviors associated with the Modernist epoch, and the Hyperreal being the postmodern social practices that develop from and around net art. The collision of these two philosophies becomes a deterritorialization of one another. The dissolution and blurring of borders between whom and where the audience is, in addition to the dissolution of physical borders and jurisdiction of the art institution creates an opportunity for new aesthetic modes and interactive practices to gain credence and make impact. The bridging effect that the hybrid exhibition of net art creates is then poignantly two-fold—a double-edged sword of great (im)material and historical significance—as it moves us farther away from the physicality of art, and from sociologies embedded in a combative, binary opposition.
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Deployment of the Grotesque in the Work of Ed Pien
This essay examines the immersive cut-paper installations of Ed Pien, positioning them as utopian spaces that are created through the deployment of a grotesque aesthetic. Using historical evidence and elements of queer theory, an argument is made that the blur between plant and animal, organic and mechanical, pattern and figure, etc. in Pien's work produces a liminality that removes the viewer from any sense of conventional space.
This essay is written in an unconventional style that reflects the sensuous nature of the artworks in question. The form is sometimes discursive, sometimes poetic, but is ultimately demanded by a relationship to the work and the desire to acknowledge the importance of subjectivity in art criticism.
A conjuring, a swallowing, a psychotic theatre. I am using this word in the sense of a space that is disconnected from an external reality.
The deepest part of night.
The map of a knife
in the belly of a darkness.
A time of possibility.
The silhouette of another dimension.
of frenzied elegance.
The work of Ed Pien can be concisely described as chimeric beauty; the kind of intensive and ornate detail that both beguiles the eye and unsettles the stomach. His immersive cut-paper installations—which have often filled entire galleries, utterly commanding the space—whisper to their viewers with regality. They tempt and entice them with their visual dichotomies:
: The shadow of a worm writhing just beneath the skin, but in a choreographed
procession of impeccably proportioned figures.
There are many analogies for this sum of dichotomies. But, the one that best encapsulates Pien's installations (and, in fact, the totality of his work) is that of the Grotesque. "Its appearance, however, is not sudden, but insidious. The familiar world is never wholly absent, but always on notice of dismissal." (Harpham, 1976: 462) For, the grotesque is the most dubious of signs, whose existence is dependent upon its slipperiness and unapologetic periphery—the fluid slope of a paradoxical aesthetic.
Pien's 2006 installation Witching Hour, a one-room installation held at Off the Map Gallery in Toronto, is exemplary of this elusive behaviour. (Figure A)
It is an abundant nowhere. A utopian space. Ornamentally bare. Like a gothic caesura held indefinitely by the conductor of a baroque orchestra.
A synopsis of the room might go: A glowing, sinewy temple standing in a technicolor forest, floating in the black abyss of surreality. The edges of the room seeming to disappear in the darkness of a vignette or a memory. Two projectors on opposite walls are the only light sources. Images of trees diffuse over three cut-paper sculptures suspended from the ceiling. They paint the walls with fuzzy shadows and pixelated branches.
In the center of the room is the largest of the sculptures; a cylindrical 'tapestry' made of layers of interlacing cut-paper. There is a remarkable iridescence on the surface of the tapestry from the projections, and it only becomes apparent why as the viewer gets closer; a thin layer of ice coats the entire structure and reimagines the materiality of paper in a supernatural light.
These traits combined with its craftsmanship make for an exquisite object: Delicate. Sharp. Complex. Yet, it is also disturbing; the intricacy of its web pattern resembling a kind of animal-plant, its vascularity creating such an optical richness that its surface reads somatically. The juxtaposition of ice on paper transforming its structurally fluid properties into a definitive armature.
: A kind of sensory wormhole is here, and a benevolent deceit: the dichotomy reveals itself to be a duplicity! An attractive discomfort. Or, a sublime decoration that thwacks your medulla oblongata with its manicured pinky finger, and then smirks to gently chide you.
: An unsettling visual dichotomy that escapes the realm of being purely material or purely physical. It evokes a kind of body-knowledge—ideas that are 'felt', or that empathy that arises when we identify with the signification of Body.
Why would this somatic reading disturb us? Surely, as possessors of bodies we are all familiar with bodily traits, their processes, their visual elements. And it cannot only be the duplicity of the image that elicits the grotesque—this is indeed a catalyst, but not the root. It must be the deployment of particular signifiers that form a brief, precarious coherence between analytic perception and sensory experience. What then is connoted by Pien's work that moves the body from the territory of abstract representation into the territory of the grotesque, and how might this be mapped?
: Body-knowledge signifier + identification (Duplicity signified) = The Grotesque
Unfortunately, I'm no semiotician and little is written to assist me in this endeavor. However, "The Grotesque in Art and Literature," by Wolfgang Kayser, is certainly a comprehensive text on the subject to date, and provides insight here.
(Harpham, 1976: 462) Essentially an iconography, Kayser's text offers a laundry list of historical grotesque imagery, some of which directly pertains to Pien's work. In particular, Kayser mentions, "…jungle vegetation, with its ominous vitality, in which nature itself seems to have erased the difference between plants and animals, the mechanical object brought to life." (462) Kayser reinforces that it is the uncertain and in-between-ness of the object that disturbs our senses. The inability to define the object as either plant or animal, in tandem with our extended gaze upon it, becomes self-reflexive, and forces us to question our own objectivities. Witching Hour's tapestries, with their iconic hybridity of flora and fauna, connote a mutational and unstable organism that challenges the stability of our own body-image with its grotesque aesthetic.
I believe (And stop me if I'm wrong, Ed) that this aesthetic is deliberate; a strategy; that Pien is fully aware of the 'mutation' that he conjures, and that, further to his credit, he employs the grotesque to elicit a liminal and genderless space.
: Gender is a societal construction. Judith Butler was rather firm, and warranted as such, when she elucidated this. But we continue to limit ourselves by applying this concept exclusively in compliment to sex; the physiological differences between man and woman. Gender is actually the psychic space (of sex primarily, but of other identity aspects as well)…the amorphous part that connects to Ego and to Desire. It is malleable, changeable…even cybernetic (thank you Donna Haraway). A gendered space is then one that forces us to identify—to 'stabilize' our position along an imbricated terrain—to recognize the signifiers of sex and psyche, body and mind. In contrast, the genderless space forces us to recognize the propositional (and mostly arbitrary) space that lies between these categories—upon which we 'apply' difference and principles of normalcy.
For Pien, the grotesque, like installation, is another medium in which to work ; it is a conceptual material that performs concomitantly with the physical materials. The flurry of cross-sensory metaphors that this creates is heightened by the way Pien 'detaches' his installations from their venues. Since 2001, Pien's structures have consistently implemented a tactic of interior/exterior, wherein viewers must traverse or view content via a single opening or 'portal'. Clear examples of this can be seen in Tracing Night (2006), Haven (2007-08) and Memento (2009).
(Figures B, C & D, respectively)
In these instances, the viewer must enter the piece only after entering the space of the gallery—twice down the rabbit-hole. In doing so, Pien's installations 'function' first as a disembarkment from familiar signifiers (a de-gendering), and secondly as a journey into a suspended space, or "topos". (Rosen, 1990: 127) The topos is that place which is categorically outside of Place and arrived at by the Grotesque.
Witching Hour is an exception to this direct visualization of an interior/exterior. There is no portal or orifice for the viewer to negotiate. However, there is still a sense of topos achieved through a delineation of space within the area of the installation. Again the ice comes into play, this time as piles of brick surrounding the central tapestry and lining the walls.
Frozen within the bricks are single, blank sheets of paper—in and of itself a grotesque gesture, in the mechanical perfection of the manufactured paper contained within a unique and irregular chunk of nature. The piles are short and uncommanding, but they glisten from the light of the projectors, the orderly structure of their stacking juxtaposed with the softness of the other elements. They are not a forceful gesture, but they do impose, drawing a 'moat' of space around the tapestry—a cortical, transparent barrier, a captured water's edge. The effect of this is a bit religious (or, I suppose, I should say "spiritual", given the Pagan roots of the work's title). This is a fitting connotation considering that the grotesque has its history in Catholic illuminations. Its aesthetic began in a tradition of artistic subversion of religious imagery and Roman Catholic totalitarianism during the early Renaissance. The inspiration for this can be traced to the excavation of cave frescoes (grotto) by Italian painters in the fifteenth century who appropriated elements from these into their own work, which was largely commissioned by the Roman Catholic Church or its prominent patronage. "These excavations unearthed murals dating from the Roman Decadence in which human and animal figures are intertwined with foliage in ways which violate not only the laws of statics and gravity, but common sense and plain observation as well." (Harpham, 1976: 461) Therefore, historically, the grotesque has operated as protest incognito, an alternative to the rigidity of Christian hegemony under the guise of ornament. The fascination of this paradoxical relationship is the necessity of conformist religious beliefs about bodies, sexuality and gender providing the platform for artists to invent an oppositional vocabulary in the aesthetic of the grotesque.
This tradition surfaces again in the 'alternative' space of Witching Hour (interiority made visible), constructed with ornate and sensory-saturating elements. It exaggerates this tradition by conjuring pagan concepts of witchcraft, of covenants meeting in forest clearings, of the womb and the Mother, and most importantly of a mystical hour—the deepest part of night in which the natural blurs with the supernatural, rules of reality become moot, spells may be cast and spirits may be summoned. The living leans forward over the edge of Death. In this way, the 'moat' of space in Witching Hour implicates the central tapestry in the role of a sacred object. It sits in a safe haven of liminal space. Simultaneously open and closed, a force field of nothingness protecting it. The viewer sees the topos illustrated, and must contemplate its threshold.
: If we accept Mikhail Bahktin's idea of the chronotope (its application to the carnivalesque, in which "there is a refusal of the official world," (Storey, 2001: 109) producing suspensions of time and reality), then the topos generated by the presence of the grotesque in Pien's work is really a threshold to its progenitor, chronotopos…
: Chronotopography–The practice of creating carnivalesque space that supposes the antecedent to the rupture of binary opposition, or a pressing against signified reality.
: What is attained in constructing such a dramaturgy of the psyche?
Before going further, it will be helpful to examine the motivations behind creating topos.
: (What are the symptoms of chronotopography?!)
Pien basically has two bodies of work, or a conjoined body of seemingly disparate investigations; what David Balzer has referred to as a Yin/Yang artistic practice. (Eyeweekly.com, 2010) Pien's "Yin" persona manifests itself in the delicate craft of his cut-paper works; their material frailty and yet lavish, visceral texture suggest femininity, growth and grace. His "Yang" practice, which typically takes the form of ink and watercolor drawings that feature violent and disfigured scenes (yet are equally graceful in their gestural qualities), are evocative of masculinity, aggression and decay. It would be logical then to suppose that Pien's motivation to create no-space symbolizes idyllic aesthetic neutrality, or a desire for closure between the two. However, the closure is never obtained (internally). It is epitomized instead by the production of the work itself. The lack that fuels both bodies of work attains in each what it cannot accomplish by a fusion of the two.
: What is it about the Two contained in the One that so fascinates society?
—There is, of course, wholeness in the surrender or the consumption of the Other, but then why is the precipice of this union so caked with the uncanny?
Should it not feel natural, comforting, cathartic? The satisfaction of the snake eating its tail?
Is Lacan laughing in the background?
(Lack and Desire are wrestling in the corner of the page.)
I would like to posit then that the aesthetic of the grotesque (through which we reach the topos) that pervades Pien's work is an indicator, or 'symptom', of the desire for closure (ideally encompassed within the topos). This would position Pien's work as both personal and political, addressing a politics of the body—those societal impositions of physicality on identity with which we must all contend. Once more, we are faced with a coherent dichotomy within the work: the Personal occupying the same plane as the Political (a dichotomy that still resembles a fluid and inverse relationship of interior/exterior).
Again, it would seem that Pien is fully cognizant of this dynamic:
In a brief statement issued to summarize a selection of his 3-Minute Drawings: Spectacle of the Body (Figure F) a series of visceral and abject figurative ink drawings made between 1998 and 2005, Pien himself actually uses the term grotesque to describe how the works allow for an exploration of the "normative anxiety [that] we experience". (Dehuman.com, 2005)
: What is normative anxiety? The de facto syndrome of existing within Society? There can be no such relative value as 'normal' without a majority and an institutional discourse to enforce it. The inevitable sickness of an attempt to establish sameness, and thereby enforcing difference.
: The lens of queer theory would see normative anxiety as a component of dominant sexual ideologies (the heterosexual matrix ) in which the grotesque is a subversive response to the pressures of orthodox gender signifiers.
The grotesque as the production of queer signifiers?
: If we run with this notion, then the grotesque becomes a mutualistic invasion and deterritorialization (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987) of heterosexual signification—the process of, "cultural inscription of homosexual possibilities." (Tepper, 2006: 2) In other words, the grotesque visually links heterosexuality to its homosexual potential and makes them continuous. It, "effectively disrupts the cognitive stability that the visual perception of 'sameness' and 'difference' would otherwise serve to anchor." (2) A semiological grenade, thrown into the trenches of binary opposition!
In 3-Minute Drawings, stylized and anamorphic figures overtly impale and devour one another. Spartan and quickly made, the figures are counterforms to the precision and mastery of Pien's cut-paper works. But there is an ebullience in the blunt, and jagged brushstrokes. The indexical qualities of the work provide 'evidence' of Pien's normative anxiety, testifying through their visible physicality. However, I am unconvinced that these drawings (or Pien's chronotopographic installations) illustrate a pressure to "normalize" as much as they do a pressure to signify.
: And perhaps, these are sides of the same coin—to represent the complex and fragmented nature of beings in a sum, or a whole. The encapsulation of the two-dimensional image proposes this, and the finality of the structure (for Pien, the installation) does the same…is this why the grotesque becomes so important to the artist? Because it is antithetical to that end? Antithetical to the possibility of representing separation without acknowledging continuity? Its elements offering an unstable territory in which to escape the mainstream aesthetic, and thereby the conventions of signification?
Rather than an evasive maneuver to normalcy, the grotesque is a remedy to an unending anxiety towards signification. In Ed Pien's case, the grotesque is more of an expectorant or, in its largest scale, an exorcism. His work, "seeks to exorcise the distortions and self-distortions forced upon [us] by a culture that aims to control the individual." (Irvin, 2000) This would explain Pien's fascination with those in-between, hybridized signifiers—their ability to move the institutionalized discourse of the Image into a libidinal lexicon where Society no longer has power; where there is no logic to sustain an interior/exterior model.
: And, on that note, I would like to collapse the two. The interior into the exterior, the animal into the plant, and the end back upon the beginning. Back to the concept of chimeric beauty!
However, this libidinal lexicon is masked in Pien's installations. What is the effect of this exorcism through benign deception? What are its implications as Art? Normally we do not associate trickery with art, but it has always been a component of art. The traditions of illusionism, trompe l'oeil, romanticism and even Modernist aspirations of transcendence all suppose visual pleasure as a ploy. The representation of the world is a contract with the viewer—that he or she accepts the 'play at being real' that the artwork is proposing. But, past this initial agreement, there is no need to determine whether the work presents itself as truthful or deceitful.
Pien's work is once again an exception. His work proposes synesthetic dichotomies that make its grotesque agenda present but not apparent. It is a unique deployment of the grotesque in its attractiveness (Beauty as a fishhook). It is also disguised and then revealed as art, which positions beauty as the vehicle for problematizing concepts of gender, identity and normalcy (Beauty as the double-agent), and not as a relaxing, comforting or recreational sensation
: Beauty—an artistic vicar that seduces its audience into a more complex and philosophical engagement— a plateau for psychosomatic deterritorialization.
With this in mind, what moral dimension of Aesthetics could we diagram from Pien's work? What ethical stance of the work is demonstrated by its grotesqueness, its infinite phasing in and out of signification? What is its virtue?
: I am not saying this to be difficult, to be a culture-cop or even an eccentric art critic. No artworks can be right. None can be wrong. Virtue, as I am using here is about the 'legs' of the work. It is about the breadth and significance of its larger implications upon the human condition, and the way in which that becomes visible.
These questions are warranted by the way in which works like Witching Hour register beyond experiences of visual and spatial negotiation and enter into territories of visual ontological work. They are welcoming, visually seductive stages for the study of ubiquitous anxiety-inducing factors. This suggests an exhibition-based practice of existential research more so than an aesthetic experience.
Also, there is Pien's assertion that his works provide avenues into the "exploration," of normative anxiety. It would seem that Pien is trying to deliver the opportunity to study one's own existential crisis through his personal undertaking of the same process. He does not promise the viewer will discover a 'cure', but rather an investigation into curative possibilities. His statement intimates agency, in that the viewer must take on the responsibilities to find his/her own curative trajectory. Pien's work implies that the viewer must adopt a degree of integrity and endurance when faced with the unraveling candor of the grotesque and its queering of signifiers. Or, as David Bowie so effectively summed it up: Turn and face the strange.
In this way, Pien's work can be interpreted as making both an academic and sociological contribution to society; that there is an altruism in his duplicitous chronotopography. This is a detour from the Postmodernist penchant to make art that is either completely irreverent of institutional mechanisms or polemic social commentary. Pien's work addresses a societal phenomenon of anxiety, but it is not attacking it—it side steps (and does a mocking series of pirouettes in the meantime). It creates an alternative to Society, metaphysically turning the other cheek. Colorful dispersions of tree branches across crystalline paper structures are hardly a critique of society's normativity. But, they can be an intrepid fractal of that dimension—a step beyond critique and into action. Although the analysis of artistic practice in an ethical 'body' of criteria imposes upon it some sort of neo-Modernist heroism—Art will save us from destruction!—it also posits the work as active, not passive. It has become increasingly hard to consider art in its active stance (or art, in general, as a form of activism) in our commodity-driven culture, which hollows out the experiential relationship with the object and takes only the 'value of the artwork' as its distinguishing factor. However, with works such as Witching Hour, there is no experiential 'value' of its grotesque features that can be exchanged or franchised. Even photographic documentation of it as an installation removes the unabashed nature of it alterity by returning it to an institutionalized space and discourse. The virtue of such work is then found in its unrelenting stance as Nowhere. And, while it fails to escape being a place of one kind or another (Nowhere, by naming it as such, still comprises a 'place'), its resistance to encapsulation—to identification and historical reference—succeeds in removing it from specificity and the terms of an established discourse. The virtue of constructing such a space lies in this commitment to resistance, in its mandate to be outside (the pinnacle of Inside) and the (as of yet) undetermined; the expansion of societal bounds to make new space for new identities, or rather, for the process of signification to take on new parameters that are less restrictive, more fluid and more mutable.
: Now, doesn't that sound nice? Despite the total uncertainty of what that would look like... How unstable. How grotesque!
Balzer, David. "Scream: Ed Pien and Samonie Toono." 21 July 2010. Eyeweekly.com
15 March 2011 http://www.eyeweekly.com/arts/galleries/article/97517
Deleuze, Gilles & Félix Guattari. "How Do You Make Yourself A Body Without Organs?"
A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism & Schizorphrenia. Trans. Brian Massumi.
Continuum: London, UK. 1987.
Harpham, Geoffrey. "The Grotesque: First Principles". The Journal of Aesthetics and Art
Criticism, Vol. 34, No. 4 (Summer, 1976), pp. 461-468.
Irvin, Sherri. "Wound/One of Many" 2 March 2000. Gallery101.org 16 March 2011.
Pien, Ed. "Statement." 2005. Dehuman.com 16 March 2011 http://www.dehuman.com/pien.html
Rosen, Elisheva. "Innovation and Its Reception: The Grotesque in Aesthetic Thought."
SubStance, Vol. 19, No. 2/3, Issue 62/63: Special Issue: Thought and Novation
(1990), pp. 125-135
Storey, John. Cultural Theory and Popular Culture. 3rd Edition. Essex, UK: Pearson
Education Limited. 2001.
Tepper, Rowan G. "Closure, Foreclosed: No More Opiates for Anxious Sexualities".
14 March 2006. Scribd.com. 8 April 2011. http://www.scribd.com/doc/31123926/
Ongoing Complexities, or Sometimes the Leap Can Feel Like Running in Place
Leap Year at the Department in Toronto, Ontario
What would you do if every four years, just for one day, you could break any rule? What conventions would you scrap? How would you express yourself differently? Leap Year, a recent exhibition by eight emerging female artists and designers in Toronto, responds to these questions by channeling them through myths of womanhood in cultural production. Positioned as a roster of rule-breakers honouring the Irish tradition of gender role-reversal on Leap Year Day, the exhibition critiques conventions of patriarchal society that prescribe a visual language of Woman for women.
Cross-pollinating in the cozy scale of Little Portugal's the Department, Leap Year montages art, design and craft within a single spatial dialogue to dissolve the dubious confines of 'women's work'. As a result, the show's strongest pieces span all three of these prescribed categories while also challenging preconceptions of a so-called feminine aesthetic. Installations like those of Alexa Tamar Smith and Erin McCutcheon carve out a non-place between disciplines, and reclaim a fragmented image of woman through an assemblage of media once reserved for the heroic (male) artists of the Post-war era.
Smith's Time Traveled is a floor-to-ceiling grid of cotton squares meticulously stained with rust. The ragged shape of the stains and the oversized brads that austerely suspend them inches from the wall contrast the softness of each square. Formally, the work communicates both comfort and coldness, alluding to the essential aporia of the constructed female identity. Overlaying it all is an interactive element—a 'network' of red string tethered around the heads of the brads by multiple viewers. By evoking industry, bodily fluids and connectivity in equal measure, Time Traveled blurs the divide between textile work in the home and textile manufacturing, and underlines the largely arbitrary nature of how gender is imposed on those concepts. The addition of the viewer's handiwork foregrounds one's complicity in this process—in the construction of femininity through collective behaviours.
In McCutcheon's Finally, the satisfaction of slinging apples, a feminine aesthetic is reclaimed as an image of calculated violence and fragmentation. Presented with a bowl of pristine porcelain apples, goggles, a slingshot, and a wall-mounted tree trunk target, the viewer again becomes an accomplice in a gesture of defiance and liberation. Taking the precious form of the apple—in all its reproductive and sinful connotations—and literally slinging it at a 'natural' target, the viewer becomes the catalyst in transgressing the fragility historically associated with imagery of women. McCutcheon's piece becomes a testament to destruction and conscious sacrifice as powerfully feminine attributes.
Less defiant but still engaging is Ange-Line Tetrault's The Ritual of Identity. Comprised of a small gray house with a dayglow pink window, paper dolls of the designer and miniature clotheslines touting an equally petite wardrobe, the viewer is invited to play voyeur—peeking into the stylized orifice of the window to catch a video loop of Tetrault getting dressed. While peeping her ritual levée, the viewer is able to dress the paper dolls and impose a desired persona onto the designer. This produces a powerful effect—collapsing private and public expressions of femininity into an awkwardly reflexive and consumerist experience. However, the savvy of Tetrault's piece is somewhat limited by the idyllic homogeneity of the paper doll, and falls victim to the same conundrum as the majority of works in the exhibition.
While many of the artists in Leap Year depict unconventional and even unseemly facets of womanhood, many works perpetuate the body as inherently and symbolically female rather than proposing a visual language of Woman beyond physiology. As a result, they harken back to the work of second wave feminist artists like Carolee Schneemann or Hannah Wilke, whose oeuvres now seem limited by their corporeal vernaculars. One such example is Megan Skyvington's series of biomorphic watercolours based on hues of modern make up. Each painting works admirably to disturb preconceived notions of beauty and pleasure, exuding instead a transmogrified female body. Carnivorous magenta, blood-vessel red and veiny purple evince a discourse of identity politics 'in the flesh'. However, considering the wake of third wave feminism, where the production space of gender is predominantly psychic, Skyvington's work confronts viewers with an abject vision of femininity, but one that is also decidedly bodily in nature. Similarly, Joan, a metallic 'warrior gown' by Marianne Jetté expresses femininity as steely and hard-edged, but does so through patriarchal standards. Jetté defies her discipline of costume design by breaking with function, sculpting an immutable costume that is fierce and unbending—literally and figuratively. At the same time, her use of a standard dress form reinstates contrived ideals of physical beauty that have, for centuries, been imposed upon women rather than issued by them. This complicates a reading of Joan as rebellious or radically feminine, as its own contours maintain a historically male gaze.
Despite these flaws, Leap Year is noteworthy as a whole in the way that it highlights the ongoing complexities of gender representation—even in what some would consider a 'post-feminist' context. Although the exhibition attempts to expand or escape the categorical boundaries that associate certain means of production with femininity, the majority of the works are still addressing this as something primarily visual rather than relational. Successful works, like Smiths' or McCutcheon's rely less on visuality to make their provocations and more so on process and experiential forms. These pieces, through their implication of the viewer, illustrate the social dimension of cultural production and its precarious bracketing. Any interest in delineating a specifically feminine aesthetic must take into account that the subject alone does not produce an aesthetic—the majority of its making is in its reception. This axiom is Leap Year's Achilles' heel. While the exhibition powerfully speaks of femininity, the audience is rarely provoked to 'talk back' and claim a stake within a dialogue—an effect that renders the works a series of soliloquies rather than mechanisms for transformation or exchange.
David Hockney's Fresh Flowers at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM)
David Hockney is one of the most celebrated artists working today. Prominent since the 1960s, Hockney's oeuvre has encompassed painting, photography, printmaking and set design, never stopping to get comfortable in any one mode for very long. Part of this urge to keep on the move is fueled by Hockney's fascination with technology and, in particular, how advancements in optics have directly affected artistic production. Hockney's newest show Fresh Flowers, currently on at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) explores this concept through a play on the traditional exercise of the still life. Taking flowers, fruit and window vignettes as his subject matter, Hockney adds a McLuhanian-twist by trading in the brush and the canvas for the touchscreen and the stylus.
Fresh Flowers presents nearly four hundred artworks produced solely on-screen using the Apple iPhone and iPad, and marks the debut of Hockney's foray into touchscreen technology to a North American audience. Perhaps more momentously, this is also the artist's first solo exhibition in Canada in more than twenty years. Unfortunately, given the opportunity for Hockney's work to make such a remarkable return to a Canadian viewership, the actual exhibition deliveries a grand disappointment.
While the skill of the imagery in Fresh Flowers is obvious—many of the 'paintings' achieve a level of texture and depth impressive for the super-flatness associated with digital art—Hockney's choice of subject matter simply has no bite. Any conceptual richness that may underlie Fresh Flowers is compromised by the fact that it's a gallery full of table settings and backyard scenes. What could potentially be a critical perspective on the use of technology in art, in its sheer volume of sunflowers and philodendrons comes across as safe and quaint.
Hockney is not the only one at fault. This quaintness is made worse by the ROM's display strategies, which focus on the innovations of the medium and not the abilities of the artist. All the aspects that make Hockney's work his own— line variation, sensitivity to form and colour —are overshadowed by the technology and its abilities to 'perform' for the viewer. For example, at the show's entrance is a large freestanding wall with a four by six foot projection of "Untitled 10 June 2009". This is the image used for the show's marketing, except in this instance it's moving. The projection is actually an animated loop, running step-by-step through Hockney's construction of that image, one 'click' or 'tap' at a time. While this process is certainly entertaining, even mesmerizing, the viewer spends more time guessing what style of digital brush or colour swatch Hockney will pick next rather than observing what the image actually is or its significance.
This kind of technology performance is fine for a title wall; certainly if its intention is to clarify these images are digital, constructed serially, through a programmatic history of cursor moves. However, after strolling just a few minutes more through the gallery, it becomes clear that nearly half the show's images are doing the exact same thing. When there are literally rows of iPads flickering in unison, snapping together images of wilting lilies like Lego bricks, the novelty of peeping the artist's process becomes predictable and trite.
Again, this kind of strategy is not completely without merit. Employed in moderation, it can be effective. For instance, on the other side of the wall showing "Untitled 10 June 2009" is a triptych of similar-sized projections, each one showing a balcony or backyard vignette. These projections build themselves through the same kind of step-by-step animation, but then pause in their completed states for a few minutes. Viewers have the opportunity to consider the images as wholes and then as parts, to consider the construction of illusionary, three-dimensional space through a delicate play of occlusion. Moreover, viewers can actually appreciate the nuances of the images without them speeding by. For example, the middle image of this triptych, a shady afternoon scene of three potted plants sitting on the ledge of a sky blue deck is remarkable in the way that its background of absolute white space is left largely visible. And yet, depth is still crafted through the crosshatching of pixels. The uniformity of the digital brushstrokes gives the image a processed, inorganic feel. But, the chaotic and cluttered way in which the forms are rendered preserves ideas of texture and tactility in what amounts to an illusion not only of space but also of surface.
Similar tensions are present in the very back of the gallery, where 169 of Hockney's images fly by, three at a time, as a slideshow on a suspended projection screen. These works are more digital 'sketches'. But, many of these are the most successful images the show has to offer. They are lush in their gestural and 'broken' nature. The artistic sensibility of composition, colour and light is more visible in these cruder, stripped-down sketches as opposed to more complete images that occupy iPads around the corner such as "No more snow this morning (sadly)", a romantic portrait of a brick home in the country, or the astute rendering of an ashtray beside it, which slides into the mire of pure mimesis. However, despite the digital grittiness of the sketches, the spectacle of the slideshow—the time-lapsed presentation of the work—again makes it hard to look past the gimmick of the technology and concentrate on what Hockney is really trying to illicit in his viewers.
In the end, Fresh Flowers is not an entire flop, but it is a bit like misguided youth—its zealotry debasing its potential. While Hockney's digital paintings examine a very important relationship in art making—the tactile exchange between the artist and his/her tools and how this has changed in the digital era—the manner in which the work is actually presented prizes the technology as the main contributor to the gallery experience. This approach ultimately usurps Hockney's vision and reduces his art from aesthetic engagement to entertainment.
Under A Colourless Flag
¡Patria O Libertad!, at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art (MOCCA), Toronto, Ontario
Over the last decade, the effects of globalization have undoubtedly become fodder for a number of contemporary artists. From the neocolonial performances of Christopher Cozier to Grace Ndiritu's cross-cultural "video paintings", a new visual vocabulary has emerged. Built on concepts like locality, hybridity, and transnationalism, this vocabulary pervades every biennial, art fair and international exhibition. If not stated outright, then it's teased out—extracted from the art by curators and critics eager to employ such a lens. However, amidst this somewhat zealous contextualization, patriotism has remained relatively untouched…until now.
¡Patria O Libertad!, at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art (MOCCA) in Toronto, attempts to rectify this by presenting twenty-two contemporary video artists whose work evinces a subversive patriotism. Renowned curator Paco Barragán positions the works in ¡Libertad! as creative responses to prolific immigration and precarious global economics, resulting in a critique of national identity as the very pursuit of identity—a "new patriotism".
In light of this topical weight, and as a show solely comprised of video, with many works requiring headphones and a 'mature' attention span (Elena Kovylina's Love After the Cold War (2006) is fifty minutes long) ¡Libertad! manages to be immersive and thought-provoking. However, few pieces accomplish this both visually and conceptually. Notable exceptions are Johanna Reich's Monument (2009), in which fast-forward footage shows the artist turning the German flag into a cyborg by literally painting a TV into it, and the army-clad and choreographed recital of the United States Patriot Act to Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On," in Benny Nemerofsky Ramsay & Pascal Lièvre's Patriotic (2005). Each is theatrical and deconstructive, challenging the very notion of iconographies through the restaging and personalization of national symbols.
Less aesthetically-minded but still impactful are Adel Abidin's Jihad (2006) and Ivàn Candeo's Inertia (2009). In Jihad, Abidin muddies the identities of patriot and terrorist by parodying the video-publishing practice of Islamic fundamentalists. While wearing a hijab, he strums an acoustic guitar and sings, "This Land Is Your Land," before an American flag. The clashing of disparate cultural signs unified by the egalitarian message of the song poignantly illustrates where the agendas of East and West overlap. Rather than a fundamental difference between cultures, the viewer experiences a moment of ideological parallax. Candeo's piece is subtler, but still clever in its metaphor. In Inertia, a cyclist on a treadmill figuratively rides a road-to-nowhere while facing a giant mural of Simòn Bolivar. Meditating on the mediated image of an endless 'journey', the viewer is left to question not only the romanticism surrounding Latin American revolutionaries but also any notion of progress or agency through idolatry.
As a whole, ¡Libertad! succeeds, but not as Barragán intended. Though the majority of the artworks thrive as vehicles for critical, political thought, few seem primarily concerned with critiquing globalization or conventional patriotism. Certainly, this idea can be inferred. But, as one spends time with each piece, it becomes increasingly clear that Barragán's conception of the works is more poetic interpretation than insight. Rather than expressing a 'radical patriotism', the artists of ¡Patria O Libertad! are unified by a shared interrogation of identity, its definition via access to information and its politicized (re)presentation in the media. If anything, this exhibition reifies the egalitarianism of globalization by illustrating that patriotism has become ubiquitous—a colourless flag that anyone can wave and everyone will recognize.
Your Next Life at the White House, Toronto, Ontario
Entering Kensington Market on a blustery night in mid-February, banter emanates from amber-lit tapas bars. The streets, however, are quiet and sparse. A few pedestrians mill about while others scurry along; their shoulders raised against the impending shiver. It's both a dreary and exciting time in Toronto; manic spells of cold signal the inevitable warm-up of Spring. As 'sidewalk glaciers' of winter lose their shape, remains of urban life emerge. Styrofoam containers, cigarette packs and leagues of lonely mittens litter the gutters and walkways. Ahead of me, a couple dances around resurfaced trash with graceful squeamishness—a stroll through a cemetery.
This is all too apropos, considering I am en route to an exhibition about the duality of death (or, the parallax of living?). Your Next Life, organized by local artist Adam Cowan, is a mixed bag of thirty Toronto artists exploring death and the afterlife. Held for just one night at the White House, a fledgling but promising gallery and studio space, Your Next Life uses the temporality of exhibitions as a conceptual frame for the evanescence of existence. With media ranging from etchings to performance art, the show promises to mirror the eclecticism of Toronto and the necrosis of its urban landscape.
Nestled above a taco shop in a converted Kung Fu dojo, the White House is an unexpected locale for an aesthetic experience. But, the icy blue of a projector from the second story window reassures me I'm in the right place, with its frenetic flashing and strobing. Through the door and up a shifty flight of blood-red stairs, my eyes are jabbed by fluorescent light. The walls are speckled and peeling—coincidental but conducive to the show's concept of death and decay. Wires dangle exposed. Projectors and chords spout from ceiling tiles. The works are hung tightly and tensely, approaching a salon-style. The majority are two-dimensional, however, small-scale sculpture and digital projections punctuate the view.
There's an abundance of delicate and sensual works, embodied either in technique or material. A prime example is the fabric forest diorama by Stacey Sproule, depicting butterflies emerging from a cabin in fleecy flames. The softness of the material and the benevolence of butterflies are juxtaposed with a conceptual focus on artifice and violence. Stiches are uneven. Surfaces are lumpy. But, these qualities work to reify Sproule's fantastical image through imperfection. It is a conversation of materials, volleying back and forth between the gentle and the grotesque.
This is echoed in Mary, Mary, Cain & Able, a diptych in graphite by James Fowler. On the left, ghastly twin women with pupil-less eyes moan to one another. They hide beneath robes of negative space. Aside from a single line stemming from their chins there are no wrinkles or folds, no indication of bodies. Their ghoulish heads are 'illuminated' by mandalas of infinitesimal pencil strokes. On the right is a pair of identical males looking less monstrous but equally pupil-less; their formless robes are inversed—an incredible density of marks making a pitch gray. The precision and cadence of Fowler's hand is so pronounced in these drawings that, despite their disturbing content, a morbid elegance abounds.
Similarly arresting, Erin Finley's Untitled, a life-sized painting on black velvet, depicts a reclining figure resembling Pamela Anderson floating in a nebula of silver and purple space. Rendered with exaggerated proportions that would make even Boris Vallejo blush, the figure's mouth makes an orgasmic "o", while her eyes confront us in a transparent moment of voyeurism. In the corner sits a smaller, more androgynous figure. Her skin is a subtle blue. She files the larger female's nails with an emery board while her body bleeds into the galactic backdrop. At first, the humour of the image makes it easy to dismiss. Allusions to B-movie acting, fantasy illustration and its velvet substrate seem to position it as an object of kitsch. However, it makes poignant commentary on ideas of what could be called a 'secular heaven'. What does "heaven" really mean these days, in a material and largely existentialist culture? In a culture of visual cannibalism? In Untitled, heaven seems to be an intertextual space of narcissism—a figurative playground for a goddess of pastiche.
These themes of power and femininity carry over into a much different but equally complex work: How I Will Die, a four-hour performance by Adriana Disman. In a separate room down a dark, narrow hallway, Disman invites one viewer/participant at a time to join her on a bed of white. She is blindfolded, arms crossed like a corpse. Wall-text above her instructs her guest to lye down and to tell her the story of her eventual death. Disman is completely silent. Only her calculated breaths break this stillness, an atmosphere both earnest and taciturn. But her innocence and her radiating femininity compels the participant to wage virtues of realism against romanticism—to contemplate the intimacy and ubiquity of talking about death in the presence of a complete stranger. Although Disman is physically and emotionally vulnerable in this scenario, she remains in control through the dramaturgy of human nature that she constructs with her piece.
Overall, Your Next Life succeeds, in as much as any group showing of thirty emerging artists can. That is to say, it has strength in its eclecticism and its nonchalant aura of 'aesthetic recklessness'—a zeal that only a recipe of youth, attitude and art can muster. Some works, like those mentioned, are provocative or emotive enough to stand solo. However, the majority needs the carnivalesque context of so many other adventurous, but ultimately mediocre, works in order to have an impact.
Nevertheless, the theme of Your Next Life is apparent and cogent—evident but not redundant. Each work addresses death in a slightly different manner, fleshing out facets of a broader concept in ways that are neither subtle nor over-the-top. It is an exhibition that considers life/death unconventionally without completely entering into esoteric territory. This literality is somewhat ironic in regards to interrogating the concept of the afterlife. But, in this case, a lighter touch to a transcendental subject allows this show to at least retain the illusion of cohesion; no matter whether the works truly harmonize. The only true shame of this exhibition is that it can't be revisited (or relived?). The pitfall of the 'one night stand' exhibition model is that while first-impressions persist, further dialogue is precluded —we can't return to discover details of the works that were initially unnoticed or those can only develop over time, as the gallery becomes a site for an evolving discourse about those works.
Unfortunately, for those that missed this exhibition, you'll have to catch it in the next life.
Dear Reena from the Future
Written for the Buddies In Bad Times Blog, maintained by Buddies In Bad Times Theatre
This was created in direct response to an earlier post by the lovely Reena Katz. You can read that here.
You can also read my original posting here.
Dear Reena from the Future,
I hope that you are reading this somewhere in the past. It will make the nature of this communication that much more efficient. My name is Mollie at the moment. We have not met yet—when you are now—but that can easily change. I’m writing to inquire if you’d like to join some colleagues and myself on The Circuit for the fast approaching Thanksgivukkah? I have accessed the available archives on post-Resistance-of-Clarity Toronto and learnt of the sacred 5-Ball Soup A soup recipe invented by Reena Katz and PK Chan in the pre-Queer Renaissance age of humanity. It is a Chinese/Jewish fusion dish made with beef balls, matzoh balls, tapioca balls, water chestnuts and peppercorns. served to the enlightened during the Queer Renaissance. It would give me immeasurable joy to be able to share your ancient form of sustenance with my guests on such an epic occasion.
Please do forgive me if my choice of words is somewhat awkward. From when I am calling, written communication is a rare and obsolete mode of output. This invitation comes to you across sub-space channels from the Gregorian calendar year 71,000 AD. The last time (in linear time) that Thanksgivukkah occurred was approximately 2013 AD—a year in which your physical existence has been documented and uploaded to the mainframe. It has taken 68,987 years for our particular time-spaces to align—but only milliseconds for me to learn about your life.
According to scientific data from your era, this process was supposed to span 76,000 years. But, in the eons that have passed, the Earth has gradually moved further away from the Sun, and there are now 367 days in one Earth year. There are, of course, other planetary calendars for the thousands of colonies in neighbouring star systems, but attempting to integrate that data into this primitive document would cost an exorbitant amount of time points. I’m already spending a quite a bit to telepathically dictate this to my prosthetic writer bot, and the bot was not exactly cheap. Do you know how difficult it is to find reliable, writerly appendages these days?
Initially, people were quite baffled at what to do with these two additional days in the Earth year. But they quickly became queer, citizen-paid holidays. You see, a major result of the Queer Renaissance was the invention of queer time—the true mechanics necessary for time-space travel. And queer time presumes that it is always a holiday somewhen in the universe. And even on the statistical improbability it is not a holiday, it is by default someone’s gay birthday. So the creation of new days (and subsequently new space-times in which to play identity games) could, by logic, only be experienced in queer time. This is a futuristic play on Jean-François Lyotard’s concept of language games—the unspoken rules that make linguistic exchanges possible.
As a veteran of Late Capitalism, you may be pleased to hear that October 32nd is now Neo10 Marxist Day. To celebrate, a different aspect of capitalist production is shucked one at a time, year by year. Last season, we were elated to come one step closer to eliminating commodity fetishism, as centuries of research culminated in the invention of mnemono-haptic technology. Microdermal implants provide users who touch products with not only the memories of the workers that created them but also their sensory outputs at the moment of assembly. It is as if you inhabit the body of the maker—feel their fatigue and their pride. But these devices are swiftly becoming a niche market, with robots and automatons responsible for 99.98% of all material fabrication in the universe. Working bodies are hot commodities.
Though the Collective has come close to eliminating capitalist scenarios, one can still argue that labour is becoming detached from labourer. Much of the robo-populace has elected to be equipped with emotional processors. This has not only brought them closer to ‘being alive’, but also prone to replicate behaviours of loss and regret, even love in extreme cases. Specialists working for the Collective claim to have seen the emergence of courtship rituals, genders and what appears to be something like…machine sex. Because the Universal Council for Rational Thinking (f.k.a. the Galactic Feminist Task Force) already created legislation to protect the rights of genderqueer cyborgs, which now account for 83% of posthuman life, I am sure laws for the protection of queer robots is soon to follow. It is still unclear, however, whether these ‘emotions’ require a nervous system to be ‘felt’. Our queer lineage as cyborgs has given way to new modes of ‘feeling’ existence and living dimensionally beyond the limits of physical bodies. But the robo-populace is devoid of this body liberation history. There is no Cartesian revolution in play. Perhaps it will be a model for our own society to finally move beyond such archaic matters.
At this point, you are probably hoping I will tell you that after the Queer Renaissance tolerance rang across the universe. Unfortunately, I cannot. Lately, there is a new binary opposition to combat—those that are Mods and those that are Moshes. The terms ‘mod’ and ‘mosh’ are references to scientific predictions made by famed futurist Ray Kurzweil, in which human society will eventually diverge between those that are technologically augmented and those who are not. Mods are the modified and connected beings, through nanos and implants or those like myself who are almost entirely digitized. Moshes are the uncommon, non-augmented humans.
For centuries a resistance has been building against our cybernetic way of life. Younger entities—newborns—are opting out of modding in favour of ‘natural bodies’. We will see if this radical ‘mosh-mode’ of being can become integrated into the The Collective soon enough. April 31st is Intergalactic Freaky Friday—dedicated to the resurrected consciousness of Jamie Lee Curtis. At the strike of midnight, every body-possessing Mod will temporarily download into the body of another Mod to better understand the role of visible difference in the creation of subject positions. This is all assuming that their modded bodies are equipped with eyes, of course, or that these bodies are even made of animate matter … At any rate, perhaps this annual mandatory body swap will begin to breed tolerance for the Moshes and their strange desires of the flesh.
Reena, I do not want to be rude, but I fear I have nearly exhausted my time points. I will have to go soon. I have utilized my auxiliary drive to run a background diagnostic for a possible location where our time-spaces might collide. There is a small Lithuanian cafe in Iłża, Poland. Be there on the 5th night of Thanksgivukkah at the strike of 11:11. Do not wear anything that you don’t mind becoming fused with your DNA.
Before I go, I must tell you one more thing, Reena. I must divulge that I am quite cognitively attracted to you. As you may have guessed, I do not really possess a body. I can only express affection and attraction through neuro-synaptic sensors. It may be hard to synchronize our impulses and frequencies to a level that pleasures you. But, I am willing to install any plugins necessary to sate your intellectual desires. It would be improper to boast, but I am eager to tell you of your future—which I know all about. I am eager to sense you experiencing identity flux technology. We are transmutational beings now, Reena. I can be whatever degree of sexuality or gender I desire. Femininity, masculinity, androgyny, cyborgyny, bestiality A reference to Donna Haraway’s infamous A Cyborg Manifesto: “Far from signaling a walling off of people from other living beings, cyborgs signal disturbingly and pleasurably tight couplings. Bestiality has a new status in this cycle of marriage exchange.”—the culmination of art and science has given these trajectories a turnable dial…and I can show it to you all, Reena; over simulated yams and liquid blintzes and 5-Ball Soup. It will be such a marvellous, possibility of queer time.
I look forward, and possibly backward, to your arrival.
HOLY $#!†: Catholic Bodies in Queer Performance
Written for the Buddies In Bad Times Blog, maintained by Buddies In Bad Times Theatre
Read the original post here.
Beneath every image of the sacred is an armature for the profane. No matter the religious iconography every quality painted in a virtuous light—when taken to extremes—can easily become audacious and obscene. In particular, the representational history of Catholicism is replete with motifs of shame, self-sacrifice, punishment and denial. As early as the 15th century, Flemish painters were representing holy figures as largely shapeless, sexless and grief-stricken bodies posed in contorted manners or in uncomfortably tight pictorial space.
These qualities are perhaps the most obvious in Rogier van der Weyden’s Deposition—a massive altarpiece showing the lowering of Christ’s body from the cross. On top of the wincingly shallow sense of space, none of the figures appear to acknowledge one another or even address the viewer by looking out from the picture plane. The incredible suffering of this moment in the story of Christ would assume a frenzy of emotion and visceral grief. However, Weyden’s popular interpretation of the scene is in fact lifeless, and even vulgar, in its distanced and clinical depiction.
These paradoxes were of great interest to the members of Grupo Chaclacayo (1983-1994)—undoubtedly the most radical art collective to emerge in Peru during the 1980s. The group formed during the midst of a violent conflict involving the Peruvian government and communist revolutionaries—one that would leave 70,000 dead in its aftermath.
Consisting of Helmut Psotta, an immigrant German, and his two Peruvian students Sergio Zevallos and Raul Avellaneda, Grupo Chaclacayo created an immense oeuvre of queering Catholic iconography through performance, photography and installation. Their work has often been described as “deeply transgressive” and Miguel A. López writing in e-flux pronounced their oeuvre as “an experiment in the production of abnormal and deviant subjectivities that undid gender and social identities.”
Grupo Chaclacayo had such an emphatically othering quality to their work because they challenged the ‘natural’ (i.e. dominant) vocabulary of Latin Catholicism with explicit visual narratives of sex, sadomasochism, murder and madness. Central to this psychotic juxtaposition was always their own queerness and the recurrence of the transvestite as an allegorical figure. Often combining nuns robes with women’s lingerie, and occasionally prosthetics, their work fought to sexualize and reclaim the symbolically castrated bodies of Catholicism.It was a direct critique of the sterilizing ideology that their own State continued to employ throughout the civil conflict.
The core imagery of the Catholic transvestite in Grupo Chaclacayo’s work is also echoed in the confessional androgyny of Michel Tremblay’s Manon, Sandra and the Virgin Mary. The audience bears ‘holy’ witness to the montage of sacred Manon and profane Sandra. Their mirror-image relationship is played out through the symbolic (and necessary) conflict of drag. The pious Manon’s exaggerated innocence finds its equal in the decadent sexuality of Sandra, and together they allow the sacred cycle of the profanity known as “life” to carry on.
It was the weight of this cycle that eventually brought an end to Grupo Chaclacayo. Their work was motivated by a dominant and oppressive ideology—to which they valiantly protested and subverted. However, this also meant that their entire body of work was dependent upon a combative relationship with the Catholic aesthetic. Art of that nature is hard to sustain, and as times changed in Peru the relevancy of their inverted iconographies faded.
Oddly enough [insert sarcasm], despite its cultural value, Grupo Chaclacayo’s work is rarely seen and largely unknown on an international scale. Perhaps the blatant nature of the imagery is a little ‘too much’ for most galleries and museums to mount? Or, it could be the fact many of Grupo’s works now exist outside Peru and the generation that lived through their work? Either way and akin to Manon…, which is also rarely performed, works that bridge the gap between sacred and profane often endure a kind of quarantine specific to essential paradoxes. Just like humanity doesn’t especially like to recognize the evil in the good (only the other way around) we as a society have a hard time recognizing that the sacred has no meaning without profanity as its mirror. And, without works of art and theatre of this nature we may fail to recognize it at all.