Guest post by Nicole Mauser
For their contribution to the 2014 Whitney Biennial, Valerie Snobeck and Catherine Sullivan use Northwestern University’s Transportation Library Menu Collection donated by renowned anthropologist George M. Foster’s as a springboard for a collaboratively made artwork. This extensive collection was accumulated during Foster’s research travels and includes, “400 menus from 54 national and international airline carriers, cruise ships, and railroad companies, with coverage from 1929 to the present.” Image of Limited Good, the title of Sullivan and Snobeck’s mixed media installation within Anthony Elms’ curated section of the Biennial, directly refers to Foster’s controversial 1965 essay, “Peasant Society and the Image of Limited Good,” in which Foster outlines a theory of limited good as derived from observing traditional societies that, he asserts, believe goods are finite; according to this thinking, when one-person gains, another loses. This belief leads to a fragile sense of order and communal sustainability in light of the given society’s ‘competitive games’ for survival, wherein value is a certitude based solely on supply’s abundance or scarcity.
Snobeck and Sullivan’s installation is comprised of sculptural objects, ready-mades, and delicate prints of barely discernable Swissair airline logos on tissue. A series of luggage racks are propped against improvised table surfaces, many of which are littered with antiquated suitcases filled with murky substances and embedded objects related to the gelatin-based printing process of hectography. This process of a bygone era could be easily dismantled to leave behind no evidence of production. Here, all the objects are carefully strewn and poised for disappearance, quickly tucked inside a suitcase or ready for disposal at a moment’s notice. As a result, Image of Limited Good’s individual parts are not inherently connected but have been carefully selected to imply a whole that is collapsible and infinitely reconfigurable. Each object acts as a clue that proposes questions for the viewer to slowly decode.
“The value of Mr. Foster’s collection resides not only in its volume, but in the number of his hand-written comments regarding flight dates, airplane types, and food and wine ratings and descriptions,”  reads Northwestern’s collection didactics. These traces are evidence of a visual anthropologist who was an early hybrid of the multiple roles artists today play. The materials in Snobeck and Sullivan’s installation follow suit in that they carry a patina of secrecy and silence and re-enact antiquated modes of travel and reproduction. Accordingly, the installation can be interpreted as a quiet commentary on the entire premise of the Whitney Biennial, where the intent has historically been to illustrate the shifting patterns of artist alignment with curators, communities and conceptual trends moving in and out of vogue, all vying for relevancy. Thinking broadly about this artwork and the theory developed by Foster, can we then ask: does such in-depth research lead to error and misinterpretations? Is there a context where misinterpretation is actually valuable and lead to valuable discourse?
It is not Foster himself as a historical figure that is positioned at the center of this artistic collaboration; rather, it is the narrative fabricated around his practice as a by-product of the academic intent to develop, explain, and connect traditional societies to the current modern society or to the fabric of the ages. To create a universal theory that holds up decades beyond the maker/author(s) is still the ultimate ego-centric task in academic anthropology and also remains an aim of abstraction and, perhaps, in art as a whole (depending on the artist’s intent). As a viewer, my question is, what do static fabricated objects accomplish in this context? They occupy a slippage between art object and art-object-as-artifact. The artist Allison Smith comes to mind—her work re-inhabits historical moments by fabricating sculptural ‘historical’ stand-in objects that are part fictionalized and part illustrative of historical fact, each component becoming incredibly didactic. Refreshingly, Snobeck and Sullivan’s collaboration is the opposite. Discursive potential, nee momentum, is contained within each object, literally embedded in the gelatin or epoxy, yet refusing, even in print form, to transcend or act as a proxy between neither Foster’s collection nor his theory and the viewer. However, Snobeck and Sullivan leave the viewer in the lurch to negotiate objects that, at face value, are meaningless without due research.
Nicole Mauser (b. 1983, Indianapolis) is and artist and educator who lives/works in Chicago, Illinois. Currently, she is an adjunct professor of Studio Arts at The University of Illinois at Chicago in painting. She obtained an MFA from The University of Chicago (2010) and a BFA from Ringling College of Art & Design (2006). She was a recipient of a Post-MFA Teaching Fellowship at The University of Chicago in 2011. Her work is included in such collections as The Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art (Overland Park, KS) and The Alexander (Indianapolis, IN).