Guest post by Virginia Konchan
Photography must annihilate itself as medium to be no longer a sign, but the thing itself.
Ben Gest’s photorealist photography, comprised of stark, neo-classical tableaux, depicts alienated subjects engaged in workaday and domestic tasks, and carries a full fetishistic load in an image saturated culture—that of the evacuated figure, from painting, as well as the signature of the “author,” as declared dead by structuralist critics. The “surface reading” strategies of Sharon Marcus’ and Stephen Best, Francois Dosse’s call for the “descriptive turn,” and Bruno Latour and Erving Goffman practice of “flat” reading based on actor-network theory (the game model of human interaction) connect to the “flat” or two-dimensional evacuation of depth fields, suggesting that as the text is now being “read” like a screen (the orthographic significance of the word alienated from semantic, affective, and cognitive percepts), so too are the visual images (in figurative art, the appearance of the other), we consume.
For Roland Barthes, this surface quality was a limitation of medium (the photograph is undialectical, as a denatured theater where death cannot be contemplated, reflected and interiorized: the foreclosure of the Tragic excluding catharsis), yet this slickness of surface is also a function of the occluded depth of capitalist subjects, wherein intimacy, futurity, and affect, because unable to be represented (priced, and sold), ceases to exist first as a cultural value, then, as a cultural experience (temporally, of duration rather than instantaneity). A privatized market first commodifies then distributes the sensible (Marx’s dream of the ’liberation of the senses’ of unalienated individuals in unalienated communities) fueling desiring-machines to demand, yet never receive, aporias of meaning: presence, aura, soul. [i]
The digital reproduction of the photograph and the text share an analogous relationship, foremost in hierarchies between the word (letter, or sign) and image (symbol, or referent). Today’s medium specificity (Clement Greenberg’s belief that “the unique and proper area of competence” for an art form corresponds with the ability of an artist to manipulate those features specific to a medium) is now metaphorized in the relationship between a reader and a text, or a viewer and an artwork, not as an encounter or relationship, but an interfacing, between user and electronic text, or screen (N. Katherine Hayles’s media specific analysis in “Print is Flat, Code is Deep”). Barthes’ descriptions of photography as “messages without a code” describes the limitation of the medium, for the photograph, yet this obviation of meaning has become an conscious aesthetic in post-structuralism, evacuated of content and intention. For Hegel, “art” was only art in subordination to meaning: modern art, in a post-Reformation world, for Hegel, wasn’t therefore “art,” but rather abstracted potential. [ii] The desire to decode photography’s “message without a code” may be what constitutes the dream of absolute (not reified) presence (Barthes’ Winter Garden Photograph): the “the text of pleasure” or sublime (dynamic or technological, wherein perceptual synthesis temporary collapses in experiencing the material force of a supersensible idea, whether of beauty or horror).
Affect theory provides a rational-empirical account of what we know intuitively: the sublime has a life of its own. The jarring quality of paintings such as Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks,” Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” Francis Bacon’s apocalyptic friezes, and Frieda Kahlo’s self-portraits, fix such images forever in our collective imagination, for giving form to a mediated, yet still felt, aspect of human experience. Just as Cézanne sought to capture the “apple-ness of apples,” and Russian formalist Victor Shklovsky the “stony-ness of stone,” any discussion of the sublime returns us to logos (language’s ability to embody, and evoke, objects).
(Francis Bacon, “Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X,” 1953)
The absence of meaning in photography is its power, conveying its “message” through semiotic rather than semantic means. In writing, an absence of meaning can take, according to Derrida, three forms: mathematical meaning; agrammaticality (“abracadabra”); and the social contexture of meaning (preestablished symbolic and linguistic codes), implying that the limitations for what one can “say” are scripted, in photography, by medium, and in the text, by culture as well as genre: the associative logic of poetry requiring a different reading strategy than that of linear prose.
Modernist paintings, like Egyptian hieroglyphs or the intricate symbology found in the Lascaux caves, complicate the boundary between image and text (Cy Twombly’s abstract expressionist paintings were inspired by texts from Stéphane Mallarmé to Alexander Pope, incorporating baroque themes and titles, such as Apollo and the Artist and traces, or erased marks of textual inscription). Belgian surrealist artist René Magritte, of course, creating the watershed moment in art history when the act of visual representation was, in his 1928 “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” rendered counterfactual (ironic) through the insertion of text.
Flatness is not always the image’s refusal to yield meaning: it can be its apotheosis. As Aloïs Riegl says: “Bas-relief brings about the most rigid link between the eye and the hand because its element is the flat surface, which allows the eye to function like the sense of touch; furthermore, it confers, and indeed imposes, upon the eye a tactile or rather haptic, function . . . ensur[ing], in the Egyptian ‘will to art,’ the joining together of the two senses of touch and sight, like the soil and the horizon.” [iii]
During the 1920s, Russian film director Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov explored the technical potential of montage, developments new media theorist Lev Manovich claims to underlie the aesthetics of contemporary video. Eisenstein believed montage could create ideas or have an impact beyond the individual images (two or more images edited together create a “tertium quid” or third thing making the whole greater than the sum of its individual parts). How is this “tertium quid” experienced in a photograph, or, for that matter, a text? Gests’ figures are “all end” (terminal subjects, trapped in contingency) and flat to the point of disappearing from the surface of the plane. To say, however, that flat images are a “realist” or photorealist art, or that visual art depends upon language to enter signification has troubling implications, refusing to consider the bounds of perspective (from the artist, the medium, and the spectator). Yet, in exploring photography’s medium (indexical and reproducible), we can begin to understand how the assignation of “post-photography” relates to that of “post-literacy.”
Even Dickinson understood depth perception (phenomenologically, and politically, in the granting of subjecthood, rather than treating the other as an object or manipulable industrial machine – vending, milking – in the service economy) to be predicated upon metaphoric hierarchy: “ . . . We can find no scar,/ But internal difference,/ Where the Meanings, are–”). The rise of the image and subsequent degradation of language to emoticons is a function of technocapitalism, advertising and marketing blitzes, and bipartisan racketeering, whereby independent thought is crushed by neo-fascist fears of the unknown (the wizards behind the screen?)
Rather than aspiring to the denotative powers of text (a Gordian knot, interpretatively), highly stylized photography (Gest, Thomas Struth, David LaChapelle) suggests a desire for the image to become purely connotative, appropriating the iconicity of the mirror (the only purely indexical object). Struth: “Photographs that impress me have no personal signature,” and yet this depersonalized aesthetic doesn’t impede the sheer pathos of his museum photographs, juxtaposing spectators at the Louvre with, for example, the shipwrecked figures in Théodore Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa. Struth’s museum-goers observe rather than participate in history (religious and mythological narratives), formalizing Western Art’s debt to Christian symbolism, but not attempting to subvert or parody this tradition.
(Thomas Struth, Hermitage 1, St. Petersburg, 2005)
Reading demands, as Guy DeBord says, making judgments at every line; how does this description of literacy accord with an accurate perception of the imago, as a two-dimensional object? [iv] Modernists’ dream to find forms of representation adequate to experience of phenomenal “reality,” once declared a failure, in morphing from the rejection of authority, the subject, and meaning, to a worship of the object, now worship the frame (material context) itself. For visual art the context of the image is doubled: the literal frame, as well as the cultural space in which the work is displayed, distinguishing it as an objet d’art, worthy of consecration in a public space.The shifts, in constructivist and futurist movements, between art’s use-value (e.g. painter Alex Rodchenko’s poster art, furniture, wallpaper and fabric), to l’art pour l’art, had aesthetic and economic implications (the feared aestheticization of politics and politicization of aesthetics): today, conceptual art trumpets its value-lessness as a form of waste aesthetics: resistance to cooptation by the market, and utilitarian ideals.
Following suit, Gest’s figures, while ranging in age, largely white and middle class, are pictured in nuclear family couplings, or alone, tending to tasks in well-appointed homes and state-of-the-art kitchens, en route to work, or at the workplace itself.
(Gest, “Joe Finishing Lunch” 2005)
In Gest’s work, these quotidian scenes (shaving, shelving books at a library), are a form of anti-epic: representing the habitus of daily living. In “Ben and Dawn” (below), the couple is preparing dinner: Dawn manifesting the vacuity of non-presence, and Ben, absorption in his task (forming meat patties). How to read these allegories in which narrative is supplanted by the gaze (either off-center or vacant)? Gest heightens the post-Enlightenment collapse of progress narratives and a unified self by refusing the viewer a vanishing point or horizon line: his subjects’ expressions are frozen in shock or ennui. The unmitigated solitude of many of Gest’s subjects also suggests the impossibility of self-knowledge or consciousness, particularly of class. Mired in transitional situations, and rarely facing the camera directly, these subjects, as they water the lawn, or pause before exiting a brand-new SUV, manifest an innocence of themselves as complicit agents in or victims of commodity culture—or, as posed subjects. Sentience is indeed on display in Gest’s portraits, but this sentience is often in the service of material entrapments rather than the subject’s experience, shown benumbed in these portraits of status quo maintenance without the promise of deliverance (through class ascension, religion or theater). As Baudrillard says, we live in a “jungle of fetish-objects”: in order for an art object to free itself from fetishization it must first emerge as a “newly victorious fetish,” then work to destroy itself as a familiar object by becoming monstrously unfamiliar. “This foreignness is not the strangeness of the alienated or repressed object,” he adds. “It excels through a veritable seduction that comes from somewhere else . . . by exceeding its own form as a pure object, a pure event.” [v]
The fantasy of art qua object is a desire for it to eventually become, in a Zarathustrian sense, event: Brechtian theater, Jerzy Grotowski’s “theatre laboratory” (Teatr Laboratorium), the Opernhaus Wuppertal of Pina Bauch. Michael Fried opposed art and objecthood in his 1967 essay relating objecthood to theatricality, wherein the reader or viewer is necessary to bring the interpretive act to completion: in other art forms, however, the line is easily blurred. A wholly intentioned work of art, or Frankensteinian, bioengineered production of human life (dramatized in movies such as Synechoche, New York, The Truman Show, and the Tom McCarthy novel Remainder) enact the fantasy of a subject with the power to micromanage contingency (i.e. weather), creating others as a pure extension of the author-producer’s will (the sinister sine qua non of formalist aesthetics)? From Remainder: “Opening my fridge’s door, lighting a cigarette, even lifting a carrot to my mouth: these gestures had been seamless, perfect. I’d merged with them, run through them, and let them run through me until there’d been no space between us. They’d been real; I’d been real without first understanding how to try to be: cut out the detour.” McCarthy contemporizes the Wagnerian dream of the “total” work of art, by attempting to solve for indeterminancy in plot, language, nature: the post-industrial spectacle of by which citizen-consumers, are already, albeit unconsciously, enthralled.
Fried turned to photography with the 2008 publication of Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before, exploring works by Bernd and Hilla Becher, Jeff Wall, and Andreas Gursky, asserting that the poles of anti-theatricality and absorption are central to the turn by recent photographers towards large-scale works “for the wall.” The tableaux vivant of these photographers, and the work of Gest in particular, attenuates the politics of spectatorship by rendering the viewer complicit in the subject’s performance not of self-consciousness, but the lack thereof. In Gest, we observe, voyeuristically, subjects in media res, or engaged in repetitious labor (domestic and corporate): these scenes may be “for the wall” but their very nature is theatrical (constructed), forecasting the transition from art as object, to event.
(Gest, Kate Fixing her Earring, 2005)
Narratives of subject formation (or, in painting, a reconstitution of the figure, whether rendered as grotesque by Dana Schultz, or pornographized, in Egon Schiele), continue to be elided by the neoliberal death of extra-aesthetic context, heralded by Francis Fukuyama as the end of history (therefore allegory, Manichean and otherwise, and narrative): the fracas of the negative sublime (eco-catastrophes, Warhol-inspired readymades, appropriated and digitally reproducible art).
Art-as-event (the “revised sublime”) has the potential to loosen the hypnotizing inertia of the image, encouraging passive spectatorship, and the dangers of pure formalism (the reduction of art to ornament, or frame, and language to citational and ironic metacommentary, ceasing to exist in or interpolate with the world) allowing space for critical reflection, eroticism, and presence-as-grace.
Whether all art is reification, as Hannah Arendt said, or whether the war is still being waged between aesthetic reification and the counter-concept of aesthetic use value (both prey to commodity fetishism, whether by cognitariat aesthetes and/or the market), the final criteria for artistic “value” or proof of art’s autonomy may not be decreed by the moral majority (popular or critical opinion) or its price tag (floating or fixed), but its participation in a sacrificial economy, for the purposes of extirpation: to reject the bankrupt calculus of credit economies and fiat aesthetics to risk annihilation, so as to rise from the death of ontological and literal debt (posthumously, for Van Gogh) into the shock of signification (G.H. Hardy’s aesthetic criterion marrying unexpectedness to inevitability): the real.
[i] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida (New York: Hill and Wang, 1980), p. 90.
[ii] Roland Barthes, Image-Music-Text, trans. Stephen Heath (New York: Hill and Wang, 1978) p. 45.
[iii] Qtd. in Gilles Deleuze’s Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995).
[iv] Guy DeBord, Comments on the Society of the Spectacle (Verso Press, Brookyn, 1998), p. 29.
[v] Jean Baudrillard,“Simulation and Transaesthetics: Towards the Vanishing Point of Art” (International Journal of Baudrillard Studies), web, Vol. 5, No. 2: July, 2008.
Virginia Konchan’s poems have appeared in Best New Poets, The Believer, The New Yorker, and The New Republic, her criticism in Workplace: A Journal for Academic Labor, Quarterly Conversation, New Madrid, and Boston Review, and her fiction in StoryQuarterly and Joyland, among other places. The recipient of grants and fellowships to Scuola Internazionale di Grafica, Ox-Bow, and Vermont Studio Center, Virginia is co-founder of Matter, a journal of poetry and political commentary. She lives in Chicago.
December 17, 2013 · Print This Article
Guest Post by Autumn Hays
Over the last few years within the United States a growing interest has arisen in festivals that specialize in Performance Art, that offshoot of the visual Arts, who’s practices center around temporal body-based works. This festival-circuit format for showing performance based art works has already produced a strong development in terms of organizations and events outside of the United States. Often however it’s difficult for American performance artists to break into these circuits. Although there have some who have successfully done so, many festivals go years without showing a single American performance artist. This could be for many reasons, but one is certainly the relative lack of funding. Often the diplomatic and cultural establishments of foreign countries, such as embassies and consulates assist artists with expenses so that they can make and show artworks outside their country of origin. In the USA however, we do not invest money in the arts to the extent of other countries and thus American artists often have less accessibility to funds outside of their own pockets.
Performance art festivals are often intensive endeavors, involving a diverse group of international artists. Always on very tight budgets, these festivals often seek to supply food and housing for the artists for the duration of the festival, often lasting from several days to weeks. Unlike showing at a, gallery the festival becomes a sort of community or summer camp. Here artists and curators network and meet performers from all over the world. Viewership is open to the public but there is a community of support at many festivals where artist see each-other’s works, often living together and sometimes collaborating on the fly. Festivals are often popular for performance art as spaces willing to show the work, or spaces aware of the needs of exhibiting performance art are often few and far between.
The good news for performance artists is, the USA is starting to develop their own performance art festivals. These festivals seek to bring international artist to the USA while showcasing local talents. It will be exciting to see what other festivals are brewing here in the United States and some in and near Chicago itself. Here are three festivals to look for this year:
Lone Star Performance Explosion
February 19-23, 2014
This is the second time around for this international performance art biennale after a successful run in 2012. “LONE STAR EXPLOSION 2014 seeks to showcase performance art that pushes the artists and audience in new ways, especially performance art that questions fundamental assumptions about the way we experience time, space, relationships, the self, society, and sexuality. “ As many of our festivals on this list the line up features local, national and international talents in Performance Art. Lone Star Explosion 2014 is curated and directed by Jonatan Lopez and Julia Wallace. Confirmed artists include: Elia Arce (Costa Rica), Marce Sparmann (Germany), Natalie Lovleless (Canada), J. Morrison (NYC), Ryan Hawk (Huston), Roberto Sifuentes (Chicago), and over 25 more artists. http://lonestarlive.org/
Rapid Pulse International Performance Art Festival
June 5-15, 2014
This is year three for Rapid Pulse International Performance Art Festival, taking place here in Chicago. “The RAPID PULSE INTERNATIONAL PERFORMANCE ART FESTIVAL aims to represent a range of styles and forms in order to provoke thought and stimulate discourse surrounding performance art.” This intensive festival features performance, video screenings, artist’s talks and panel discussions. It includes a wide range of performance art from durational, public, and digital based works. Unlike the rest of the festivals on this list Rapid Pulse is centered in and around Defibrillator Performance art Space as opposed to being a wide range, multi-venue event. Artists have yet to be announced but the application period is closed and the curatorial process is beginning. Rapid Pulse is curated by: Steven Bridges, Julie Laffin, Giana Gambino, and Joseph Ravens. http://rapidpulse.org/
Supernova Performance Art Festival
Super Nova first took place in June of last year and word is the event will be back again this year. “SUPERNOVA will bring together emerging and established local, regional, national and international performance artists to present an expansive range of positions and approaches to performance art.” Though not confirmed Supernova came together well last year showing and they have to potential to continue on this year. Tough mostly national based artists, Supernova has the bones of a strong festival and hopefully they continue. Supernova’s 2013 Chief Curator was Eames Armstrong. http://rosslynartsproject.com/
The question that arises with these projects and others like it is one of sustainability. Performance Art festivals are often struggle all year to find funding for the next event. Often performance artists who wish to see this kind of festival thrive in the USA produce these festivals. These factors, and the fact many performance art specific festivals around the world struggle to stay open make the running of an international festival a labor of love, to say the least. Even if these festivals eventually come to an end, the recent creation of these festivals might be pointing to a new trend in performance art exhibitions in the USA. Hopefully the adoption of the festival format international performance festivals will continue to propagate more opportunities in the exhibition of performance art. It will be interesting to see if the new trend in festival production will flourish in the United States and if festivals like these will run strong and multiply in the years to come. Perhaps, the appearance of American Performance Art festivals, and the participation of American artists in them, may lead to an increased interests in American practitioners of performance works both at home and abroad.
Autumn Hays is an Artist, Curator, Teacher and Writer. She graduated the School of the Art Institute of Chicago with an MFA in Performance where she received the John Quincy Adams Fellowship. She received her BA in Visual Arts at UCSD. Hays was the recipient of numerous scholarships, grants and awards including two major Jack Kent Cooke association scholarships. Currently she is assistant curator at Defibrillator and Co-Producer of the 2014 IMPACT Performance Art Festival. www.autumnhays.com
December 16, 2013 · Print This Article
By Kevin Blake
As Elijah Burgher’s solo show at Western Exhibitions comes to a close and he sets his sights on the 2014 Whitney Biennial, he weighs in on his practice. With a ‘no stone left unturned’ approach to his work, Burgher is tough to stump and shows us why his work merits a bigger stage.
Kevin Blake:Your recent solo show ‘Friendship as a Way of Life b/w I’m Seeking the Minotaur’ at Western Exhibitions features an eclectic grouping of work. From intimate representational drawings that appear overtly labor intensive to large abstract paintings on canvas drop cloths that hang from the ceiling, each work demands something different of the viewer. These works interrupt the gallery space in an interesting way and requires the audience to physically adapt to your installation. Can you talk about how you conceived the schematic for hanging this show and how it may or may not reflect your ideas about ritual?
Elijah Burgher: Originally, I wanted to install the drawings and drop cloth paintings separately in Scott’s two galleries, constructing a labyrinth of sorts with the latter works. I had in mind something like Robert Irwin’s installation at Dia’s Chelsea space in the late 90s, which consisted of a maze of scrims lit by differently colored fluorescent lights. (I saw that when I was an undergrad, and it left an impression on me, but I hadn’t known what to do with that experience in my own work.) Or imagine being able to physically enter a painting by Mark Tobey or Brion Gysin. I was–and continue to be–interested in contrasting the depicted space within the drawings and the real space created by the drop cloths when they are hung as false walls–I am thinking of them more and more as building blocks for a soft architecture. I decided instead, however, to hang the drop cloths among the drawings, and use them to partition the gallery space into smaller rooms. The labyrinth idea is still present, but less literally manifest. I think it is also reinforced by certain of the drawings, like “In the horny deeps below finding,” which pictures two figures standing on the threshold of a space, on the walls of which sigils are painted.
The drop cloth paintings have their origin in rituals I was devising and conducting a couple of years ago, around 2011 or thereabouts. I was combining Austin Osman Spare’s sigil magic, bits and pieces of European ceremonial magic, and my experience participating in AA Bronson’s Invocation of the Queer Spirits project in these rituals. The drop cloths functioned as both portable temples–spaces for conducting rituals–and artifacts of the rituals. I made a video documenting one of these actions with my friend, Tom Daws, three years ago, which was shown as part of an exhibition at Gallery 400 called “Intimacies.” That context remains pertinent, although the paintings are no longer, strictly speaking, artifacts of rituals. It’s the portable temple part I’m more interested in now–again: false walls, fragments of a soft architecture. And I hasten to add that I do, in fact, live with them in this way. For instance, my studio and kitchen are separated off from one another by two drop cloths hung back-to-back.
KB: I think the essence of Irwin’s work is experience–how the work presents itself at the moment you interact with it. Irwin’s work was made to transcend the material nature of its temporary existence. It certainly did for you, it seems. In that vein, your work evoked in me the idea of ritual–the ritual of looking at art or the art of looking in the gallery context. As I wandered through the space, I kept thinking about how I was supposed to maneuver, and if I was doing my part correctly so as to understand your intentions. Your work alludes, pictorially, to the occult, but the way the show was hung addressed Irwin’s ideas more overtly. For me, this over-arching metaphor for experience and ritual, really tied the show together nicely. Is this happenstance or a strategic move to conflate those ideas?
EB: This is a hard question to answer. It wasn’t precisely my intention to draw an analogy between the experience of looking at art and ritual. In fact, I worry about conjuring the look and feel of sacredness in a humorless, worshipful manner. On the other hand, I think that bringing ideas from magick and the occult into art can focus our thinking about art, especially regarding our psychic investments, our expectations and hopes and worries.
The stakes of Irwin’s work, generally speaking, are in prioritizing the phenomenological aspect of visual art, enabling a pure experience of looking: “seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees.” My work does not share this aim. It’s invoked in order to be complicated, even reversed. I’m too interested in representation and language. I think that the experience of the show at Western involves toggling back and forth between depicted and real, imaginary and actual. I also hope to make those polarities more volatile. I’m obsessed, for instance, with making something happen by drawing.
KB: The way the drop cloths were hung forced a physical encounter with the intimate scale of the drawings, while simultaneously conveying a sense of being walled in by the paintings. I think this mandates an initiation to the work that is a compelling component to the show. How do you think about the audience in the production of the work, or is it a curatorial consideration post production?
EB: Yes, I wanted the drop cloths to operate in that way–to contrast the scale and sense of touch in the drawings, as well as suggest connections amongst certain groups of drawings by separating them off.
I was going to reply that I do not take the audience into consideration when I work, but that’s not entirely true. I suppose I resist the idea of a general or abstract audience. Primarily, I make things that I want to look at and think about (or try to do so, at least). And I also make work with specific individuals or sets of individuals in mind–people with whom I am already in dialogue or wish to engage in dialogue. When I am working, I am thinking about my friends–amazing artists like Doug Ischar, John Neff, and AA Bronson–as well as figures with whom I can only engage in imaginary conversation because they’re dead. William S. Burroughs, Jean Genet, and Forrest Bess would be examples of the latter.
But maybe I’m misunderstanding the gist of your question? You’re suggesting that I’m molding the viewer’s experience through installation decisions, which direct not only the viewer’s bodily navigation of the show but their conceptual understanding of the works. I think this is right, although, again, I wasn’t really thinking of the audience. I was thinking about the works themselves and the relationships amongst them in the show as a whole. It was important for Lucifer and In the horny deeps, below finding to be in the first room, providing a kind of key with which to approach the other works in the show.
KB: For me the show does much in the way of re-instating the experience of art as something personal if not sacrosanct. Your figurative drawings allude to deeply personal narratives while the spaces in which the figures exist complicate the read. Those spaces are self referential in a way-suggesting a dialogue with your paintings. It is as if you give the viewer something, but not everything at once–morsels of information laid out in a trail from one work to the next. I’m guessing that you are working on multiple pieces at once, maybe making labored drawings at a desk and when you don’t have that kind of patience, you make these large gestural, energy-infused paintings that feel absent of circumstance. Can you say something about the experience of making, dictating outcomes, as it relates to your conceptual framework?
EB: I trust the space and time of my studio–its organization and furniture, its rhythms. From that perspective, I think about working in terms of wrist versus arm, sitting versus standing, stillness versus movement, head and hand versus whole body. I make work from above: it is either on a table or the floor. These physical aspects of making impart a charge to the work, conveying particular kinds of attention and intention. For instance, devotion–in its religious, romantic and sexual registers–is both cause and effect of the exacting care with which the two portraits in the show are drawn.
Right now I am very committed to drawing as a medium, and I’m interested in activating and exploring two of its primary traits or functions. Drawings were historically valued as a form of raw, active thinking: notes, plans, visualizations of paintings to be painted or buildings to be built. They were also valued in terms of pure mark-making–for their autographic nature. (Think of the cliche of a connoisseur being able to distinguish a straight line drawn by Picasso from one by Matisse.) The first has to do with drawing’s intimacy with the head, the latter with the hand. The first projects into the future, the second indexes presence. All of this has something to do with desire, its force and movement, but I am still trying to figure that out.
KB: I think you are right about art–particularly art-making–possibly being about fulfilling a desire. A desire to exert, regurgitate, project, exorcise, or summon an idea, dream, or memory. As both are perpetually changing or in motion, how do you think about the relationship between time and desire, specifically as it relates to the act of drawing?
EB: When I think about the experience of desire in relation to time, I think about insistence, rhythm and rhyme, repetition and variation of forms. It might be the case that my drawings embody something about desire’s force, form and tempo, but it might also be that I associate desire with these qualities because of the drawings themselves–the repetitive mark; the rulers and compasses I use, etc. We could also discuss the temporality of desire differently, though: the way it shuttles across past, present, and future. Desire retrieves objects from the past–a lost beloved, wishing something might have happened differently, etc–and projects into the future–I want to find my lost ipod, I want that artist’s grant, I don’t want to die!
Several of the reviews of the show at Western have noted that the drawings are stiff, cold, distant, and that this contradicts the ostensible subject matter of sexuality. I wonder, though, why desire should be represented by messiness, drips, open form, and other painterly effects? I think desire has as much to do with attempts at mastery and control as it does submission, accident, loss of control.
KB: Time and desire will surely continue to play a role in your studio life moving forward, and considering the recent news of your inclusion in the 2014 Whitney Biennial, time specifically, will be at a premium. How do you hope to maintain the integrity of your desires in the work, while fulfilling the desires of your professional demands?
EB: There were pictures I wanted to make for the show at Western that I simply didn’t have time to make, and I’ve begun working on some of those since the show opened. This is a pattern from the past couple of years–there’s always some image left unmade, some problem that hasn’t been addressed, some loose thread to follow, which keeps me both focused and a little frantic.
I do worry about the integrity of my desires, but that is fairly private and coded–there’s plenty of irony, metaphor and other games in my work to ensure that. This work is predicated on the thought experiment of art possessing magical efficacy. Taking that seriously–that artworks cause change to occur in conformity with one’s will, to paraphrase Aleister Crowley–results in some serious self-reflection.
In daydreaming fantasies, I’m a totally evil bad ass, I need no one, and I’m flipping a pentagram-adorned middle finger at the world… but when I’m honest with myself about myself and my desires, I end up thinking about other people: human relationality, subject/object, love/aggression, ethics. I say this not because I’m so exquisitely sensitive to the needs of others but because any rigorously rational reflection on desire implicates the social, self and other, etc. I have no qualms admitting I want success–critical esteem from my peers, a livelihood!–but it’s these other riddles that I want to think about, and that sustain my work in the studio. Perhaps, though, one day I won’t require magic to reconcile art and life, self-determination and sociality, etc? On the other hand, I can’t help but think that art itself is always already a thought experiment, always an as-if proposition; which brings me back to magic, arguably the mother of metaphor and salve/lens of contradictions.
Guest post by David Carl.
This by way of introduction: we enjoy answering the question, “What’s your favorite . . .” (fill in the blank here), because it give us a chance to talk about ourselves, and to tell others who we are by ostensibly talking about someone or something else (a favorite book, movie, author, artist, band, album, etc.). By telling others what we like, we try to tell them who we are. Perhaps it is even a manifestation of our higher impulse to obey the Delphic Oracle’s injunction to strive for greater self-knowledge, for how often do we turn to art precisely to learn, not about the work in question, but from the work about ourselves and the world around us?
For those of us who care about art, literature, film, (“culture” as they used to call it), nothing says “who we are” more than the books we read, the movies we watch, the music we listen to . . . So when someone asked me recently who my favorite movie directors were, I responded with enthusiasm, despite the fact that the answer I gave was accompanied by the kind of unsubstantiated generalizations that generally drive me crazy when I hear other people spouting them:
Jean-Pierre Melville, for his unfailing portrayal of “cool” in cinema.
Michelangelo Antonioni, for his relentless depictions of post-Marxist “alienation,” not among the working class, but among the wealthy and privileged bourgeoisie of post-war Italy.
David Lynch, for just being plain weird in the most provocative ways.
Cool, alienated, weird. What else do we want from the movies?
It also occurred to me that Melville, Antonioni, and Lynch are all deeply western filmmakers, obsessed with a uniquely western response to the struggle between good and evil as a kind of spiritual crisis. Melville’s heroes are often criminals, but they live by a code (like the bushido code of the samurai evoked in Melville’s 1967 Le samouraï) which allows them to live with a sense of honor and distinguish right from wrong, even in the moral gray of the criminal underworld. Friendship, loyalty, courage—these are the virtues of Melville’s heroes, and these qualities add up to a certain “cool” that he may derive from American actors like Bogart, Dean, and Brando, but to which he gives a uniquely French twist (different from the kind of “cool” we saw developed by later American actors like Steve McQueen and Paul Newman). It is within this sense of “cool” that Melville explores his own sense of spirituality, in the context of a kind of warrior ethic that is simultaneously an aesthetics of style. In Melville’s hero the ethical and the aesthetic are gracefully blended in the notion of cool.
Antonioni’s characters, on the other hand, although not criminals, are far less heroic; and while they occupy eminently aesthetic surroundings, they are wholly unethical—not because they are evil, but because they are weak. Melville’s three virtues—friendship, loyalty, and courage—are wholly lacking in Antonioni’s world. These characters are too close to pathetic to be tragic, but they are not contemptible because they are often too much like we are, and even in the fantasy world of the movies we find it difficult to hate ourselves. They are living through a kind of modern crisis from which all the heroics have been drained, and what is left behind is lush, indulgent, stylish and visually gorgeous, but spiritually bereft. It is in their response to this sense of bereavement that Antonioni’s characters regain a kind of antiheroic charm, especially in the case of the female leads played by Monica Vitti in the four films she did with him between 1960 and 1964. Anything that can still be affirmed against this backdrop of modernity takes on a new significance.
Finally, with Lynch, cool and despair join hands to occupy a landscape that is alien in direct proportion to how familiar it seems on the surface. Unreal things happen in familiar places (our homes, our neighborhoods, inside our own heads), proving that these landscapes are not so familiar after all. What we thought was the comfortably familiar is revealed as concealing dark, hidden corners. These may be the corners of our own imaginations, which tend to run away with themselves, at least if Lynch has anything to do with it. But here too there is a kind of spiritual struggle going on; and a struggle between good and evil that is very real for Lynch, even if it is a rather narrowly conceived western (it would be Manichean if it didn’t keep doubling in on itself and implicating his films’ various heroes with a sense of their own moral ambiguity) sense of good and evil. The devil, last seen in the works of Milton, Goethe and Dostoevsky, is still alive and well in the films of Melville, Antonioni, and Lynch. He is still charming, still tempting, and still leaves a wake of despair that demands some sort of spiritual response from those he encounters. For filmmakers, with all the resources of the visual at their disposal, these responses, no matter how ethically grounded, must always be aesthetic as well.
All this may or may not be true, but it isn’t really what I want to say about these directors, or how I’d like to write about their films. These comments are marked by the kind of unsubstantiated generalizations that one expects to hear at cocktail parties (at least the kinds of cocktail parties I’m always hoping to be invited to—as long as they’re serving good whiskey along with the small talk), but they are not really the stuff of careful observation of the visual details that makes watching great cinema a great pleasure. What I would like to be able to do is discipline myself to greater acts of seeing. I’d like to see more, when I look at a movie, in the hope that great movies would reciprocally teach me to see more when I look away from them.
Also by way of introduction: I’m sure its curmudgeonly of me to admit I’m uncomfortable with the word “blog”—not because it makes me feel old, but because I am old, and it makes me feel like I should be doing something to compensate for that fact, rather than merely sitting back and enjoying it as the result of the long and laborious process of having stayed alive long enough to earn the dubious title. Instead of “blog” I prefer the old-fashioned word “essay,” which is more dignified, more accurate etymologically, and more representative of something that someone has labored over and taken time and care with. Whether or not someone has something to say, they should say it thoughtfully. “Blog” sounds like a particularly unpleasant body function. Something that happens to you when you’ve put down too much ambrosia salad on a hot 4th of July afternoon after drinking flat beer and eating some baked beans that weren’t quite right to begin with. An essay, on the other hand, is the record of an earnest attempt, the written vestige of an effort that calls on you to try your very best, no matter how embarrassing the results, or how inadequate to the hopes and ambitions we brought to them.
Any essay that is not, on one level, a failure, is an essay that stopped too soon, when we were still feeling safe and secure in our own thinking. Often the failure is where things get interesting, where risks are taken and uncertainty and insecurity allowed to crawl out from under the rock we’d like to hide them beneath. A “blog” on the other hand, sounds like what it too often is: a spewing forth of whatever comes to mind without thought or reflection, without the care of craft or the craft of care. (This, for the record, is neither a blog nor an essay, but merely a rant. An inferior but satisfying form of literary production much older than the blog and not nearly so interesting as the essay.)
And this idea of the interesting failure is germane to the movies as well. One distinguishing characteristic of a great movie director (and perhaps this is true of great artists in any area of production) is that there is as much to learn from their failures as from their successes. Along with their masterpieces, Antonioni, Melville, and Lynch all made bad movies; but they are bad movies I’ve learned a lot from watching and thinking about. There is such a thing as a provocative failure. (Who was it that said, “I would rather be a successful failure than a failed success”? I think it might have been a character in one of my novels, but perhaps it was the author consoling himself after the completed project.) Merely competent directors are capable of making good movies, but their bad ones will be devoid of interest.
There is such a thing as a “merely bad” work of art, one that is not even interesting in the way it fails. I care most about the work of those directors who not only risk going wrong, but actually precipitate themselves into the breach, knowing that the only alternative is to remain perpetually on the safe side of what they are comfortable and familiar with (what they are “good at”). The comfortable and familiar being antithetical to art however we choose to define it.
Next time: some thoughts about seeing in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather.
David Carl is a member of the teaching faculty at St. John’s College in Santa Fe and a co-founder of the St. John’s College Film Institute. He is the Director of the College’s Graduate Institute, a Research Fellow at the Institute for the Study of Cultural Artifacts, teaches for The Curious Oyster (a private adult education project committed to Contemplation, Conversation and Conviviality) and has written several books, including Heraclitus in Sacramento, Fragments, Meditations on Initiating the Apocalypse, and Further Adventures in the Unsubconscious. He watches movies in his living room in Santa Fe, NM.
Guest post by Alex Fuller
Chicago’s Lampo is a nonprofit organization that has been presenting experimental music and intermedia projects since 1997. Over that time, Lampo also has maintained a strong focus on design in its printed promotional materials. Running through January 17, the Post Family is showing a mini-survey of Lampo design work, drawn from the sound organization’s 15-year archive. The Post Family’s Alex Fuller speaks with Andrew Fenchel and Alisa Wolfson from Lampo:
Alex Fuller: How did Lampo get started?
Andrew Fenchel: When I started things in ‘97 I had no special expertise in music. I was a fan. I’d been listening to weird stuff since high school and going to shows since college. I liked that moment of discovery, especially live, with other people around and the artists there. I wanted to make that happen. I had no background producing events, and I learned as I went along. In retrospect, the lack of experience was helpful. I didn’t know what I was getting into or why I shouldn’t do it. But I wasn’t a complete fawn. I had spent some time around art museums through a couple of internships. I began thinking as much or more about the artists, rather than just the audience, recognizing that Lampo could offer extra support for their work. And I believed producing beautiful design would help make each project special. Alisa and I first met when Lampo was just about a year old. So, design was almost always integral to the idea.
Fuller: Much of the sound you present is electronic. Why was print appropriate for the design work vs. digital?
Fenchel: Most of the things we’ve produced have a practical function. Posters and postcards are promotional. Program notes are educational. From the beginning Alisa and I also talked about a secondary idea, considering the stuff as artifact. Print is what is left over. It extends the identity of the organization and documents the work. But beyond that, I also had something sort of poetic in mind. That might not be the right word. I’m very interested in the relationship between the live experience, the memory of that experience, and the tangible printed remains. We brought that present and past idea into our design. Like any time-based event that happens and then is over and done, there is the act of reading the words on the poster, and then later an understanding that now it has been read, or red — a color we use a lot. It was kind of a private joke.
Alisa Wolfson: Graphic design is something I do for work. Like Andy said, we met when Lampo was just starting. So, we began our relationship looking at and talking about design and ephemera. We wanted to make things for Lampo and felt a responsibility to the artists to do that. We also both love Fluxus and were inspired by its focus on live performance and dedication to capturing the moment through print. And, print it was and will be. It’s the family business
Fuller: How do you curate the Lampo program?
Fenchel: Lampo is structured as a series of select programs, to keep things special for the artists and the audience. I try to create relationships between events, within and across seasons, but I’m not interested in being didactic about those connections. They’re not secret, but I prefer to be suggestive and not say more. My goal is to keep the program varied but linked. It’s a fun challenge, like a puzzle. What is most important to me is that we work with artists who will be able to take advantage of the invitation, and whatever resources and energy we can offer, to do something they might not otherwise be able to do.
Fuller: Has the graphic identity changed over time?
Wolfson: I remember doing some early weird type experiments to try to make a proper Lampo logo. They all felt manufactured and over designed. Then we started working with Helvetica. For the system and look, we both agreed a tight set of guidelines would help us create authentic pieces that would be true to our idea of Lampo. We wanted something matter-of-fact. We never wanted to mimic sound through visuals. Instead, we started with a limited set of elements, and we continue to work with these in different variations, as we also add new ones or evolve them.
The poster dimensions were determined by how many we could efficiently make on a standard press sheet. The skinny proportion of those posters became a standard we still use in other pieces. Silkscreen was practical and appealing because it was fast and had a really beautiful, tactile quality. To get saturated fields of color, we had to leave a small border around the poster edge. That border then carried through to other pieces, even when not required by the printing technique. We stuck with Helvetica. Type was often all caps, centered, not fussy. The palette was limited too. Andy loves word play. As he mentioned, different shades of red dominated early on, a wink to “reading” in the past tense. Later we expanded to oranges, browns and blues — colors we saw on bricked up Chicago buildings against a perfect Midwest sky.
These days we’ve moved away from silkscreen. We have added plaid as a formal element, an everyday reference to math and pattern. And we introduced a new Lampo Folio series, where we produce large-format booklets to document certain past events that have a more visual component. The way we continue to cycle elements in and out and add new ones is something like the way the Lampo program is curated, too.
Fuller: The show celebrates more than 15 years of beautiful graphic design and challenging sound art. What was the experience like unearthing your archives?
Wolfson: It was fun and strange and exciting. I feel like I’m such a different person now, but it’s great to see everything together as a group, and really cool to realize what we’ve done. I know we both look forward to doing more.
“Reading Lampo” is on view at the Post Family, 1821 W. Hubbard, through January 17. Visit lampo.org and thepostfamily.com for more information. This Saturday, December 7, the Lampo fall season continues with a performance by ex-Emeralds member Steve Hauschildt at the Graham Foundation.
Alex Fuller is one of seven partners in the studio/gallery/blog called The Post Family, founder of 5 x 7 publishing and a Design Director at the Leo Burnett Dept. of Design.