Cosmic Images and Inner Realities: P. Seth Thompson’s “The Last One”

December 26, 2013 · Print This Article

Images: An Abridged History

This past semester I taught an undergraduate class at Emory University titled “Visual Studies: The Image.” Some of the questions the course focused on were: what is an image? what does it mean to make an image? how should we look at images? what do these images do to the way we think about the world? In a world saturated with images, I thought it important to encourage students to consider the long and complicated history of the image.

Just a few broad strokes to contextualize, a brief, abridged, and very limited history, a few mile markers:

5th century BC: Zeuxis and Parhassius engage in a painting contest. Zeuxis painted a scene of grapes. Birds, attempting to feed on them, flew into and pecked at the painting. Next up was Parhassius. Zeuxis demanded to see the painting that was hidden behind a curtain, but Parhassius revealed that the painting was in fact the curtain.  Parhassius wins: his painting of a curtain fooled Zeuxis, a fellow artist, while Zeuxis’ painting of grapes only fooled the birds. [1]

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave in Book XII of his Republic tells a story of prisoners who are trapped in a cave and have only known a play of shadows on the cave wall, created by puppets backlit by the cave fire. These shadows are their only reality. In the event that one of the prisoners leaves the cave, his eyes, blinded by the sun’s light, can’t deal with actual reality. He chooses to go back to the cave unless he is encouraged to remain outside of its depths. However, in Plato’s Timaeus, the origins of the cosmos is attributed to its being the image of the eternal paradigm; this is a materialization that is divine. [2]

Sacred texts of the Abrahamic religions describe the function of the image. We find that man is made in God’s image, but we should not worship false images, idols. Fast forward to 8th and 9th century Byzantium and the clashes over the status of the icon; a debate that finds its roots in Greek philosophy along with Christian theology. The image is either sacred, or it is false and should be destroyed. [3]

Then, consider the birth of photography in the 19th century and the rise of cinematic propaganda. Now, reality television, Instagram, and the space program. Or, “Charlie Rules the World”: Episode 8, Season 8 of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia – the Gang gets sucked into an online game and their distinctions between reality and fantasy, actuality and virtuality, blur.


Outer Space and the Domestic Television

Atlanta-based artist P. Seth Thompson’s show The Last One, which closes on December 30, 2013 at {Poem 88} in Atlanta’s West Midtown neighborhood, presents the viewer with the artist’s confrontations between reality and image, truth and fiction. Using science fiction as the portal, Thompson shows us the strange and close encounters we have with the images that in/form us.

The center piece of the show, the video An Event Cannot Have An End Time in the Past, is an exercise in memory, news media, scientific teleology, and disaster. Made using primarily the artist’s childhood home movies, the video’s layers reveal a space-scape that fill in the contours of the family’s bodies on screen. In an abrupt ending, we witness the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger explosion; its footage become home movie, entering the family’s domestic space on a screen that serves as the centerpiece for a living room. The sound, composed by Jon Ciliberto, takes the viewer on an ambient journey up to a transformative climax. As I finish this article, the TV program “How the Universe Works” on the Science Channel plays in the background at my friend’s mother’s home. I am here for Christmas. The lights of the Christmas tree bounce off the digitally rendered stardust and animated theaters of comet crashes, planetary orbits, and blackhole consumption. The TV viewer is informed of the Earth’s pending catastrophe; the Earth occupies a precarious position in the universe that is always on the precipice of doom.

P. Seth Thompson. "An Event Cannot Have an End Time in the Past." 2013. Courtesy of the artist.

P. Seth Thompson. “An Event Cannot Have an End Time in the Past.” 2013. Courtesy of the artist.

Thompson’s statement accompanying the show claims that he is “co-opt[ing] and challeng[ing] the images to underscore our complicity in the suspension of belief in the digital era.” [4] What is the “challenge” he is posing to images? What does the rhetoric of challenge mean in the context of the Challenger’s explosion? What has our fascination with images of space done for our understanding of our position in the world? The American space program, more rigorously tended to after the launch of the Soviet’s Sputnik, serves as an entryway into the ways in which images – both physical and mental – inform policy and American everyday life. In America’s determination to win the space race during the Cold War, where two major nations became images of themselves, what gets covered over? How do these images of space and nation converge to influence everyday realities?

Thompson’s addition of his photograph Niels Bohr Through the Looking Glass, points further to American policy and its way of navigating science. Bohr, a Danish physicist who received a Nobel Prize for his contributions to the research on the structure of atoms and quantum mechanics, was also involved with the Manhattan Project, the project that developed the atomic bomb during the Second World War. Not only is Bohr an interesting figure to include here, an important scientist and public presence, but it is also his theories of light – that is, the discovery that light behaves as both a particle and a wave – that are important to the show. Light, the essential factor in the production of photographs, is itself unstable.

P. Seth Thompson. "Niels Bohr Through the Looking Glass." 2012. Courtesy of the artist.

P. Seth Thompson. “Niels Bohr Through the Looking Glass.” 2012. Courtesy of the artist.


Reality’s Virtuality

Thompson states that “all we have is the world we create in our head, and if that’s not reality, then nothing is reality. We are left in a world of our own making and that is perfectly fine with me.” [5] Part of this statement may be a re-investment in the simulacrum, a concept made famously negative by Baudrillard [6]; a re-investment that I think needs to be seriously considered. In its Latin origins, the term “simulacrum” means merely similarity or likeness. This likeness, however, evolved to describe a likeness that is inferior, without substance. It is a likeness that does not have a model to fashion itself after. This substance-less image has the potential to open imaginative space, but in terms of a reality that only exists in our heads, I hesitate to fully jump into this spaceship. What does it mean to claim that all we have is what’s in our head? Going back further in time, is this a reclamation of philosopher René Descartes’ doubting of all things?

Descartes’ project, which was an attempt to discover the truly certain, rejected sensory experience because of its capability to deceive; the only certainty we have exists in the mind. This rejection of the corporeal led him, in his Meditations on First Philosophy, to reject physics (important to the premise of this particular exhibition), since it is a science based on corporeal nature; he turned instead to geometry. [7] Descartes’ dismissal of the body and the sensorial serves as the starting point for its own deconstruction in the project of phenomenology. For Edmund Husserl, the appearance is all we have and we must bracket out any notions of an underlying reality of the object. These appearances, taken as phenomenon, are images experienced in perception. They are both there for me as existing in my perception, but they also transcend my perception and are apart from me. These images can’t merely exist in my head; they have to have their own sort of actuality. [8]


Disintegrating Images

As I’ve mentioned above and in a previous article, [9] the image has been historically regarded as a dangerous falsity. It is not only not truth, but it is a danger to truth itself; it is only a shadow on the wall. Chris Marker’s short film that uses text from Plato’s Allegory of the Cave shows the potential danger of our fascination with cinema, a stance that Walter Benjamin writes of in his 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” [10] Benjamin describes the way in which the film actor, in acting for the camera, uses “his whole living person, yet forgo[es] his aura” (229). This “self-alienation” opens the door for Fascism to render politics as an aesthetics (242).

Thompson’s layering and pixelation of the cinematic image exhibits a gesture of disintegration, not necessarily incorporation. What is the image disintegrating/dissolving into? Our collective imaginary? His photograph The Spaceman’s Disappearing Act, presents the viewer with an almost illegible image when viewed up close. However, when viewed from the side, the image reveals a person clad in a spacesuit. It is only from an oblique view that the spaceman reveals himself. In the Lacanian sense of anamorphosis, the viewer gazes upon the distorted image which conceals the Real and thus recognizes herself as the annihilated subject; she can’t be the privileged center. [11] She becomes aware of how she is seeing and therefore aware that she can be seen from such an angle. She is an image that can be perceived.

P. Seth Thompson. "The Spaceman's Disappearing Act." 2013. Courtesy of the artist.

P. Seth Thompson. “The Spaceman’s Disappearing Act.” 2013. Courtesy of the artist.

Outer Space, as the final frontier, serves as an extreme example of our fantasies. However, more “mundane” images fill in our memories and bodies. As I wrote about in a previous article, [12] Jill Frank’s photographs, comprising her series Romance, approach similar issues Thompson addresses, of the ways in which cinema inhabits our everyday lives. However, what we find in Frank’s work is the bodily mimicry of the viewed. The cinematic image, not registered itself on film, is instead registered through the bodies of the photographed subjects. The image has been acted out, performed, incorporated into everyday bodies.

The Last One offers actual and virtual disaster with sentimentality. Thompson references the hero’s journey, a theory proposed by Joseph Campbell that organizes quintessential heroic journey stories into a definitive structure. The structure, formulated for the traveling male, is a formalization of the relationship between constructed narrative, everyday life, and mythology. This constructed narrative enables the space program and therefore constituted the situation in which the Challenger catastrophe, witnessed through the media, could occur. What happens when disaster is sentimentalized in the domestic sphere? The images in The Last One may occupy an oppositional pole to Warhol’s works on disaster, car crashes, and American violence. Warhol shows the viewer news media coverage of American disasters without sentimentality. They are cold and alienating. In a sense, Thompson’s works invite the viewer to engage with them in a way that bring her into the narrative fold. However, the danger here is that she can get too comfortable. The question becomes: in our everyday lives lived in the midst of disaster and violence, how do we navigate these images surrounding us in a way that simultaneously connects to and disengages from them?



[1] Pliny the Elder, Natural History, Book 35, Chapter 36

[2] Plato, Republic; and Plato, Timaeus 

[3] See for example, Alain Besançon, The Forbidden Image: An Intellectual History of Iconoclasm, translated by Jane Marie Todd (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2000); Gerhart B. Ladner, “The Concept of the Image in the Greek Fathers and the Byzantine Iconoclastic Controversy,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers, vol. 7 (1953): 1 – 34; and Marie-José Mondzain, Image, Icon, Economy: The Byzantine Origins of the Contemporary Imaginary, translated by Rico Franses (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005).

[4] Statement for The Last One,

[5] Ibid.

[6] Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, translated by Sheila Faria Glaser (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1995).

[7] René Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy [1641], translated by Donald Cress, in Philosophical Essays and Correspondence, edited by Roger Ariew (Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett Publishing, 2000): 97 – 141.

[8] Edmund Husserl, Cartesian Meditations: An Introduction to Phenomenology [1931], translated by Dorion Cairns (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1999).

[8] Meredith Kooi, “James Turrell’s Cave and the Unveiling Truth,” Bad at Sports (October 24, 2013),

[9] Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt, translated by Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1977): 217 – 252.

[10] Jacques Lacan, “Anamorphosis,” in The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, Vol. XI, translated by Alan Sheridan (New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1998): 79 – 90.

[11] Meredith Kooi, “The ‘Celluloid Self’ and Spaces of Feminine Performativity,” Bad at Sports (Sept 26, 2013),

Linda Mary Montano: Telling The Truth In The Dark And Light

December 25, 2013 · Print This Article

Screen Shot 2013-12-24 at 1.13.06 PM

Linda Mary Montano, reproduced with permission,


Since the mid-1960’s Linda Mary Montano has been steadily eroding the boundary between art and life through her pioneering work in performance, video and sculpture. From dealing with personal trauma, performing multiple identities, durational projects, feminist issues, and coming to grips with spiritual life, Montano’s influential work often involves aspects of ritual, humor, and healing properties. In 2013, Montano had a concentrated survey at SITE Santa Fe, Linda Mary Montano: Always Creative, in which she exhibited over forty years of work, including: Mitchell’s Death (1977), Fourteen Years of Living Art (1984-98), and a new, two-part performance, Singing My Heart Out…Singing My Heart In for which she sang seven straight hours at both the opening and closing of the exhibition.

For your Christmas-day reading pleasure, Montano graciously lays out her thoughts on the holiday season, anxieties about aging, and bringing her work in video to an end.


Can you start us with a Christmas blessing?

We are bliss eternally. If we feel it, we experience joy; if we experience joy we experience ecstasy; if we experience ecstasy the next step is union.  May we all be happy in the way we need and be kind to ourselves also.


Were you good this year?

I was able to travel into the dark this year and that’s a good thing. I made three tapes that plunged into the depths.  My infancy: Mom Art (on my fear of learning too much about my childhood), Nurse!, Nurse!, (on my fear of “catching” dementia) and My Pope Dream: (on my need to reform the Catholic Church).

Art is so kind. She lets us be afraid aesthetically!

All videos will be on YouTube in January 2014.

It was so good to look at the dark but scary to see myself being so transgressive. I shocked myself this year. The little girl is now in cahoots with an older Linda.

My next-to-almost-last video will be Death in the Art/Life of Linda Mary Montano, 2014.

It is from a text I wrote for a slide lecture in 1996 and opens all of the death doors which then was radical thing to do. Now that the elephant of death is in the room, it’s no big deal.


You have been living by the Art=Life philosophy for decades. You’ve also gone back to the Catholic faith after having not practiced it for many years. So, when the holidays roll around, do you have a particular way of performing/living the season?

I play the typical neurotic yes/no games many others play. Gift? Who to? What? The shoulda, coulda woulda games. I also think I should watch A Christmas Carol every year, and I’m glad when I do.

This year I am practicing being an infant as a secret performance and this is helping me get into the atmosphere of no-mind, baby-mind, innocence.


Hotly debated topic: multi-color lights or white lights?

Inner lights. Let me share my Poland poem with you, so you know why. I was just there in November 2013 and “became light.”


Linda Mary Montano 2013
Dedicated to my mother, Mildred Montano

Mom: “Linda, turn some lights off. This room is lit up like a Polish church!”


Bulleted buildings: CHECK

Booted marching:  CHECK

Anne Frank attics:  CHECK

Death provoking winters: CHECK

Five keyed entrances: CHECK

Historical litanies: CHECK

Embodies memories: CHECK

Hourly cappuccinos:  CHECK

Gilded angels:  CHECK

Whispered nightmares: CHECK

High pitched smiles: CHECK

Bundled grief: CHECK

Now my room-heart is lit up like a Polish church.



Recently you produced one of your last videos, Nurse! Nurse!, an incredibly moving work about aging, acceptance, caring and gratitude. Is this close to your personal situation?

At almost 72, the curtain between the world of being here and not being here gets thinner. While I’m still out of adult Depends, I decided to look at my worst aging fears, as art, and I found it so refreshing to practice faux madness in this film. The prerogative of the artist, the vocation of the artist is to go into the underworld and come back or not! I don’t want to be upset in case I have to be sent to the nursing home-penitentary of dementia or Alzheimer’s. I’m practicing now to taste losing my mind via dementia. It is homeopathy. Cure like with like?  Maybe. But the bottom line for me has always been, Repress not. And if things go in the direction of radical madness, at least I am familiar with how loss of this present ego-dance looks/feels/smells!

Meditation is another method designed to help lose the mind but videotaping meditation is not as much fun as videotaping myself resisting being diapered in a nursing home!!!!!!


You’re in a period of phasing out your video work. Why this deliberate move away from the medium?

I listen to my voices and I heard, “Linda, you are becoming a greedaholic, thinking “Ohhhhhhhhhhh I have to make a video about  _________ and one about————and another about___________.” The voices said, “Wow it will be so wonderful to make 82388449 more videos.”

That scared me because this is not how I want to think. It’s the wall street of art mentality. More, bigger, better, another, higher, grander, winner, originator, first, brighter…the shopping list of consuming inspiration is endless.

So my inner, better voice-guide said: “Stop!!! You must stop producing until your attitude changes.”

It might never change and maybe I am to just beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee now, and not do. 


What’s the best gift you’ve ever received?

The song I am hearing right now as I email this to you, Juliana. It is called, Sadhana and a woman from India is singing. Sorry, I meant chanting.

This is the best gift I have ever received because I can’t remember the past or the future.

But I’m sure that in a few minutes, something else or someone else will be the best gift I ever received or gave.

Thank you for asking me to share, like and comment with you.


December 20, 2013 · Print This Article

Guest post by Lise Haller Baggesen


Dana de Giulio@ The Suburban Photo: Lise Haller Baggesen



… in the fossil fueled states of American gloom and doom, we are headed south on LSD, a donnerwetter looming on the horizon as a tic in the corner of our left eye. Shot-size raindrops splatter against the wind-shield from the sky turning from gunmetal grey to violaceous to petroleum green behind the silhouetted skyscrapers, swaying gently in the balmy November breeze as the wind picks up and a tornado warning ticks in on the mobile device, interrupting Kanye West suggesting that this would be a beautiful day for  jumping out the window/letting everything go/letting everything go…

Indeed it is a beautiful day!

This apocalyptic weather, reminding us that the doomsday prophets were probably  right, that this is not the 11th hour, that we are already fashionably late, makes it the perfect day for checking out a couple of shows in Chicagoland contemplating our species’ self-destructive impulse.

Hamza Walker’s modern day vanity Suicide Narcissus at the Renaissance society reads like a visit to the men’s department at Barney’s: tight and tasteful grey-tones with a splash of lush jungle green thrown in. Not unlike, in fact, its 17th century’s Dutch counterparts careful rendition of bridles and soap-bubbles, tulips and skulls, reminding us that the world is forever coming to an end.

The super symmetrical show is arranged on both sides of a corridor leading up to Katie Paterson’s All the Dead Stars, a map of said stars corresponding to the place on earth from where they were discovered laser etched into a matte black anodized aluminum sheet, creating an eerie map resembling a burnt out earth as observed from space. Observation posts glow-in-the-dark with the half-life luminescence of radioactive material, our radio signals still on their way to infinity and beyond long after we’re gone. From here we can turn left or right (or right and three quarters or maybe not quite) but either route will coil back on itself into a cul-de-sac, a dead end from where we can only retreat the way we came.

Each of the works in the show display the mechanics and dialectics of their creation in plain view, if not front and center to our reading of the works, like the endlessly similar variations of rope, pulley and mirror of Thomas Baumann’s perpetuum mobile Tau Sling or the dead pan unedited single channel registration of Nicole Six and Paul Petritsch’ Spatial Intervention, showing a lone figure hacking his way through the ice, in a circle surrounding himself. Not really sure if this unromantic reference to Kaspar Davids Friedrich’s Eismeer (the Sea of Ice from 1824), is going anywhere outside of its own hermetic picture plane, but whether we are witnessing a painfully slow suicide attempt here, or just some Sisyphus slow-motion slapstick, as a viewer you feel as frozen in time as the lonely man on the ice.

The row of vitrines that make up Harris Epaminonda and Daniel Gustav Cramer’s Infinite Library display a collection of reappropriated books -by the looks of it European post war encyclopedias and reference books with faded color reproductions of artworks and plants, painted over with geometrical figures that seem to suggest some obsolete world order, while Lucy Skaer’s Leviathan’s Edge, a whale skeleton boxed in a drywall space, opened up in three narrow slits, through which we can only partially admire the brittle grandeur of the beastly remains would not be out of place in a gentlemen’s explorers club, that other society, where adventurers who come back to tell the tale can compare their booty- Jolly good!

In a darkened cinema space, similar to a home entertainment den, Daniel Steegmann Mangrane’s 16mm, 2009-2011 the exhibitions only truly juicy work, is contained -as if its lush Amazonian green would otherwise spill out and contaminate the rest of the show in a toxic spill of unbridled fertility. Like decorative kale in a millionaire’s front yard its nutritious value is rendered void, and we are left with eye candy. This is our reward. The five minute 16mm film loop leaves us ample time to contemplate the cable running near the top of the picture frame along which the camera pulls itself still further in to the heart of darkness, the whirring of the projector behind us competing with the dense cacophony of jungle sounds on the soundtrack of the projection before us, until the movie without further ado comes to a dead stop and the screen goes black. The End.

On the surface, Suicide Narcissus mainly examines and admires its own elegant rhetoric. Initially I considered this the exhibition’s demise, but on reexamining it I have come to think that perhaps this is exactly its point: Like Nero playing the fiddle as Rome burns, you find yourself confronted with your own disengagement, as you consider the aesthetic possibilities and fashion choices of the world going to hell in an evening clutch. It is an uneasy notion, like deleting yet another petition appeal from you e-mail inbox.

As an antidote to this tasteful ennui may I suggest a visit to Dana DeGiulio @ The Suburban, which will tear you out of your inwardly spiraling anxiety attack and throw you right back into the real with the welcome catharsis of your friendly neighborhood suicide bomber.  The battered backed-up Buick sedan is ramrodded into the cinderblock structure that makes up the central exhibition space at The Suburban with a precision that sits in the sweet spot between demolition and embellishment.

The curious fact that the car is damaged front and rear gives the impression not so much of a drunk driver swerving out on control, tearing through the front yard in the early hours of a sleepy suburban Sunday morning, but more of the feel-something- anything of a soccer mom’s revenge, later same morning, her anniversary.

And the shattered head answers back And I believe I was Loved I Believe I loved Who did this to us?

Because we can only contemplate art from our personal vantage point, just like we can only imagine Armageddon in our own time, I will approach this from the angle of Burn Out with their totaled car park in the center of Copenhagen and their smashed up ticketing booth for De Appel’s Crap Shoot (-a memorable show that culminated for my own part in a visit to the ER after a visit to the exhibition’s socially (un-)engaged Absolut-free-for-all-vodka-bar and a subsequent act of cycling under the influence ending abruptly when my front wheel got stuck in an Amsterdam tram rail and sent me to a dead stop against the wet asphalt). Curiously, these works originated round about the time when the 1996 LeSabre was still a classy car, but seem almost quaintly didactic now, in their 90s engagement with institutional critique, compared to this work which points only to its own calibration of annihilation through acceleration, suggesting that we are all flying solely by our instruments by now, no line on the horizon: In a godless universe you need to rely on your own moral compass, or perhaps some secular religion. Art for arts sake can be just that. It can be it’s own means and end.

It is an appropriation and an approach, but how do you approach appropriately, being in a banged out car and your aim the feel of not to feel it?

This is subtle and has to be premeditated. Premeditation is available in the form of a brochure which contemplate the estimated market value of the Buick before and after impact as compared to a circular silverpoint painting by Michelle Grabner, as consigned by Dana DeGuilio to James Cohan gallery and sold before the Buick hit the brick wall, perhaps to offset the costs of a second hand car and a cinderblock shed? The end is a zero sum game.

On the 10th anniversary of the suburban, this will be that last one for this building where it all began. Now structurally unsound, It will be torn down at the end of the show, or when the Oak Park police and zoning inspectors step in and say that it is time to clean up the mess, whichever comes first.

In Michelle’s own words: “This is the end of the suburban as we know it!”


Credits: Dana DeGiulio would like to thank her pit crew. I would like to thank you for reading.


Anonymous art criticism: sharp, succinct and to the point!
Photo: Michelle Grabner


Lise Haller Baggesen (1969) left her native Denmark for the Netherlands in 1992 to study painting at the AKI and the Rijksakademie. In 2008 she relocated to Chicago with her family, where she completed her MA in Visual and Critical Studies at the SAIC in 2013.

In the meantime, her work evolved from a traditional painting practice toward a hybrid practice including curating, writing and immersive multimedia installation work.

 Her book “Mothernism” will be published on Green Lantern Press and The Poor Farm Press in 2014.

Miami? Yeah, we were at PULSE with Cannonball.

December 19, 2013 · Print This Article


Yes. It is true! We rocked Miami this year! It was an epic good time… Lives were changed. Bad decisions were made, but we all survived! Three cheers for the art carnival that is the Miami Basel weekend.

Dana has already done a great job of sharing the gonzo good time that is Miami and you yourself will get a chance to hear what Bad at Sports did with Cannonball and PULSE, but probably not till February.  In the mean time you will have to be contented with the knowledge that we made 6 gig posters with 6 incredible artists, we rocked the local air waves at 91.1 fm, knocked out 14 interviews over 4 days, and partied like rock stars.

Thanks go out to…

Cannonball and PULSE for inviting us.


Jim Drain
Chuck Loose and Iron Forge Press
Christian Kuras and Duncan MacKenzie
Justin Santora
Dan Grzeca for making great posters!
(we sold a bunch but we have a few left which we will sell to you in January when everyone is back from the break. They are outstanding.)

INTERVIEWS with… (in order of appearance)

Rachel Adams and Jennie K. Lamensdorf – Curators
Mary Mattingly – Artist
TM Sisters (Monica and Tasha López De Victoria) – Artists
Frank Webster – Artist
Josh Rogers and Lesley Weisenbacher – Collectors
R&R Studios (Roberto Behar & Rosario Marquardt) – Artists
Dawn Kasper – Artist
Sharon Louden – Artist/Author
Sylvie Fortin РDirector or the Biennale de Montr̩al
Tatiana Hernandez – Knight Foundation
Adler Guerrier – Artist/Gallerist
Patti Hernandez and Domingo Castillo – Artists
Christy Gast – Artist
Jillian Mayer – Artist

The show would not have happened with out the help of these three cats… (hug them next time you run into them…)

Matt Lane
Chris Wawrinofsky
Peter Skvara









The following images were taken by Vinson Valega




Sure. 91.1 fm seems like a strange band width but we will never forget, you shouldn’t either.


Ben Gest: Laboring to Enact the Real

December 18, 2013 · Print This Article

Guest post by Virginia Konchan


Photography must annihilate itself as medium to be no longer a sign, but the thing itself.


—Roland Barthes


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]


Header Image


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]



bas relief



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.