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“Off the Record”: Archaeology’s Revealing Gaps February 10, 2023

You are talking to a stone.

Latin proverb

Let us begin by accepting that the study of ancient civilizations is nothing if not beguiling. There is something elusive and tantalizing about what our distant past must have been like. On one hand, it has led directly to who we are today, but on the other, to look upon the work of our genetic forbears makes us question how much of them remains in us, so alien does their life seem to our own. We have geology to blame for many secrets buried in our distant archaeological and anthropological past. Earth shifts have perennially kept these out of our view, making our own past the most tantalizing puzzle we have ever pondered.

Everything about this mystery is also of interest to humanistic science disciplines like paleoanthropology, geology, and most of all, archaeology, which owes its existence to our lingering ignorance concerning who we were and how we lived. But that hasn’t stopped certain fields of inquiry from constructing – and in some cases from refusing to construct – a worldview of that unseen past. Archaeology – literally translated as “the study of the old” – is one field where researchers operate like forensic investigators, looking for physical evidence that will make a “case” – typically, the case is a research question such as, “Did the earliest inhabitants of this valley live in settlements?” or “When did humans first use fire?” Given these and many other riddles, one way to approach any solution is through methods of scientific inquiry, something that many fields do today. Science’s methods are the envy of other disciplines, which have been increasingly copying and incorporating them into their own questions. But does using scientific methods or tools convert a field into a science?

Let’s take the question to kindergarten: in order to become a science, a field of study must meet three conditions: let’s call them focus, method, and reproducibility.  The narrow way in which these terms are applied in science makes clear that these are conditions that other fields of study, such as art, do not (need to) fulfill. In terms of focus, any science – mathematics, biology, astronomy, and so on – investigates a topic or activity where the causes, changes, or processes under observation seem to behave systematically. The systematic nature of what is observed is what allows science to select one method – or many – to investigate it. The scientific method means that this field will develop research questions, build hypotheses around the questions, develop ways to test the hypotheses, and will then analyze the data to successfully calculate the outcome of future cases. In so doing, science aims to fulfill the third condition: reproducibility – it should predict the future, given similar conditions as those studied thus far.

Because it relies on the similarity of phenomena observed time and again, doing science is not impossibly difficult; technically, the work is relatively straightforward. In practice, we might start by developing a collection of samples of something. Sampling from many similar cases is important because, by using the correct analytic methods, science will be able to predict an abstract pattern from it. By contrast, the arts, fueled by random and other creative processes, cannot do this: we can sample any 1,000 sequentially made paintings by Picasso (the best estimate is that he made 13,500 of them), yet no mathematical or other systematic method will allow us to predict how his next painting would have looked. That is why, despite having many, many samples available for analysis, art history is not a science. Sampling, as we see, is centrally about collecting many instances which must be much more similar to each other than dissimilar.

Using this context, it becomes evident that archaeology is not really a science. It does employ tools and instruments to understand the past through human fossil, artifact, and geological evidence, but the sites and cultural remnants available are too scarce and too unique to serve as samples that support true scientific reasoning. This sampling crisis is why archaeology’s knowledge is unsteady over time, and finds itself revising many of its theories more frequently than other disciplines, often reworking large components of its evolutionary hypotheses each time a new site is excavated. For archaeology, what science can offer is insufficient – although the opposite is the case And, once science is put aside, speculation necessarily takes over. Shards, bones, and relics can be carbon dated and cataloged scientifically. But this is meager archival; the Holy Grail of archaeology is to uncover worlds. Yet this paucity of clues about the worlds it investigates also makes it incapable of prediction, since, as we know, merely employing technical instrumentation doesn’t automatically promote a field to the status of a true science. Astrology, whose predictive power is no worse than that of archaeology, has been denied the status of a science for centuries, yet it has exclusively and for a long time employed computer models and astronomical data. (Perhaps now would be a prematurely provocative moment to mention The Tenacious Mars Effect, the detailed account by Suitbert Ertel and Kenneth Irving of Michel Gauquelin, a French statistician who in the 1950’s aimed to debunk astrology by sustained mathematical inference. Instead, he discovered a strong correlation between sports champions and the position of the planet Mars in a person’s birth chart. While Archaeology awaits its Michel Gauquelin, let us rejoin our initial train of thought).

Astrology, of course, has no scarcity of stars and celestial bodies to contemplate (nor, regrettably, of uninformed yet opinionated detractors who expostulate, for that matter). Because of its pervasive lack of sample-friendly data, however, archaeology can only produce theories about human existence either from loose objects without evidence of a collective of people (as with the cave paintings in Lascaux, France and Altamira, Spain) or from what correspond to settlements of people living and working together.

Everything begins with loose objects and samples, and at some point in time, humans – or their ancestors – coalesce into a territorial grouping. How and when did this first happen? The archaeological “party line” on the formation of human collectives is this: the first settlements emerged toward the end of the Neolithic period, somewhere between 4,000 and 10,000 years ago. These “proto-cities” were characterized by farming, domestication of animals, and the abandonment of a hunter-gatherer way of life . Thus, in this depiction, our predecessors lived on earth for millions of years, when eventually, modern humans emerged 300,000 years ago, but became modern some time between 160,000 and 60,000 years ago  (“modern” in the sense of developing symbolic behavior, planning, and abstract reasoning). With this time scale, do we really believe that settlements didn’t exist until about 10,000 years ago?

The problem clearly is that we are relying on archaeology’s timeline, which given millions of years of human evolution about which it says virtually nothing, is biased toward the “too modern” and overly centered on the Neolithic period. If we want to understand why human existence has been such a mystery for so long, we need to look back further than 10,000 years ago, where it really lived out the majority of its history.

Any remote period of time will do as our point of departure, but let’s take the very beginning of the Stone Age, around 3.4 million years ago, with the earliest evidence of tool use by human ancestors.

Selam cranium (Australopithecus afarensis)

Figure 1. hominin species Australopithecus afarensis, approximately 3.3 million years old, Ethiopia

Importantly, this timestamp is accepted because, among other cases, it was in the year 2000 that the most complete-ever skeleton of a hominin (a common ape/human precursor, and thus a direct human ancestor) was found. It was a 3.3-million-year-old Australopithecus afarensis fossil in the Afar region of Northeastern Ethiopia, and as excavated finds go, this one revolutionized the study of human origins in two surprising ways. Near the skeleton were also found fossilized bones whose marks suggested that they had been fashioned into tools, from which scientists have been compelled to change the assumed earliest date of human tool use. Here, then, was evidence of tool use about a million years earlier than scholars had previously stipulated. Furthermore, subsequent analysis of the skeleton’s shoulder blades showed that hominins were climbing trees for food and/or shelter for far longer than was previously assumed. There is thus no sense of when humans, or their predecessors, became hunter-gatherers, but as of three million years ago, they were living in trees, and were not migratory. [1]

Let us take a closer look at the tool revelation. Perhaps it’s hard to imagine gear being used by our genetic forerunners three million years ago, but this wasn’t the only discovery of such use corresponding to the timeframe of the Ethiopian skeleton discovery. Give or take a few hundred thousand years, other positive signs of tool use date to approximately similar periods in various other locations (Kenya, Israel, South Africa, among others). Thus, triangulating similar discoveries at various archaeological sites, we can fix the dawn of the Stone Age (inaugurated and so-named to signal the first use of tools) to a little over three million years ago, much earlier than was previously believed. Even so, both fossil and non-fossil records on the Stone Age are riddled with gaps in data, understanding, and explanations, even of rudimentary but sensible questions, such as how certain tools could have been fashioned so perfectly by a people without machinery, as in the case of this 4.7-inch hole stone found in Finland, which bears a beveled cavity whose diameter is flawlessly round:


Figure 2. Neolithic Age hole stone, Finland.

Conventionally, this humble object, one of countless cataloged in the archaeology of Europe and other continents, could be well over a million years old, but dating it in general is impossible, not least because, despite the vast time interval of the Neolithic epoch, European archaeology has been able to find no transitional markers (which are very important to that discipline) to serve as reference points in human development, and, to complicate matters, the archaeology of other lands utilizes different markers and transitions. In any case, taken together, we still have the three great epochs of human evolution as are believed to have happened presumably everywhere on earth: firstly the Stone Age, which runs over three million years in duration, and then the two periods that followed it  (Bronze Age and Iron Age) which together account for (only) about 20,000 years.

Is something not quite right in this lopsided timeline of human evolutionary periods? The ascent of tools in the archaeological record being one area of interest, we can also ask about more significant time markers, like the birth of cities. On large questions like this, the field’s gaze narrows considerably, postulating that communal life has been possible only in the last ten or so millenia.

The problem with this too-short and too-recent time span becomes clearer when we step out of archaeology (which does not consider the comparative zoology of other animals). Apes have demonstrated monogamous grouping and other communal life patterns for millions of years, and the earliest-known hominoids – great ape primates – date from about 36.6 million years ago. So, we are to believe, apes settled, and were not hunter-gatherers, while humans, arriving much later, were? Conventional archaeological scholarship holds onto this argument because there isn’t evidence of human settlements prior to about 10,000 years ago, and it isn’t keen on speculating about encampments, colonies, proto-cities, homesteads, much less actual cities before then. Surely this time period will eventually recede with newer evidence of prehistoric city-like dwellings. One reason for believing this is in the record of similar modifications to archaeological and paleontological models relating to other facets of human activity. Another is the speculative work of Graham Hancock, whose questions point to missing information about human evolution sometime between the Stone and the Bronze ages.

Marking the first demonstrated control of fire, for example, which relatively modern humans acquired (but earlier species did not) also underwent a backward progression, when the earliest known instance of fire use, at the Qesem Cave in Israel somewhere between 300,000 and 400,000 years ago was upended by a succession of startling finds. First discovered was evidence of campfires established roughly one million years ago in the Wonderwerk Cave in South Africa, and nearby as well [2], and then in Kenya’s FxJj20 Site complex in Koobi Fora, where soil samples and spectrographic analysis of potlid and certain fragments indicated the use of controlled fire seemingly for cooking, dating back 1.5 million years. [3] And again, we can expect the date when humans first used fire to recede even further in time: the study’s lead author, Sarah Hlubik, is evaluating fire use during the Early Pleistocene, which goes back as far as 2.5 million years ago. [4] If we wish to predict (pseudo)scientifically, the pattern is clear: science continues to encounter gradual evidence of human existence and progress dating back to earlier and earlier periods. [5]

Even so, as mentioned, archaeology seems much less enthusiastic about the possibility of complex civilizations before Younger Dryas, an epoch of cataclysmic geological disruptions around 13,000 years ago, as scholars like Graham Hancock have stated for years. This kind of speculation is heresy to archaeologists, because – to repeat – there isn’t direct physical evidence of such vanished cultures. But what of indirect evidence? This is where Hancock’s focus lies, but it will be difficult to get to this, because his work is currently being contorted by archaeologists themselves, who are offended by his ideas. Rather than engaging what they disagree with, they are instead preferring to imply that he is a racist whilst hurling other ad hominem attacks in a manner that scarcely seems intellectual. In that sense, they are proving Hancock’s point on Ancient Apocalypse series on Netflix, namely, that archaeology’s interests and worldview are basically fixed at this point, and the field will not allow dialogue with anyone whose position diverts from that. For the record, Hancock’s claims and logic follow two different lines of reasoning that meet at the nexus of one large question, so let’s examine these.

As one example of Hancock’s probing of direct evidence that humans settled into communal complexes before 10,000 years ago, consider the case of Göbekli Tepe, a large multi-structure site atop a mound in Turkey discovered around three decades ago, and dating back to the heart of the Neolithic Age, around 11,000 years ago. Klaus Schmidt, the site’s primary European archaeologist has asserted the belief supported by archaeology, judging from the support that his view continues to receive, judging from this recent article from the journal of the Archaeological Institute of America:

The buildings and their multiton pillars, along with smaller, rectangular structures higher on the slope of the hill, were monumental communal buildings erected by people at a time before they had established permanent settlements, engaged in agriculture, or bred domesticated animals. Schmidt did not believe that anyone had ever lived at the site. He suggested that, in the Neolithic period between 9500 and 8200 B.C., bands of nomads had come together regularly to set up stone circles and carve pillars, and then deliberately covered them up with the rocks, gravel, and other rubble he found filling in the various enclosures. [6]

Hancock’s problem with this view should also be the problem that archaeologists ought to have with it as well: Neolithic Age people were hunter-gatherers and thus not yet supposedly living in settlements, cities, or in any physically fixed structures, so, where would hunter gatherers, a people whose way of life preceded the design of such settlements, a people who, because of their nomadic ways, would never have had reason to build anything, have acquired (and practiced) the kind of architectural proficiency and mastery of construction that built this complex site? It doesn’t seem to me that this line of inquiry should be cause for insulting Hancock; rather, it is a sensible question to ask. The problem for archaeologists is that it can only be answered by revising what archaeology claims about Neolithic people, for, perhaps they weren’t so maladroit and primitive as they are implied to have been, for the aforementioned archaeological journal goes on to report that

Schmidt posited that both the construction and abandonment of what he called “special enclosures” had been accompanied by great feasts of local game washed down with beer brewed from wild grasses and grains. Those who gathered for these periodic monumental building projects scattered before coming back decades or centuries later to do it all again. [7]

And yet, no one is asking any questions about this portrayal.

But, let us ask directly: what is so offensive about what Hancock says of this archaeological site? Observe the mapping of the enclosures thus far excavated (estimated to be represent only 10% of the complex, most of which still remains buried), as presented in Hancock’s Netflix documentary, Ancient Apocalypse.


Figure 3. Site map of Göbekli Tepe. Source: Ancient Apocalypse, Netflix.

In the scene that introduces this Göbekli Tepe, the camera shows the site up close, Hancock narrates that “Usually the more we practice something, the better we get at it.” At minute 8:39 of episode 5, the camera then turns to show us modern quarry men using power equipment to cut stone blocks in the hills around the site itself, he adds that

We assume that ancient cultures must have worked the same way, improving their skills over time. But Göbekli Tepe and in particular Enclosure D, seem to turn this assumption upside down. How did a community of Stone Age hunter-gatherers succeed so brilliantly at building with megaliths at their very first attempt? Isn’t it time to consider the possibility that the Great megalithic enclosures weren’t some miraculous overnight invention of hunter-gatherers, but we’re a legacy from a precociously advanced lost civilization of prehistory? This is a notion which mainstream archaeologists find almost offensive. Academic scholars have got locked in to a particular framework that during the Ice Age, the entire human population of the Earth was at the hunter-gatherer stage.


There is, to any reasonable mind, nothing heretical here. As we see from this article of the Archaeological Institute of America, Hancock is merely repeating what they themselves claim.

Besides the inconvenient questions, Hancock’s second approach is to conclude that we must speculate about the origins of structures which do not fit the conventional archaeological timeline of human abilities and skill sets. Even though there are many similar examples of Hancock’s speculative thought being currently deformed by archaeologists because they feel he hasn’t been deferential to the party line, it bears mentioning that, factually, Hancock doesn’t ever directly state or claim that archaeology is wrong. Instead, as we have seen, he argues that the field has overlooked certain key details that ought to have been factored into the overall narrative of what could have motivated the construction of a given site, settlement, or sculptural monument  – as any investigator in a crime scene would, from specialized training, have known to do. But let us be brutally honest: what archaeology believes about Göbekli Tepe, the largest archaeological site in the world, being built by beer guzzling feasters is not just potentially wrong, it’s also physically impossible. Professional pride and umbrage being what it is, no archaeologist I’m able to cite has addressed Hancock’s actual observations as he has presented them. These are the kinds of overlooked details, Hancock points out, which do not add up to the archaeological portrait of the people who either lived in or constructed the sites explored in each episode of Ancient Apocalypse.

Now, let’s turn to the question of absence of physical evidence, since this is the basis of archaeology’s problems with Hancock’s speculation. But wait – that’s exactly what speculation is: thinking of what might be or might have been possible in the absence of evidence to prove how what is might have happened. And archaeologists – just like other social scientists – have been known to indulge a little speculation themselves. For example, let’s examine this (Getty-licensable) image portraying a typical Stone Age man in a setting which may seem familiar:


Figure 4. Drawing Depicting Men and Habitat of the Neolithic [9]

and, while at this point in our analysis, also its older version, another caricature of Neolithic people typified in this 1897 rendition:


Figure 5. Cite Lacustre, 1897, Fernand Cormon [10]

We need but quickly glance these ludicrous vignettes to see how many misguided social science speculations came baked into these kinds of crude portrayals, for there is no evidence that Stone Age people dressed or looked like these loony inebriates.

And today, scholars should know better than to concoct irresponsibly conceived imagery of people. A good start would merely ask logical questions like, “Can such people in such renderings – unkempt, barely clothed and so crude-looking – really have resembled the master designers and builders of Göbekli Tepe?” If anything seems exasperating, and perhaps racist (a charge perplexingly leveled at Hancock, who has never made any comparative statements on race), it would be these kinds of condescending portrayals of what, judging from the physical record of what was built, were mathematically informed minds resourceful in measuring, carving, and balancing heavy stones atop one another – and, as each enclosure at the excavated site makes evident – aligning the structures to the star Sirius. All told, Hancock offers the only coherent theory to the causality behind this level of engineering: the builders and their expertise came from somewhere else. Now, where it came from is not clear, but they certainly were not hunter-gatherers.

But another contrafactual to physical evidence is that with Younger Dryas, which coincides in time with the rise of this temple site, the earth underwent much greater temperature extremes for many centuries than we have seen since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. For the length of the Younger Dryas geological period, the earth roiled continuously under sudden, wide, and extended spikes and dips in global temperatures, landslides, floods (from melting polar ice), and other intense climatological shifts would have caused submerging or destruction of much land surface. The idea of existing civilization being buried in such cataclysms may be the stuff of hypothesis, but the weather extremes that altered the physical landscape of the planet were not, and thus, the two cannot be realistically separated from each other.

And so, it is quite problematic that archaeology can concoct what Neolithic man looked like and dressed, down to his or her hair, yet denies that physical evidence could have disappeared under not one but several geological conflagrations, given that,, even after being conservatively revised downward, the ice core data from Greenland shows that the earth warmed then, plus or minus five, degrees Celsius in the period of a few centuries. [11]

Ice core with dark band

Figure 5. The dark band in this ice core from the West Antarctic Ice Sheet Divide (WAIS Divide) is a layer of volcanic ash that settled on the ice sheet approximately 21,000 years ago. [12]

For comparison, modern earth’s drastic weather patterns are tied to a less than 1 degree change in global temperature over a century, as this climate change report shows:

Pasted image 0

Table 1. Global temperature anomalies through 2021, compared to the 1951-1980 average [13]

No question that colossal and prolonged geological upheavals around 13,000 years ago wrought correspondingly formidable physical changes to the earth’s surface, and what now emerges as the most difficult question is: How is it possible to find actual sites and relics in the periods before and during Younger Dryas? After many cataclysmic earth changes have taken place over thirteen millenia, we could more specifically ask: where are the likeliest places to locate physical remnants of prehistoric civilizations? Places that meet two conditions would seem the most promising: current urban centers built on the thickest bedrock. And why is that?

We know that several cities today such as Mexico City sit atop older, archaic structures and, for various reasons, once a community of people settles in one location long enough for it to grow into a metropolis, they rarely leave, unless some sudden or gradual natural event renders living conditions there impossible. Prevailingly the cause for permanent abandonment will be a natural disaster, as in the case of Pompeii, the Roman metropolis which one day in 79 A.D. disappeared, being completely buried under meters of ash and pumice from a massive eruption of the volcano atop Mount Vesuvius. One might rationally conclude that there’s no real difference between natural and man-made disasters as determinants of whether people who leave a destroyed city would return, but natural events are more likely to cause the permanent disappearance of cities. A case in point is that of Hiroshima, which boasted a population of 350,000 residents in 1945, when in August of that year, the US dropped a 9,000 lb. nuclear bomb upon it, resulting in 135,000 casualties [14] Hiroshima was left both incinerated and radioactive, and, if ever there was reason to abandon a place forever, this was the most forceful. Yet today, less than eighty years later, Hiroshima thrives with what has to have been a record-breaking rise in population, to 1.2 million residents. Many similarly sized cities – none of which suffered such devastation – experienced similar growth, but only over a century or longer, as in the case of  San Francisco. [15]

Pompeii, as the emblematic case of natural upheaval, and Hiroshima, the most catastrophic story of man-made change – makes us ask about other examples of each: are humans equally hardy under geology’s wrath in other cases? No, they are not. We might consider the ill-fated Italian town of Craco, which was continuously inhabited for three thousand years, even establishing a university in 1276, and flourishing normally, until landslides, followed by a flood and an earthquake led to its abandonment in 1980. No one has returned to it.

Similarly, Plymouth, the abandoned capital of the Caribbean town of Montserrat, is visually difficult to find: as with Pompeii, volcanic eruptions – two of them – swallowed the city less than thirty years ago, and it lies mostly buried under ash, its ground is now too soft and silty to support even a small road. In less than a century, it will not scarcely be a memory [16]

Taken together, Hiroshima’s decisive recovery and resiliency on one hand, and Pompeii’s, Craco’s and Plymouth’s abrupt and permanent finales on the other, tell us one thing about the difference between large-scale man-made versus natural destruction: artificial disruption is often reversible, whereas geological upheaval becomes permanent and over time, and scarcely leaves clues or marks. Expanding this to a timescale of 13,000 years to match the duration of the Younger Dryas temperature contrasts, we should accept that the effect of natural changes, including geological shifts, not over one century but over 130, means that much remains missing from the human story of civilization, with geology’s burial of the evidence as the perpetrator of this amnesia.

And so, with or without the support of conventional archaeological thinking, it is clear from all these perspectives that, caught in the maelstrom of Younger Dryas, archaeological continuity would have evaporated under geological holocausts, after which people are unlikely to have returned, or even remembered what progress developed until then.

[1] “Ethiopia: The Dikika Research Project”

[2] Brain and Sillent, “Evidence from the Swartkrans Cave for the Earliest Use of Fire.”

[3] Hlubik et al., “Hominin Fire Use in the Okote Member at Koobi Fora, Kenya.”

[4] “Sarah Hlubik | Center for the Advanced Study of Human Paleobiology | The George Washington University.”

[5] Kaplan, “Million-Year-Old Ash Hints at Origins of Cooking.”

[6] “Last Stand of the Hunter-Gatherers? – Archaeology Magazine.”

[7] “Last Stand of the Hunter-Gatherers? – Archaeology Magazine.”

[8] Hancock, “Ancient Apocalypse (Netflix Official Site).”

[9] “Drawing Depicting Men and Habitat of the Neolithic.”

[10] “Cite Lacustre, 1897. By French Artist and Illustrator, Fernand Cormon…”

[11] “Greenland Ice May Exaggerate Magnitude of 13,000-Year-Old Deep Freeze.”

[12] “About Ice Cores.”

[13] Freedman, “The Most Startling Facts in 2021 Climate Report.”

[14] “Total Casualties | The Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki | Historical Documents | Atomicarchive.Com.”

[15] “San Francisco, California Population History | 1860 – 2022.”

[16] “Montserrat’s Archaeology and History.”


NSF Ice Core Facility. “About Ice Cores.” Accessed February 2, 2023.

Brain, C. K., and A. Sillent. “Evidence from the Swartkrans Cave for the Earliest Use of Fire.” Nature 336, no. 6198 (December 1988): 464–66.

Getty Images. “Cite Lacustre, 1897. By French Artist and Illustrator, Fernand Cormon…” Accessed February 2, 2023.

Getty Images. “Drawing Depicting Men and Habitat of the Neolithic.” Accessed February 2, 2023.

Freedman, Andrew. “The Most Startling Facts in 2021 Climate Report.” Axios, January 14, 2022.

“Greenland Ice May Exaggerate Magnitude of 13,000-Year-Old Deep Freeze.” Accessed February 2, 2023.

Hancock, Graham. “Ancient Apocalypse (Netflix Official Site).” Accessed February 2, 2023.

Hlubik, Sarah, Russell Cutts, David R. Braun, Francesco Berna, Craig S. Feibel, and John W. K. Harris. “Hominin Fire Use in the Okote Member at Koobi Fora, Kenya: New Evidence for the Old Debate.” Journal of Human Evolution 133 (August 1, 2019): 214–29.

Kaplan, Matt. “Million-Year-Old Ash Hints at Origins of Cooking.” Nature, April 2, 2012.

“Last Stand of the Hunter-Gatherers? – Archaeology Magazine.” Accessed February 2, 2023.

“Montserrat’s Archaeology and History: Important Dates and Sites | Archaeology at Brown.” Accessed February 2, 2023.

“Ethiopia: The Dikika Research Project.” California Academy of Sciences. Accessed February 2, 2023,

“San Francisco, California Population History | 1860 – 2022.” Accessed February 2, 2023.

“Sarah Hlubik | Center for the Advanced Study of Human Paleobiology | The George Washington University.” Accessed February 2, 2023.

“Total Casualties | The Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki | Historical Documents | Atomicarchive.Com.” Accessed February 2, 2023.

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Categories: Critique

Reading the Gallery, Virtually January 16, 2023

To work in the world of art is to embrace few strict rules, even in a forest of ideologies. One of the apparent constants, however, could be articulated by an equation, or more accurately, an equivalence relation that sustains between the ideas of art as one term, and freedom as the other. The artist is free to create openly, the collector is free to gather or dispose of a collection freely, the viewer is free to engage, interpret, or dismiss work. There is, however, one region of the art world where this equivalence is more problematic, less value-free, in fact, less free, than elsewhere. It happens in the role of the curator.

Much has been made, correctly, I think, of the blows to apparent neutrality that curatorial activity implies. The sequence of work that underlies the exhibition sets into motion not merely the procession of examples aligned within a singular theme — usually perceptual or by school of practice — but by necessity, also the universe of assumptions that the curator reads into this motorcade. Such assumptions, always inferred because they are never articulated, color every constructive dimension within the challenge of erecting a show, down to the selection of wall colors, with the added complication that presentation and representation occur in different discursive worlds. For, what is presented in one space, namely, the gallery, museum or other venue for exhibition, is typically critiqued in another, normally, the newspaper, journal, or other venue for discussion.

Embroiled in this asymmetry, one new media affordance provides a third kind of venue in the form of the virtual gallery, of which there is much to choose from, to include artsteps, a service hosting an entire marketplace of gallery templates like the one above. But conceptually, we should want to ponder the notion of roles and attributes of this kind of meta-venue.  Correspondingly, one survey of such software brings several thoughts and questions to mind. To begin with, we might ask why a virtual gallery makes sense, given that the very non-physical status of the virtual world and its “objects on display” makes feasible the reduction of gallery experience to an array of URLs with descriptive captions. In this minimal possibility, the gallery would be entirely replaced by its function as the basis for a show, something that is in turn the product of curatorial statement. But these virtual galleries do not merely (re)present work in digital space, they reproduce the gallery itself as an object of reception. Why, then, is it necessary to envision artwork in a simulated gallery?

To be sure, the display of a single work, sculptural, filmic, or painterly is an experience already fraught with loss in translation from the physical to the virtual. We know that when a work — even a sculptural one — is brought into the digital screen, several facts take place. It retains all of its recognizable features as a medium; the work does not fail to register as an instance of sculpture, for example. To the inverse extent, however, that the notion of a work’s medium is preserved, its materiality is entirely lost within digital mediation. Gone is the weft in the canvas, the nick in the marble, in fact all evidence of the work as a process and its evolution toward becoming a product disappears. Here, while we can see the work — often with greater clarity — we can no longer touch it with our eyes.

But this transformation, because it is shared by all digital reflections of material objects, can be neither an endorsement nor indictment of the virtual gallery situation, and is therefore not part of the rationale for such a mechanism as the virtual gallery. The answer lies elsewhere, for the experience of an exhibit revolves not around the presence of images but rather their adjacency within a singular spatial context. The theatrical contribution of a gallery simulation is necessary not to the individual integrity of work but to the curatorial operation that accompanies the collective property of works in a show. Beyond being possessed of its autonomous character, every artwork suggests itself in this plural connotation as well. The walls and spaces that provide the reinforcing ground for the ad hoc collection make the sense of a curated show possible, a supporting reality that lends more to each work than critics of “the gallery system” can account for, even with the rather stilted simulated space of the virtual gallery, one of the software genres that replaces architecture with interface design.

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Categories: Critique

Not Inside Dave Van Ronk – Film Review of the Coen Bros “Inside Llewyn Davis” December 28, 2013

Of the many perils that await biopic films, perhaps the greatest are willful detours from the truth. The journey of every artist as he or she struggles for success becomes replete with indelible experiences, whose memories remain like barnacles on a ship’s hull, and these memories are often recorded in the poignant memoirs that mark an artistic life as well as that of an era. Jack Kerouac’s “On The Road” is the quintessential account of an artistic sojourn of its age. A quest – or many – encased in a procession of places and people too real, banal, and uncaring to be romanticized beyond their immediate behavior. The life of an artist is thus constituted by the opposition — inexplicably evident to every era and equally unrecognized in its time — between (from the artist’s experience) the demands for sensitivity to a world that harks neither to the Muse nor to its messengers, and (from the world’s outlook) the intractable state of apathy and rejection that seem the inevitable interface with artists of all kinds.

And so consider Dave Van Ronk, who came to be termed “The Mayor of Macdougal Street” for his ubiquitous performances and larger-than-life personage holding court in Greenwich Village, the epicenter of the beatnik epoch. The brawny folk singer was a force of nature, a man of character and charisma by both his own account and that of his peers’ recollections. This man’s early professional life is the basis (his book was optioned) for the Coen Brothers’ film “Inside Llewyn Davis”, whose protagonist is in every way — except psychologically — a blueprint of Van Ronk. The film version of Van Ronk — Llewyn Davis — plays the Gaslight “for the 400th time”, is looking for musical deliverance through his manager and his dead-in-the-water (but brilliant) album, whose title the film carries. It was common in the late 1950’s and 1960’s — the heyday of folk’s second (and true) generation following the Guthrie line of musical portraiture that is the acoustic Americana of its anthem, “This Land is Your Land” — for many artists to perform and record — and yet still remain obscure. The recent Academy-award winning documentary, “Searching for Sugarman” is sober testament to how such genius (there, in the person of Rodriguez, unsung singer from the same era) could remain thoroughly ignored. You have to buy and delve into “Cold Fact” and “Coming from Reality” — Rodriguez’s only two albums, which went unheard, whose sales were nil, and whose recording contract was canceled, to understand the honesty of folk music in that key decade of the entire 1960’s from start to finish. Van Ronk, who eventually did cut over twenty albums, is in fairness to the film portrayed, only at the start of his career. But that is not license to mutilate the essential character of the real-life man to near-campy fictional depths in this unexpectedly tiresome Coen Brothers quasi-biopic.

While Van Ronk’s own recording career was many times longer than two albums, the fact of a real “Inside Dave Van Ronk” album title should make clear the filmmakers’ intention to portray the artist’s life closely, with high fidelity. That is unfortunate, because the Van Ronk version of this film, in the character of one “Llewyn Davis”, is almost an antimatter version of Van Ronk. The latter’s legendary garrulousness is transposed into a lifeless, anemic, and oddly terse woodcut who seems not at home but rather totally out of place in his own Greenwich Village hood. He seems to wander about, nearly surprised by his encounters with people, even the long acquaintances. The Coen Brothers deserve great praise for fashioning, in “Dr Who” style, a regenerated Barton Fink, and placing him back in the time of the beats. This Barton Fink/Llewyn Davis twin is as distinct from Van Ronk as the film story itself seems to be from the real singer’s important facets of experience. To wit, the two outlier episodes of the film — one because it’s the longest and the other because of the “cameo” of a reigning folk star from that era — are pointed distortions of actual experiences from Van Ronk’s life.

In the first of these, a road trip from New York out to Chicago and back, Davis hitchhikes back east after a quick and painful stop in the windy city. He is picked up by a fatigued driver on his way back to New Jersey, and offers the ride on the condition that Davis would do half the driving. But why this scene exists — along with the meaningless cameo of a pathologically patriarchal heroin addict played by John Goodman (that anchor of Coen films) — is utterly inexplicable. As fiction, it adds nothing to the action or outcome (there is no actual arc to any character throughout the film). As fact, is inadequate biographical allusion, for it is well known that Dave Van Ronk couldn’t drive.

The second moment of note in the film is reserved for the final few minutes, as Llewyn, back in his old haunts, exits the Gaslight as he looks askance — warily, distantly, and suspiciously — at a young singer who has just taken the stage — and by the hair, by the neck harness for his harmonica, and by the flattened voice, the performer, it is clear, is Bob Dylan. There is no recognition by this Dylan of the protagonist, whose threatened expression is a clairvoyant nod to the film audience that old Beethoven has met young Mozart and has seen that the lad will make a big noise in the world. The film save this cameo-of-a-cameo for the very end, as if to prod us to remember the larger history that all the musicians from this time came to write — and presumably one that, because of Dylan’s penumbra, came to eclipse that of Dave Van Ronk/Llewyn Davis. But this is falsehood by implication. Bob Dylan was Van Ronk’s biggest fan, and the film could at least have treated us to a bit of the appreciation the artist truly enjoyed among his peers. Van Ronk was the life of a party that he didn’t outlive, whereas the feckless sod of Llewyn Davis was a pitiful weakling, ignored, despised, and insignificant to one and all, save an upper west side academic couple. The film hits Van Ronk and leaves his memory limping at the the side of the road, like the fictional Llewyn Davis does when he drives back to New York, in a scene that was as pointless and unnecessary as this painfully slow celluloid dirge. Seeming to aim more for Kafka without the anger, the language, or the moral depth than Van Ronk himself, perhaps we might better have titled the film “Inside Joseph K”, except that Kafka moves us by filling us with a world of both dread and strange reason. As this film rather opts to project an Unheimlich of dread, the real ruddy-cheeked coffeehouse Hemingway will remain largely undiscovered for a time longer. I do wish they didn’t replace the vitality of New York’s 1960’s beat life with lifeless dialogue that goes nowhere in long scenes, with actors who lack New York mannerisms and accents.


I do like the work of Coen Brothers, who hail from Minnesota, and their encounter with the social distance that prevails there is an understandable inspiration for dark comedy. And while I loved “Fargo”, I too am a creature of boundaries, and didn’t need to see that surreal film reborn and grafted onto the Greenwich Village I knew. I recently sat with my producer at same table at the Caffé Reggia where, as a teenager, I tried to sort out my life — I was doing what everyone else in the Village was doing. It is the same table, in the same café, where the protagonist is being insulted by his friend’s pregnant girlfriend. Her tone came the closest to the frankness of the New Yorker of that day… except that she evinced decidedly suburban mannerisms. Why is it so difficult for non-New Yorkers to create decent portrayals of that city in any period? Perhaps because the people who were there when I was growing up, are not the people who are there today. The Village of my day — the 1970’s and 80’s — was still a vibrant place, full of the authentic existential angst that needs creative production as its vital outlet. The search of angst is now the search of tourism; it still shocks one to see how much of the city has disappeared to the kitsch of merchants. In terms of character and notoriety, there is no Village, SoHo, Bowery, Little Italy, or Chinatown of three decades ago. They have been bleached clean like the Five Points section of a century earlier, and the only part of lower Manhattan that remains as grey as ever is Wall Street. And it is impossible not to imagine that this character and notoriety was fuel for the folk singer. Perhaps the Coen Brothers should have gone back in time to gather up a spirit of what Van Ronk’s boots shook off, for even back when Dickens visited New York, the character that is now missing was all there, and I recall, even a hundred plus years later, some of this image:

Let us go on again; and passing this wilderness of an hotel with stores about its base, like some Continental theatre, or the London Opera House shorn of its colonnade, plunge into the Five Points. But it is needful, first, that we take as our escort these two heads of the police, whom you would know for sharp and well-trained officers if you met them in the Great Desert. So true it is, that certain pursuits, wherever carried on, will stamp men with the same character. These two might have been begotten, born, and bred, in Bow Street.

We have seen no beggars in the streets by night or day; but of other kinds of strollers, plenty. Poverty, wretchedness, and vice, are rife enough where we are going now.

This is the place: these narrow ways, diverging to the right and left, and reeking everywhere with dirt and filth. Such lives as are led here, bear the same fruits here as elsewhere… Debauchery has made the very houses prematurely old. See how the rotten beams are tumbling down, and how the patched and broken windows seem to scowl dimly, like eyes that have been hurt in drunken frays…What place is this, to which the squalid street conducts us? A kind of square of leprous houses, some of which are attainable only by crazy wooden stairs without. What lies beyond this tottering flight of steps, that creak beneath our tread?—a miserable room, lighted by one dim candle, and destitute of all comfort, save that which may be hidden in a wretched bed. Beside it, sits a man: his elbows on his knees: his forehead hidden in his hands. ‘What ails that man?? asks the foremost officer. ‘Fever,? he sullenly replies, without looking up. Conceive the fancies of a feverish brain, in such a place as this!1

1American Notes for General Circulation, Charles Dickens. Transcribed from the 1913 Chapman & Hall, Ltd. edition by David Price. Online at

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Categories: Critique

Anne Spalter’s Scenes from the North Pole of Transcendence December 8, 2011


Nearly thirty years ago, Rosalind Krauss produced the preeminent analysis of the singular structure most unique to, most resonant with, and most emblematic of the aims of modern art – the grid. What the grid initiates with the symmetry of its abstract purity, the circle extends, in a new form that could be taken as Western postmodernity’s reversion to the cohesive infinity of the mandala, a site less of center than radiality. The circle?s compositional integration is a mirror simile for the universe as an expansive principle in which, as with the mandala, any presumption of a center is subservient to its overall order. But in order to understand the circle, we must appraise the allure of its predecessor, the grid.

Radical as the implication of its latticed form is, the grid is a form whose mystical potential modern art criticism doesn?t deny, for at least two crucial reasons. Reason one: the first artists to employ grids spoke to the transcendental ontology of its creative form – we note Krauss?s acknowledgment, that “Mondrian and Malevich are not discussing canvas or pigment or graphite or any other form of matter. They are talking about Being or Mind or Spirit”.[1] Secondly – and more forcefully – it is in the grid?s transcendence that the idea of symmetry finds a way out of form and into an interpretive rabbit hole of possible pathways – as again Krauss affirms: “The grid’s mythic power is that it makes us able to think we are dealing with materialism (or sometimes science, or logic) while at the same time it provides us with a release into belief (or illusion, or fiction).”[2] Thus, in its embrace of this visual archetype, the art historical record is clear: the grid signals the height of modernity?s engagement with formalism.

Again and again, in the drawings, paintings, and prints of Marcel Duchamp, Piet Mondrian, Georges Vantongerloo, Ellsworth Kelly, Donald Judd, Kenneth Noland, Sol LeWitt, Robert Ryman, Agnes Martin, Chuck Close – and so many other artists – the twentieth century returned to the grid, as it rediscovered and exploited that archetype?s seductive significance for pure visual innovation. Unmistakably, this procession traced its single-minded lineage through the mainstays of the modern and contemporary canon. But the grid is, as Krauss notes above, a shape somehow dependent on the obviousness of a material support and the presence of labor for its transcendence. A grid painted by hand, declaring the commitment of artistic reduction to repetitious formalism, conveys something that a machine-programmed grid, easily realized through the iterations of algorithmic generation, cannot. So now if, in its exhaustion, the abstract geometry of the grid has been transposed into that of the circle, it is because the material support of grid composition is no longer innovative, and moreover, since material support itself is, in a technological epoch, no longer a precondition of creative production, we find how, in much electronic art, this new shape has borrowed the distant abstraction of its earlier rectilinear variety, and wants to go beyond it. The circle?s trigonometric correspondence with the engineering of the cathode ray tube, the computer monitor, and many kinds of projection, lathing, and impression systems, raises the status of that shape and renders it as the new grid, the palette and coordinate system for the age of contemporary electronic art. Of course, non-digital art, too, has long used the circle?s fertile promise – we could in fact draw a second historical timeline from Duchamp?s first filmed rotoreliefs in action up to Anthony McCall?s Line Describing a Cone and therein rightfully include many lesser known artists.


Figure 1. Marcel Duchamp, Anémic Cinéma, 1926. Film.

Figure 2. Anthony McCall, Line Describing a Cone, 1973. Installation at Hangar Bicocca, Milan, 2009

Rather, the insistent abstraction of the circle, for example, characterizes John Whitney’s Permutations, a series of short films illustrating the dance of analog signals in a progression of circular rearrangements over the spatial void of a CRT screen.

Figure 3. John Whitney, Permutations, 1966. Film.

Whitney’s work was the cinematic result of several computer programs designed by Jack Citron for IBM Los Angeles Scientific Center and filmed at the UCLA School of Medicine, and he was not alone. Similarly, and clearly illustrating the union of art machine with the archetype of circularity, is the work of Desmond Paul Henry, one of several artists to adapt war machinery – in this case, bomber sights – to a kind of spirograph on steroids.

Figure 4. Desmond Paul Henry’s “Drawing Machine 1”

Figure 5. Desmond Paul Henry, Untitled, 1962. Print.


My thoughts thus far have pointed to a contextual review of the last century’s fertile adoption of one trope, the grid, leading up to another more recent one, the circle, in the technological sphere, particularly with the polemical sterility that abstraction provides. But there is a catch here, for as we know, there is no line of art history that makes abstraction, modern art?s most distinctive and recognizable style, a visual foundation for postmodernity, as well. Rather this latter era is characterized by a return to the real, drawing from the conditions of societal engagement as the materials for aesthetic production. So let us ask ourselves this: how feasible is it to imagine an artistic union between the detached perpetuity of the circle on one hand and contemporary art?s connection with the empirical world, not to mention the technological, on the other? How can a form like the circle be used in this world in conditions of photorealism, of motion, and of what a technological art form can bring to them? This is the question that Traffic Circle, Anne Spalter?s new show at the Stoyanov Gallery, confronts — which, in so doing, resolves a missing vector between the creative lineages of the grid and the circle – but the end result, it turns out, is not to be found in material supports, but rather in the technology of the projected image subjected to computational orchestration.

The works in the show comprise a consistency of architectural structure, each captures a temporal succession of events using taut cinematic grammar, namely the linear pan, the zoom, and the steady shot of traffic in a static place, and documents before the viewer the transposition of its natural Cartesian perspective of the world as our eyes see it — horizontal motion across the x axis and vertical, running up and down — to one whose coordinate system is radial, using a fragment of the visual field as a slice that weaves into itself about a circle. This singular move, seemingly effortless and unadorned, does more than produce a polarized fugue of marginally recognizable transit scenes and components. It also resolves the long-standing problem of how to unify the abstract promise of the circle with the pragmatic and embodied realism of a cosmopolitan life. It brings together the quasi-tessellated rabbit-hole of immersive order that we encounter in artists from M.C. Escher to Andreas Gursky, with the visual stimulation that a filmic setting, recalling from other traditions – for example, in literature – the historically recent turn from formalism to realism; William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, and Hunter S. Thompson naturally come to mind. But Spalter?s visual assemblages present something more than abstract imagery or metropolitan metabolism, they propose a new visual trope that starts in Duchamp?s Anemic Cinema with those rotorelief mechanisms and come to traverse the naturalistic symmetry that Benoit Mandelbrot found embedded in the structure of natural forms from small scale to large, so that a film of a highway, in Spalter?s mutations reveals an uncanny similarity not to an object but to an entire range of them, to include at one moment, the floret seeds in a dandelion

Figure 6. Anne Spalter, Circular Highway, 2011. Video projection. 00:13

that in turn explode to the mathematical obduracy of a star

Figure 7. Anne Spalter, Circular Highway, 2011. Video projection. 00:23

And as this shape expands, its inner membrane dissolves, so that the points transform into spokes where separation between inner and outer form yields to that of an open nexus.


Figure 8. Anne Spalter, Circular Highway, 2011. Video projection. 00:26

In turn, this image?s radial augmentation quickly re-engenders the star this time, but now as its morphological negative, a space between points, and pointed to by them:

Figure 9. Anne Spalter, Circular Highway, 2011. Video projection. 00:30

Spalter?s eye for submitting horizontal linearity to applied movement in a single continual direction produces a progression or chain of transformations that resolves, as I have said, not toward a single image but rather to the presence of a principle of translation, one whose essence is formally abstract and simultaneously in the realism of physical phenomena. And it is this intersection of a new and different kind, between the worldly and the pure, that mandala makers understand, proposing fleeting visual monuments as aphorisms of contemplation which use form as a way to move toward all that lies beyond it. And it is the same meditative process into which Spalter’s transcendent motion draws us.

Figure 10. Anne Spalter, Circular Highway, 2011. Video projection. 00:55

“Traffic Circle” at the Stephan Stoyanov Gallery, 29 Orchard Street, New York, NY, 10002,  Dec. 8, 2011 – Jan. 6, 2012.

[1] Rosalind Krauss, “Grids,” in The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1985).

[2] Ibid.

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Categories: Critique

Manifest and Latent Reflections on Art and Art Basel December 5, 2011

I. Manifest

As with so many other event cities that for a few days blossom into urban art constellations, it was time again to engage in that uncanny bit of ethnography called Art Basel Miami Beach. Upon my arrival, I sat to plan the agenda of this visit – like Proust, I actually expected that most of it would be dedicated to writing, essentially using the fringe energy of the fair for an enhancement of writerly perspectives on art outside of the Art Basel context. The idea of taking this as an ethnographic project underscores the intention of any theorist, which is to effect an immersive study of things, and in this case, the alien nature of the place and its rituals, so often described with the flavor of a festive marketplace, called for a probe of two of its central constituents: first,  the reason for the parties and a turn to festivities rather than the solemnity of attention that we see in art crits; and second, the affective/subjective take-away from a short voyage into this social complex. These are the questions that linger on many minds as they return to familiar environs.


Thanks to Lyn Winter, reflections on the direction of contemporary art were destined for a much more engaged turn, as, at her kind inclusion, my ethnographic project took the form of numerous thought-provoking events, which form a preamble to the phenomenology that I will discuss in the second part of this essay. But on a manifest layer, the familiar location and setting clearly made for an early itinerary that included large-scale parties like one in South Beach at a Herzog & de Meuron-designed garage, hosted by Interview magazine, Peter Brant, and Tobias Meyer of Sotheby?s in honor Ferrari chairman Luca di Montezemolo.

Ferrari_Party_2011-11-29 21.05.43

Ferrari_Party_2011-11-29 21.28.03

Ferrari_Party_2011-11-29 21.29.39

More private events included a quiet view of the art home of financier Adam Sender, whose kind invitation afforded a meditative jaunt through an extraordinarily variegated collection of contemporary art, but fostered the conditions for discussions on art among a broad range of the guests – art advisers, collectors, artists, patrons, and curators. This in many ways is the height of what one might aspire for in any art context — the social and intersubjective should circle around the presence of the art, rather than — as at least one journalist’s account portrayed — the other way round. Of this, I shall have more to say below.

AdamSender_2011-11-29 20.07.21

Another crucial, if rarely considered, justification for the parties and social milieu of a major art fair is to create a reception for viewing work that is otherwise not in conformity with the formatting limitations and requirements of typical art and film venues. For example, when LA MOCA hosted a viewing of Harmony Korine’s film adaptation of the switchblade fight in Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause, it did so in conditions that allowed what was a short six-minute film to be viewed by hundreds of people who were connected to the museum, to Korine’s aesthetic, and to the vision of which the work was a central component, namely a multi-element installation by several artists commissioned by James Franco in honor of the 1955 classic.

CAPUT_2011-12-01 20.44.23

On another occasion, the intensive energy and dialogue at a highly attended dinner hosted by the kingdom of Morocco for LA MOCA at the Raleigh Hotel signaled the work that museums do in order to secure a place at the table for a wide spectrum of those who participate in supporting the institution. A frequent holding pattern in these lofty discussions circled around the place of institutions in the art scene — I do not mean those which are there to sell or profit from work, which is nominally sensible in an art marketplace — but rather to curate, to preserve, to show it, and to share it as an optic of contemporary lines of artistic creation. Again, as this is nearly impossible to discuss outside the rarefied and exclusivist academic colloquium, the “social scene” of major venues such as this translate into potential platforms for critical reflection.

RadioSoulwax_2011-11-30 22.56.53

So while the many invitation-only parties such as this can end with a rave by Radio Soulwax, each is nonetheless a case of the few instances where the jouissance of art can find an opportunity for its alternative energy of what can somewhat vaguely be called reflective collectivity, an aspiration to enthusiasm that needs more than the classroom or museum walls to grow, and so it comes to the streets in the form of a major art fair. Whatever one thinks of the outcome, the intention is a worthy one.

II. Latent

Two days ago, I corresponded with another colleague, a curator, with whom I had met in Miami Beach. In a response to what was a kind of meditation on the high-powered, often vain, social maelstrom of this fair and one’s much more sensitive and contingent inner states of mind, my colleague admitted to feelings of emptiness after the event, feelings that no one speaks of in connection with giddily bombastic things like public gatherings that so many attend in order to be seen as much as to see. These were feelings which certainly mirror mine and, I suspect, those of many, many others. What is going on, one wonders, in that outer pretension to smug insiderness from which most people are excluded, and the private condition of anxiety in one’s inner self, to which the entire situation feels persistently alien?

One might suspect that the problem, to the extent that we can imagine it that way, is one of unexpected distance. There is in, in all of this, an existential canyon that tears at our sense of belonging, a chasm borne of the asymmetries of the art world as another of the worlds of power. Artists, curators, writers, and receptive souls come to this world of aesthetic work with little more a wish and willingness to see, experience, and share with others a personal enthusiasm for the creative energies that flow through them. But, as there are different kinds of wayfarers to this event, that sense of a halcyon playground isn’t the only motivation fueling general participation – there are other reasons for people to “be here”. Art has value, each work that sells participates in an exchange of value. And starting with the human value of the creative effort that engenders the work, that work becomes witness to a translation of value from one kind to another, from human to economic terms, so that its ownership can be transferred and the aesthetic and labor potential in the work can be enjoyed by someone other than the artist. While the expressive effort is always focused enough to lead to the creation of a work, these  new economic aspects require a representative effort that gives the work an identity relating to the conditions of its creation and drives the negotiation of its price. And it is not merely the work’s price that is subject to economic valuation; the reputation of the artist, the lore of the work’s genesis, and the buzz of presumptive opinion that surrounds attitudes about it are all ingredients in the representative constitution of the work.

So we are not surprised about the duality between creative effort — built into the ideal conditions of the work’s production — and representative effort — emerging from the social milieu that makes it all a public matter — as a totality of elements defining the art world’s idiosyncratic and hard-to-characterize complexity. But when creative effort is seriously subordinated to representative effort so that the latter so emphatically eclipses the former, the result is confusion, conflation, distortion, so that parts are taken for wholes, as if skin and bones were taken to comprise the human body without the equal consideration of organs, tissues, nerves, and psychology. As we can easily remind ourselves that representation is not creation, any conflation of one with the other means that those in the representative camp — dealers, and collectors — come to assume the legendary status of those on the creative side, as if they themselves were as important as the artists — and perhaps more so. Perhaps they are a different, better breed of artist. That is the mounting assumption behind this push.

And so it is that the fourth word in a recent New York Times article on the Art Basel Miami Beach scene — the operative term “sighting” — and the sighting being not of a work of art or famous artist, but rather that of a collector, which leads us to conclude that the confusion between creative and representative dimensions has pervaded even high corridors of critical and journalistic thinking. For the article in question (“A Shark Circles Art Basel Miami Beach”, Guy Trebay, New York Times, December 1, 2011 ) , the author focuses on the “sighting” (a rather eccentric designation more often used in accounts of wanted persons, UFOs, and rare marine species) of Eli Broad. If we are speaking of an art fair, the main topic could be, might be, should be, art, that is, chiefly what relates to the products of creative effort. And despite Mr Broad’s supportive prominence in the art world, dare we think that the proprietor of the most prominent collection in the U.S. is secondary to any artist, except in discussions of representative value? After all, despite the art, Mr. Broad, a man of discretion, did not come in order to be displayed. Despite this, the Times article’s focus is much less on an art fair than on the reporter’s sightings of one of the major figures in the art world, as he clocks these encounters with a temporal precision that implies that the occasional spotting here and there actually mattered to the creative effort underpinning the entire event: “The first public sighting of Eli Broad, the 78-year-old billionaire philanthropist and art collector, came at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday.” This is the opening sentence. Chronicling the perambulations of Mr Broad as accompanied by his wife and an unnamed curator, somewhat oddly described as moving “beside him like a remora fish along for the ride,” the reporter’s eye is on the representative side of the art equation, since, as we are reminded, Mr Broad “maintains a mammoth personal collection of 500 major artworks, runs a foundation with another 1,500 and is the driving force (some would say pile-driving) behind the contemporary public art scene in Los Angeles. ” This has everything to do with a reporter’s awe of one man, through a lens rather impoverishingly narrowed to a fleeting sighting or two,  but precious little to do with art, the art fair, or the relation between one and the other.

But of course, my critique — weighing the bias against speaking of creative effort in that reportage and the festively dissociated social scene —  is naïve. Critics, theorists, and contemporary art historians, from Boris Groys (consider his latest book, Art Power) to Martha Busrkirk (or hers, Creative Enterprise: Art between Museum and Marketplace) understand that, at the global scale of events such as the Swiss and American versions of Art Basel, art has become essentially synonymous with power, the power of collection, the power of valuation, the power of the clique that collects it, the power of money as a form of attention, and the power of celebrity and lore under whose spell a reporter of the newspaper of American record can write about “sighting” and describing his encounter not with art works, but rather art collectors. And as this coverage turns to the recent history of Mr. Broad, to include his founding and major support of several museums, the account of the art fair traces not art but art atmosphere, colored by “heavy hitters of the Los Angeles art-collecting scene”. To be sure, that scene is central to the image of the fair, but it is not its total reality. Later, Mr. Trebay reports another “sighting” of Mr Broad at a party supplemented by the presence of people whose importance to the story is essentially predicated on their status as entertainment celebrities. True, Art Basel is a place for such sightings. But in a short article, it is they who are offered a quote, people who, without specific knowledge, interest, or engagement with the world of art, comprised “the typical motley scrum of celebrities that included Adrien Brody and Naomi Campbell (“I come down to be with my friends,” said the model, who acquires many things, though not art)”. Mr. Trebay is apparently more interested in tracking empty quotes than substantial engagements. For, if it be a motley scrum indeed, it is because art and artist — the creative effort that makes any art fair possible — have been elided, rendered extraneous from the journalistic account. In closing with the names of several others —  a prominent art dealer and an arts patron, and “a predictable assortment of the pretty young things” that, to him, resemble a now-obscure actress — Mr. Trebay excludes almost everything that preceded, justified, and transpired with actual connection to the creative substance of this sizable, if also festive, endeavor.

A discriminating collector, the presence of Mr. Broad is nonetheless often reduced in many accounts, as we see here, to a kind of neon sign, a fable of determination, an icon of capital coming to art. What is the story here? Art needs support on many levels, and capital moves in many directions of involvement. If money wants to come to art, it is not because money has nothing better to do. Capital, ever motivated by acquisition of the unique, knows that only art possesses the status of art. Real estate, financial management, industry, and family inheritance — these forms of wealth have respectability and influence but not the emancipating penumbra of art’s allure. Art’s status is essentially required, for it is tacit recognition that, at the historical level of what a culture can produce, and leave behind, many can represent but few can create. In this unique role, the artist is a kind of free prisoner, like the Delphic oracle, fleshing out visions in a magically removed context, operating as a psychic medium, producing visual statements that reveal more about something in ourselves than anyone cares to interpret. This is the creative angst which, like the athlete’s years of practice for the Olympics, does not reach the art fair; only the work and its reception matter now.

And in all of this are critics’ odd views of museum and gallery, often overlooked on one hand; frequent whipping-boys on the other. The caricature of a partisan of wealthy interest, where capital owns art in every sense, the museum’s image has been distorted, ignored, and attacked, although it remains the only credible bastion of cultural history. Have we forgotten that the museum, and its commercial kin, the gallery, have been patrons prior to, and after, the vogues of private patronage? Their brick-and-mortar worlds are ones of risk and investment in artistic voices, putting work before a public on whose education and interest they also depend. And as they expand toward greater popular engagement, their risks increase – both financial, and in terms of credibility. The museum, like the gallery, must continually create new spaces (literally and phenomenologically) for the exhibition of work whose size has grown in post-War times to unrivaled proportions, and whose interpretive demands on the same public are greater now than ever. And if the artist’s work is misunderstood or criticized, the exhibiting institution takes the same measure of opprobrium, even though it assumed the fundraising task, and the critical risk of hosting the work in the first place. The evidence reveals the Gargantuan task for directors of museums and galleries in these fairs, which they attend in order to give their institutions a presence and to validate their mission and choices in the art that is brought to view. They carry dual burdens of both representative effort and creative momentum, as well. If there is precious little time for conversations on aesthetic dimensions, it is because they must enlist resources to the institution’s goals. The fact that these institutions manage not merely to survive but to inspire reveals an energy that few other sectors of society can generate, although there are many casualties in a world built from the embrace not merely of art, but of caring, as my wistful curator knows perhaps only too well.


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Categories: Critique

Hedi Slimane, Cultural Barometer November 13, 2011

LA MoCA Pacific Design Center

Pacific Design Center for Hedi Slimane California Song exhibit

There was a time not long ago when what we could call the critical elite would, from a historical perch, peer down on the creative voice of art whose agenda was not in line with that of the arch-bourgeoisie, but which instead reflected what seemed the general sentiment of new, halcyon generations. In a favored form of calumny, the conservative view would refer to this as “pop culture”, meant oxymoronically, while viewing what was called the “contemporary” as the the serious, legitimate, deserving heir to high modern art. But pop culture as a phrase no longer means much because all culture is popular, which is to say, resonant to all things contemporary. And the most meaningful acts in regard to a survey of such culture?s interest in the conditions of art are not those which question the ancien regime – this is an obsolete concern – but rather those which establish credible altars in which homage to what contemporary culture believes can find icons and rituals of its reality, not that of art.


If so, then Hedi Slimane is one of the Indigo children for that new truth, serving as an apostolic messenger bearing both word and image, most recently at the exhibit California Song, hosted at LA MoCA?s Pacific Design Center. Two floors frame the unusual structure of this show, which focuses on the polymath?s photography based in the Golden State after 2007, and his show at another major venue for photography — FOAM Amsterdam. In the first floor of the current exhibit, Slimane?s large format photographs are set in wood armatures that insinuate (without entirely resembling) something between shelving units and crate boxes opened vertically, their shape providing lattices for the artist?s meter-high photographs, and their material, unfinished wood, suggests that the images might have arrived in time for their exhibition in a public art venue.


But – and the exhibition is all about reflectivity – these images are co-arranged in their wooden niches with occasional and savvily positioned mirrors, so that what viewers are seeing transcends the visual and concerns the question of the subject itself – whether this points to the subject of the images or to the subject captured in the mirror squares and reflected back is left as an implied question. Passing beyond the preamble of this small room, the birch-like whitness of the first floor’s lighting and palette finds its chromatic inverse inthe second floor of the exhibit, which opens onto the full gallery space, walls receding back to the void of flat black as the center of the space is claimed by three fourths of a ponderous projection cube, nearly twenty feet on each side – as deployed in Berlin and elsewhere – and each facet presents a slow photo-procession of portraits, each image lingering in fixity yet seeming to self-modify with each second of inspection.


Against each of two walls in the larger space is an asymmetrical latticework of pipefittings that hold almost twenty speakers each, pumping the cosmic rock sounds of No Age and other bands, creating quasi-psychedelic ambience of such sensitivity that the viewer feels almost lifted off the ground.


Slimane?s images are unusually thought-provoking, so paradoxical is their aura, the locations of the shots are emblematic California – somewhere back stage, a studio, a surfer?s shore, a hilly backdrop – and these balance presence and mystery, recognizability and secrecy, historical moments and timelessness of being. And with these is a defiant sense of autonomy (and often vulnerability) that frames the expression – and the identity – of its subjects,  both young and old. Here we see recent portraits of an elderly but staunch Gore Vidal; of Ed Ruscha as an older artist, smiling wisely but owning the viewer with discerning eyebrows; or of a post-adolescent boy nearly  identical to a young John Cusack with guitar, eyes both squinty small and yet defining the entire expression of his face and person. And in all these faces, what is the name of that expression? It is presence, not merely as the here-and-now of a body whose force translates to vision with inexplicable but felt intimacy; it is also that of the temporal present whose stamp is so overwhelming and defining that the future is not anywhere in the cards, in the subjects? expressions, or in the context of the images. Everything about the photographs is ad hoc, often capturing the blurry movement of something, always in a location which is not important as such but rather in an emotional place. Images of arms with tattoos, or of youthful beauty sitting, captured in the sleep-deprived expressionless stare that skirts some extreme edge of life to which we are not privy. But image after image, the consistency of these presences, so often full of feeling but devoid of passion, provide the cognitive allure that draws the viewer into a participatory wish – a wish to have been there, to have lived all that was taking place, to have forged some of the experience being shared but not narrated by these expressions, and to fit together the pieces that puzzle the viewer with seductive interrogation, an interpretive depth that fills the space between the quizzical detachment of the subjects in the photographs and the ambient sympathy of those staring directly at them.


But in their adjacency, we also realize the implied conversation between them, a harmony of sentiment that transcends the visual as it underscores the cultural unity of their mood. Images with textual provocations, where a “WHO” sign could be seen to question the neighborhood shown in a perpendicular image.


Or the taciturn expression of one portrait (Ruscha’s) being met by another in the next panel, but dissolving into the caricaturic photo of a toy monkey.


Images of the monkey, which appear in several forms, are almost a commentary on the sequence of representations, either humane, as in the overlay with the face of musician Christopher Owens


or potentially profane, as in their uncomfortable proximity to any of several variants of crosses or other biblical references.


But less Dadaistic associations emerge more frequently, often giving one pause to appreciate the formal aspects of similarity and lucid statement of line that have been so crucial to Slimane’s revolution in fashion design.  This self-similarity shines best when it appears to prompt the viewer with the uncommon sentiment shared by two faces. Perhaps it is a kind of wonder.


Perhaps it is less energetically what follows it.


And the linearity of apparent comparison muses over the iconic geometry of objects from two different, often archaic, worlds, such as an abandoned business sign and a musician’s drum set — each claiming the flatness of a circle as what Roland Barthes might call the image’s punctum.


To grasp these and so many other captured moments, the viewer need not understand the centerpiece of Slimane?s career, anchored as it is in the splendorous perfection that accompanies art direction in the top Paris fashion houses, because the show?s works are from the alternative parsec of his creative galaxy, one involved in eschewing synthetic and posed gorgeousness for the capture of splendor for magazine publication in exchange for the force of natural impulse in creative work. These images are figurative visas on the passport to life in California that every dreamer keeps in a proverbial pocket.  The exhibit?s visitors, many of whom could be in these photographs themselves, stood transfixed by the images, whose expressions at once languid and mute convey a stamp of inscrutable transition – perhaps from one phase of life to the next – or as in the shots of Ruscha, Van Sant, and Vidal, of comfort and authoritative success, as figures of the cultural moment. In this, they reflect the subtlest gift of Slimane himself: a unique ability to operate as a cultural barometer, which of course is where art and fashion share a defining agenda.

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Categories: Critique

The Affective Index in Video?s Depiction of Desire December 5, 2010

In the visual arts, the domain of emotional attachment has always comprised at least two aesthetic horizons. One operates in the role of mirror, the other of prism, or perhaps kaleidoscope. The first, evincing the general concern with all that is socially constructed and sanctioned in any historical epoch, is the archive of works that reflect less Platonic instantiations of Love than the societally accepted portfolio of what can, in the profound space of longing, be respectfully enunciated, displayed and enacted. This of course is the world of high art, expression in the parameters of the sublime that we take, for example in a German context, from Goethe, Schiller, or Rilke. The second domain for affective realism is less prominent. It documents the nightside of emotional intensity, the fire of longing unconstrained by and unresponsive to moral structure. Far from finding expression in starkest terms, this second realm of emotional characterization has a rather protracted development in the work of artists and movements that saw no need to reflect social mores, but rather to refract, distort, and even effigy them as hypocritical restraints on an otherwise essential human spirit whose Sturm und Drang, to recall one version of it, merits nothing less than the vindication of its suffering and alienation in the full light of a new artistic day. It was in literature that Stendhal, Baudelaire, and Mallarmé found a means for such refraction, a language of expression that promoted itself from the mimesis of ritual feeling to the antagonistic refutation of the stagnant “ritualized”, of the implicit in all that is unspoken, all that is culture.

It is with the end of high art’s hegemony and its concomitant co-optation into popular culture that the first domain of emotional expression is gradually replaced by the second. And while popular art incubates within its own environment in the form of full-fledged media that include among others the radio program, the television show, and the comic book, the venues of high art — the museum, the gallery, and the academic publication — encounter a new tension in the attempt to accommodate the “low” within the “high”. Of course, the fit is ultimately incommeasurable, high art, we know since Kant, revolves on distance, which is to say, ineluctibility through notions of taste, while Low is about closeness, or the reach for immediacy through performance. The art of distance can afford to be mediated by costume, ritual and language that traverses all of a culture’s history. The art of immediacy derives impact by jettisoning all the signs of historical determination; they play no role in the depths of true personal longing.

And so this distance-immediacy dialectic becomes taken up as a principal problem for artists whose optic lies on the tangent of the morally or socially acceptable. The moral problem might include treatments of sexuality that have been eschewed by the High Art ethic. The compass of social problems might point, among other places, to the nodes of inner experience that, when documented “up close and personal”, transgress the traditional function of art as a framework for appreciative abstraction. The array of recent examples of each is an almost unbroken string since at least the 1960’s, even assuming we ignore the work of Dada artists four decades before that.

At one end, corresponding to reactions to moral code, several techniques have been employed as gambits on the distance-immediacy polarity. Since the distance of sublime appreciation remains central to high art, it cannot be circumvented. But since the immediacy of popular art’s freedoms offers relevance and expressive latitude, it remains too alluring to ignore. One recurrent solution, stylistic obfuscation, tackles the handling of the visually explicit; the image that is too salacious or extreme becomes manipulated into near-unrecognizability through compound methods of, shall we say, aesthetic degradation. Robert Heinecken, trained as a printmaker and working as photographer, was possessed by a predilection for this approach, exposing the subject through cross-montage and negative overlays that retain both aesthetic distance, through the suggestive character of the images, and aesthetic immediacy, through the evidence on sustained view of a more seamy source of the material itself. Not surprisingly, much of his practice could at the end of his life be characterized as occupying a resolutely contrary position, even among photographers. As synopsizes Andy Grunberg in  Heinecken?s New York Times obituary, the artist?s “hybrid integration of photographs with other mediums was a rebuke to the aesthetics of conventional photography”3. The impact of this is all the more evident when we imagine what an wide-ranging set of practices and concerns the term “conventional photography” had come to embrace by the 1980?s.  Heinecken?s Mansmag of 1969, a starkly colored superimposition of offset lithographs in the form of a booklet recalls the impact of Warhol?s Disaster series, but with sensuality rather than death as its thematic center.


Robert Heinecken,
Cream 6 Single
photo emulsion on canvas, framed
signed, dated and titled on verso in pencil
30 x 40 in / 76.2 x 101.6 cm
Susan Spiritus Gallery


Robert Heinecken
From the series Are You Rea
Gelatin-silver contact print from magazine
8.5 x 6.5 in.
Rhona Hoffman Gallery

Robert Heinecken
From the series Are You Rea
Gelatin-silver contact print from magazine
8.5 x 6.5 in.
Rhona Hoffman Gallery

The artistic breach of moral code through convolution of image proves relevant to artists who questioned and contravened social codes as well. In video, the first social code to be broken is the fourth wall, destroying high art?s rule of aesthetic distance by having the artist address the viewer directly. Vito Acconci?s video work during the 1970?s adopted this as a signature technique, with the insistence of intimacy reinforced by the extreme close-up of the artist. Few of the many relevant instances in Acconci?s oeuvre were as salient as Centers, a 1971 performance in which the artist?s iconic insistence on the inclusion of the viewer into the work is conveyed by the unadorned, sustained act of pointing. A year after the work was completed, Acconci described the action as “Pointing at my own image on the video monitor: my attempt is to keep my finger constantly in the center of the screen—I keep narrowing my focus into my finger. The result turns the activity around: a pointing away from myself, at an outside viewer.?2 It was this mise-en-scène that Rosalind Krauss saw not merely as a framing device but as the very structure of the video medium, yet one whose aesthetics she derides as narcissistic through and through. “As we look at the artist sighting along his outstretched arm and forefinger toward the center of the screen we are watching,” she writes, “what we see is a sustained tautology: a line of sight that begins at Acconci’s plane of vision and ends at the eyes of his projected double.”4 In an argument where one kind of finger pointing underscores the basis for another, she indicts the medium for an abstract kind of narcissism, that is, not as mere self-aggrandizement but as a production logic that folds onto itself.

Vito Acconci

This is the tautology that opens a portal for unifying both the distance of high art with the immediacy of popular art when video and later photography assume a new kind of subject in performance – the artist himself or herself in self-revelation. For here, in this novel fount of expressive enthusiasm, the affordances of a new medium – video – meet the boundless potentials for exploration of a new kind of subject – the artist-as-asubject – in a scheme of practice where both are completely open and entirely flexible, available, and responsive to new directions. This is not the artist?s self-portrait of Rembrandt or van Gogh, that is, not an opportunity for the encapsulation of painterly technique. Rather, this expressive direction, emerging from but transcending the recursive terms of tautology, centers rather on the problems of medium-analysis, self-analysis, and, as mentioned at the outset, analysis of social code. Thus we can make sense of Pippilotti Rist?s bond with the medium as not only melding the inner landscape of artist and medium, but through the medium?s own techniques, produces in us a gaze that has focused on either figure or ground but never on both, and never on medium itself as a ground, with the contingency of the artist?s being as its figure.  The artist can, through this channel of articulation, say what could never be said before, as if two messages were conflated into one, in one, documenting the intimacy of lovemaking on one hand through the distance of medium destruction of the other, as in Carolee Schneemann?s classic Fuses, a subjective narration akin to a dream sculpture commemorating her relationship with James Tenney. The fleeting moments of togetherness evinced in the film are, as if to remind us of their momentary nature, blended with the artifacts of the film?s own destruction through various means. The impossibility of absorbing one story without the other answers in the affirmative a question that Schneemann presumably posed in one of her notebooks, “”How can I have authority as both an image and an image-maker?”5

Schneeman_FusesCarolee Schneeman

Painting, sculpture, and photography were blends in the work of Hannah Wilke in self-exploration, all pointing to a new use of medium and now-engaged personal voice that together give new meaning to the word “assemblage”. That even today Schneemann?s performance work is argued as an early “catalyst for the emergence of feminist consciousness”1 is rather unfortunate, as the gender innovation argument entirely occludes how her performance and video work conjoined the distance-intimacy chasm more poignantly than any artist of her generation, a contribution of significantly greater historical import.

Rist_Homo sapiens sapiensPipilotti Rist
Homo sapiens sapiens
Installation view at Chiesa San Staé
Photo: Heiner H. Schmitt jr

It is in this context that I turn to two recent videos of LanaZ Caplan, whose blend of practices has explored a range of practices that fall under what ought by now be called biographical media. As part of a series of music videos called “The Break-up Album”, the first, After you?ve gone, effects its triple media overlay as an object of attention through song, performance, and artist. In the tradition of the conceptual technique of explicit intimacy, Caplan , in synchronized doubled montage, sings inaudibly to a second synchronization with the playback of the eponymous song composed by Henry Creamer and Turner Layton and recorded by Bessie Smith. The song?s roots are located in the historical birth of popular culture, not high art, in 1918 it was first performed by Al Jolson, and subsequently recorded by an astonishing parade of luminaries, including Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Bessie Smith, Marion Harris, Bessie Smith, Sophie Tucker, Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton, the legendary Quintette du Hot Club de France, Cal Tjader, Johnny Hartman, and even Shirley MacLaine, among others. Thus, Caplan?s use of this song evokes an emotional pedigree of sorts, the domain of emotional attachment for which love lost finds many expressions. The appropriation, however, is not of the song but of a Bessie Smith recording, itself recoded to the performance of the artist?s lips in extreme close-up, and, as if recalling the aesthetic tautology that Krauss finds within video?s logic, Caplan appears not once but twice, layered in the signature avant-garde kaleidoscopic over-placement, repetition and non-scenery, and closeup of lips we find interspersed throughout Léger and Antheil?s 1924 classic Ballet Mecanique. Caplan?s overlay also recalls Alice Prin, better known as Kiki of Montparnasse, the protagonist of the earlier performance whom Man Ray had often photographed.

Caplan_AfterYouveGoneLanaZ Caplan
After You’ve Gone

ManRay_KikiMan Ray
Kiki in Man Ray?s Apartment, rue de la Condamine
vintage gelatin silver print
5-7/8 x 4-1/2 in.
Zabriskie Gallery, New York

Acconci?s line of persuasive “reasoning” with the viewer, insufficiently explored, is taken up in Caplan?s second video, lovefool, with the artist posed off-center in neurotic high pitch and Cyndi Lauper regalia, uttering directives like “Love me. You don?t have to love, just say you love me.” As the “Love me” command repeats, gradually being mouthed through more insistent and grotesque mannerism, and the sentiment it could evoke is snuffed out, the work is an interrogation of what underlies the emotion itself when obsession, one of its principal ingredients, comes to dominate the relationship. The perception of insistence for intimacy fosters an equivalent sense of distance, each destroying what becomes obvious in its absence: the caring that fuels love itself. Such is the supplication that the artist sings, or lipsyncs, to the Cardigans? hit single lovefool; the plea for deception that is evident in the lyrics? refrain (“Love me love me / say that you love me / fool me fool me / go on and fool me”) is emphasized by Caplan?s acting of a jilted lover whose self-pity takes on a demeanor that is at once tenuous, defiant, anxious, and disinterested.

Caplan_LovefoolLanaZ Caplan

The kind of artistic engagement that Krauss found problematic in early video appears to have sustained itself, exploiting new directions. Her designation of its aesthetics as centering on narcissism is the product of a literal or iconic reading, something too closely anchored to the retinal effect, and therefore a partial characterization of its larger project, which is much more indexical, and more aptly termed a broad sounding of emotional indeterminacy. Thus Rist?s work in the 1990?s has moved into the more stoically Finnish self-absorption that characterizes the metaphysically enigmatic work of Eija Liisa Ahtila, whose own interrogation of how filmic imagination oversteps the physical world and vice versa can be understood in relation to the work of Joan Jonas. For her part, Jonas?s interests in symmetries of representation have assumed literal implementations in, for example, the mirror view of her 1972 Left Side Right Side , work that connects to much of Dan Graham?s own reflective phenomenology. But in both Jonas and Graham, the affective state of the performer, powered by autistically robotic refusal, is inescapably magnetic, how can this be ignored? And for Caplan, a hybrid of directions reflects the assumption of the medium as an adjunct to human sentiment. For as arrows in the quiver of shattered relationships, these two videos contribute to The Break-up Album not merely through the venue of popular reception, as in the “top ten breakups” of Cusack?s film High Fidelity but through the avant-garde lineage to which they pay historical homage. And if, in a word, there were to be but one undeniable denominator to every video artist?s oeuvre, each tributary would, additionally mediated, reflected, and constructed through the medium, intersect at a visceral point with the contingent selfhood that is articulated in the Dasein of Heidegger, and what follows the ontological uncertainties of Beckett?s world.


‘Carolee Schneemann’s Fuses as Erotic Self-Portraiture’, CineAction, (2007).

Acconci, V., ‘Body as Place-Moving in on Myself, Performing Myself’, Avalanche, 6/Fall 1972.

Grundberg, A., ‘Robert Heinecken, Artist Who Juxtaposed Photographs, Is Dead at 74’, The New York Times, May 22 2006.

Krauss, R., ‘Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism’, October, 1/Spring 1976.

Princenthal, N., ‘The Arrogance of Pleasure – Body Art, Carolee Schneemann, New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, New York’, Art in America, /October (1997).

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Categories: Critique

Engagement II – Marclay?s Media Metonymy September 9, 2010

It is indeed rare for three major venues of art in one city to exhibit the work of a single artist simultaneously. Even in New York City, that metropolis whose many art spaces might accommodate such a possibility – and recently has – there is more to read into this confluence than assertive artistic promotion, but rather, this triple action must be taken as a more or less full embrace of something about what the artist?s work represents, as a compass on curatorial and art sensibility at large. More poignant still is that the protagonist of this interest, Christian Marclay, is not a visual artist by conventional definition; while he has created photographic and video documentation; his chosen medium is not visual at all, and perhaps it is not even a medium as much as a practice, which is perhaps where the crux of city?s aesthetic attention lies and points to what we might briefly consider in this extraordinary co-optation.

If a work of art functions best when it allows us to engage it with the dual galvanism of uniqueness and familiarity, it is because what its aesthetic frame excludes is what cues the viewer on what is to be read back into the work. More relevant to Marclay?s practice, what is included within the frame of an art object is the work?s content; what is excluded is often determined by limitations inherent in the chosen medium. This terminus enables an experience of crucial duality between what is perceived and what is felt, what is sensed and what is imagined. It is a boundary that Marclay, as maven of the phonograph more than any other mechanism, navigates. His principal strategy could be called the metonymic filibuster, designed as it consistently seems to be, to take part of a work for the whole, thereby suspending the full performance of what an expressive medium provides. The tactical act is twofold, first involving a partial or incomplete selection of aural or visual work amenable to sensory reception via the photograph or phonograph and then impeding its reception by perturbing or hindering its some of its playback or display.

First in this exhibition trifecta is photography at the Paula Cooper Gallery, where the recent Marclay solo show named Fourth of July featured large-format torn color photographs of an eponymous parade in New York City that the artist photographed in 2005. The set chosen for display comprised seven portraits – if we could call them that, for we never see any of them in entirety – of members of a marching band, for the photos were torn into various shapes, each of which prevents us from seeing more than a fragment of the action. In the photographic medium, the image is always the site of reception, but when its physical reduction by tearing is so severe that its function as a representamen of the world is negated, we are impelled to lay equal focus on the boundary, the frame, such that the shape of the image whose fragmentation enters its formal dialogue with what is captured photographically. Denying the holism of a scene upon which the eye depends, these works, operate as anti-portraits, or at best, as scenes of scenes, which is to say, as subsamples, a term whose exploitation Marclay?s musical vocabulary also understands.

Thus to imagine that this collection is a photographic show is to misread the larger aesthetic operating here; it is one in whose structure the medium is presented in staged engagement with something outside of it, and this engagement – here, both physical and retinal – identifies the locus of the reading bridging two distinct phenomenal worlds. The fact that this engagement aesthetic – this selection of, bridging across, and playing through media – is now a prevalent artistic practice for a wide swath of artists, a kind of first class object itself as a logical step after collage, marks it as a historical point of departure from legacies of art making that precede it.


Figure 1. Christian Marclay, Untitled (from the series Fourth of July), 2005. c-print, 32 x 31 1/2 inches.
Image courtesy of Paula Cooper Gallery.

Similarly, there is Festival, a Marclay mid-career retrospective literally and figuratively staged at the Whitney Museum, where form and genre are subject to a prodigal variety of treatments. Looking as much as art school classroom as rehearsal space at an experimental theater company, the Whitney show is a textbook case of how to structure the engagement aesthetic between form and frame. Enclosed video and exhibition spaces meld into a larger common area that is itself reconfigurable into quarters by the enormous black curtains that are selectively drawn closed during live performances by musicians playing some of Marclay?s instruments. In this open plan, inscribed through the entire span of one wall painted as a massive blackboard is an array of musical staff lines with chalk holders allowing visitors to “compose” what the performers might wish to read. That it is a pyrrhic gesture, since the wall is not positioned so that any player could easily see it, is no less crucial to the engagement aesthetic that the exhibition pursues, since the symbolic overlay of players using Marclay?s instruments, performing to the visitors, ostensibly interpreting their ‘compositional cues? crosses several worlds of language, music inscription, and reader response to the exhibit, which in turn feeds back to the potential of live performance – each line of engagement speaks through its own language, frame, medium, and form.

The third deployment of Marclay work in New York City, part of the Haunted exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum, is in the company of a larger undertaking organized around the theme, increasingly topical, of part-whole relations investigating how a medium that captures only a portion of experience – itself modulated through artistic voice – can reconstitute larger memory and meaning. While the principal medium for Haunted is photographic, space was made at the top floors of the museum for three video works whose identity as well as implicit partnership impels greater reminiscential allure than the rest of the show?s static constituents.

The thematic concern around the Haunted show, which I would term the notion of a “conceptual afterimage” where photographic media resuscitate in their engagement with memory as an aesthetic function (rather than just one of information retrieval), is very much Marclay?s, as when, in his contribution to the show, the single-channel video work entitled Looking for Love, he creates juxtapositions of memory in the LP records and similar analog media, juxtapositions that are immediately set off to destroy memory or undermine the conventional aesthetic experience for which they were created. And this, he accomplishes by literally going against the grain of the medium’s own structure and materials of reproduction.


Figure 2. Christian Marclay, Looking for Love, 2008.
Single channel video.  Image courtesy of Paula Cooper Gallery.

One reading for both shows, the Marclay festival at the Whitney and the Guggenheim?s Haunted, could circle around the interface between the potentials of aesthetic perception and the production of sensory triggers for them. In the case of the Haunted exhibition, the production is photographic; with Marclay it is aural. Each form of production is thus anchored to departures from the particular character of specific media – the camera and the phonograph, respectively. But this interface reading between reception and production – the notion of memory woven as  the target of media production, whose sounds or images evoke references to the problematic past and our inability to reproduce it objectively – is only a cursory possibility for the total phenomenon of this larger relationship between self and media, a relationship that has come to dictate the preponderant conditions of art today in which new media choices – Serra?s cor-ten steel ellipses, Jessica Stockholder?s retail plastics, Thomas Hirschhorn?s low-grade material enclosures, Ilya Kabakov?s dreamy closet-like rooms, Rachel Whiteread?s blocks of architectural forms without faces, Tracy Emin?s domestic squalor installations, Damien Hirst?s taxidermy of the grotesque, Matthew Barney?s post-pagan carnival performances – all reflect an engagement between the status of art and the presence of the self, each contingent and seeming separate but with an ineffable connection to the other. More germane to the phenomenon is a different departure from the convention whose historical reliance on the figurative and representational became tied to production practices that both artist and audience understood. That aesthetics until the late 19th century, therefore, was decided on singular qualitative bases of taste meant that subjective and objective – that the experience of art and the quality of art – were codetermined, decided together and simultaneously. It meant that art was a signifier of society because it was a matter of universal consensus, although this naïve sheen occluded an asymmetry that has augmented out toward all of contemporary art, for, like two circles that never overlap, the production of the work was entirely dependent on the artist, while the production of interpretation lay completely with the viewer, and today, this equation is no longer stable.

This change has not merely affected art; it has become by and large the principal mode of experiencing of it, both via artistic production and the assumptions of viewerly reception. The hermetic uniqueness of these phenomenal spheres is gone; they are no longer distinct or even sequential, now instead emerging together in single larger readings of artmaking, whose execution and context become dependent no less on audience than artist. One now self-evident factor here is that interpretation is no longer a matter of consensus – since the earliest Cubist work, or the subsequent articulations of abstraction variously adonized from Picasso to Rauschenberg, such work challenges the academic categorization of genres like landscape, still life, or portraiture. That these historically elaborated categories have lost ontological weight is evident in how both the schooled and unschooled eye become equally confounded. Another factor emerges from the problems of boundary in works whose space, or time can no longer be determined. And a third factor, which should be called aesthetic nominalism, points to the new practice of built-in measures against reproducibility of the work, which is uniquely performative. These are frequently present in a dual mode of existence, as indications, templates, or instructions for execution on one hand, and as specific but ever-unique instantiations in distinct occasions on the other. The results of these divagations from the cogency of convention have been given simple names, perhaps “pluralism” being the most common, if least informative. If, as we know, it is clear that, in this variety, a century of art has gradually increased its proclivity to challenge sensory expectations against conventional modes of experience and historical categorization, it must be equally obvious that, in concert, the many varieties of this challenge reposition the act of reception from something passively convenient to that which, in order to complete the work, must engage it in new ways. Artistic sensibility knew that in order for this to happen, for the viewer to enter the space of production, standards of aesthetic convention had to be sacrificed. To be sure, it is not that aesthetics has been purged from modern and contemporary art, but rather that it has become redefined, such that the familiar mode of its experience, which might be summarized as judgment from perception, is now less crucial to the experience of a work than the sense of, and commitment to, activating its world as constructed, as presented, and as possible at this moment more or less independent of any other, so that in order for the work to exist, it must exist now, that is, without necessarily any reference either to a history or a future. To the extent that this now is constructed by the overlap of the two circles of artistic possibility signified by the act of production or construction and reception or interpretation, artist and audience are led to collude in the contract of artmaking, and the final outcome forms a new experience connected less to disembodied universals like beauty or truth than to the immediate confirmation of one?s own being by injection of a participatory co-articulation with the artist of the work?s statement that, replacing the old universals, becomes that new form of artistic value that can be called the engagement aesthetic.

As it is no longer possible to manage memory without managing media, we must consider anew the critical question of where memory operates. With the revived age of enlightenment that accompanies the Freudian psychological model, the idea of repressed energy has moved from its earlier center in narratives of religion, and later even fluid dynamics, to ones based on a reliance on the function of the mind itself. In this, the problems of memory have been exposed; operating in the mind, its original repository creates a character of memory that is meaning-laden but flawed in structure. In this place, memory is, for example, woven into other memory, and these associations are not accidental, instead being motivated by a subconscious process where incompleteness must be augmented by imagination, such that recall is not merely informational but reflective and serves as description of the thinker. An aesthetic line connects this phenomenon – Freud?s principal insight – with the one that Marclay evokes in an unrelenting part-whole engagement within and against emotive associations with the media of memory and recollection.

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The Engagement Aesthetic – An Introduction July 24, 2010

If we read between the lines of all that has been written about digital art — however loosely one might define this enterprise — we might locate a ubiquitous characteristic present to all definitions, hinted at inside the asymmetry of relation to the major fields or domains that are differentially related to it — some strangely argued as “central” to digital art, others strangely absent from their necessary relation to it. In the former kind of link, the recent connection between “digital” and “game” in the connotative space of artistic discussion can persuade one to see one term as a synonym for the other — evidence if nothing else of the perils that inhere to ontological claims made without careful regard to historical consideration. That games have followed a developmental trajectory wholly independent of that of art — and the inverse being equally true — should serve as caution less about the possibility of tracing the space of games scholarship than about the dangers of assuming the solution to prior problems in another field. For art itself, as an historical and empirical enterprise has since the latter part of the twentieth century shown a nature for being resolutely skeptical to any sense of what it might or might not be. And in the digital sphere, art is even more immaterial without being insubstantial, even more dynamic without being contradictory, and uniquely transformed without feeling displaced or ahistorical. Perhaps the problem ought to be decomposed into component questions.

And, with Kant, we might assume how a skeptical rather than positivist approach could bring the whole problem of what inheres to “digital art” to new fertile epistemic terrain, so that any possibility of a definition could best be approached through analysis of some misperceptions and problem assumptions — let us examine some popular claims, perhaps the principal of these being that “digital media art is entirely new.” At first, this claim seems too self-evident for critical interrogation, but how does it reconcile with the fact that problems of expression, viewing, experiencing, and being have predated every medium of aesthetic expression? That the medium appears new, then, must be reconciled with what is being put through it in the form of new work, work whose problems like those of any other art, come to the artistic process as antecendents of a medium, not as results of it. In another, perhaps less cavalier claim which we could term under reductionist relativism, digital media art is seen as but one kind of thinking or viewing among many possible perceptual practices. What complicates this claim is the underlying premise of the medium itself, whose operation constitutes one kind of singularity — of form — while itself being wrapped in (and producing) an uncountably sweeping perceptual variety of expressive and interpretive encounters. Naturally, then, we might propose the logical opposite of this latter claim, concluding therefore that that digital media art is medium-specific or medium-centric. Perhaps this would seem feasible because it is more central, more constant to questions of the medium and of the art within it. If, after all, we take as our point of departure the nature of the digital medium, how unconnected can any notion of art within it be? The flaw in this tempting position is that art is not and never has been defined in a medium-specific way. It has been exemplified by media like sculpture or oil on canvas, but never credibly defined through, within, or by implication, because of them. Those are precisely the kinds of reductive claims that have proved most dated, most ideological, most axiomatically inflexible in light of new art — with the passage of time, Clement Greenberg’s arguments increasingly appear as the newest installment in the many histories of outmoded classifications of aesthetic production. For digital media art — again, however defined — issues that transcend medium cannot be considered secondary; an artist may appear to create because of the digital medium, but cannot create only because of it, and this begs the problem of what lies outside this implied “not only”, since it ties what is digital to what compels artistic creation in every other form or medium.

In fact, this “not only” is already woven into the crisis of reception that contemporary art confronted when its own mediumhood began to explode out from under conventional forms. While subtle, the departure of contemporary sculpture from the rubric of its modern legacy did not come with the advantage that the contemporary sculptural reading could be extended to new forms in space. Instead, a decidedly modernist — not to say Romantic — sensibility has to this day prevailed as a centerpiece of sculptural interpretation. It is as if, ornithologically speaking, the modern pelican were still seen as the reptilian pterosaur from which it emerged. If the universe of art evolves through media transitions like the animal kingdom evolves through genetic ones, the extinction of any specific form says nothing about the question of life itself, which for art is the ontological question. And so, to read Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc with a modernist or Romantic eye is to constrain contemporary sculpture to a prehistoric reading. It is not an object that interested Serra, but a process of viewing, a phenomenological commitment of physical order, something that has taken the place of aesthetic convention, for which reason he could assert that

The viewer becomes aware of himself and of his movement through the plaza. As he moves, the sculpture changes. Contraction and expansion of the sculpture result from the viewer’s movement. Step by step the perception not only of the sculpture but of the entire environment changes.

Need we really state that this articulation, one in which position in projected space becomes the experience of the work, is completely alien to nineteenth century sculpture? Yet I draw on the example of Tilted Arc as a case, one to which I frequently return, of the troubling triumph of spectatorship over engagement, of the primordial over the postmodern, that has persisted in popular thought, perhaps with the ironic twist  — given the forced destruction of Tilted Arc — that it is the new rather than the archaic that has now been made extinct. If the viewer of the 1980’s (not so long ago, is it) could not engage with Tilted Arc as legitimate art, how can the present user universe be brought to engage with digital media as equally legitimate? It is in each of these cases — and in other new media —  not a spectorial aesthetic, but an engagement aesthetic that defines the new.  And so it is to a detailed critique of the engagement aesthetic that I will turn next.

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Emergent Form in the Post-Literary Mechanism, From Exposition to Reflexivity July 8, 2010


The schematization you see here is a speculation on the move from mechanism to reception that some electronic works have been fostering.

For some time now, I?ve been looking at the problem of what seems like anything like a distinguishing ontology for digital media art and literature. It seems grandiosely Romantic, and not a little naïve, to expect that from such a proclamation an objective set of markers might emerge such that our feeling for a contingent abstraction like the aesthetic and literary through the electronic can articulate distinctly from artistic impulses, processes, and products in supports that are not electronically mediated. This question extends the inquiry of aesthetic ontology that new expressive traditions ask themselves from time to time. As a case of art – that is, as aesthetic material – film?s own ontological ground was explored by a long procession of deep thinking compressed into less than seven decades, to include the writings of Sigfried Kracauer, Rudolf Arnheim, Stanley Cavell, Susan Sontag, Irving Singer, and rather less cogently, André Bazin and Slavoj Žižek. By invoking the name of ontology it ought to be clear, then, that I am referring to theory, not criticism; Kracauer is theory; Pauline Kael is criticism. Theory?s importance can be gauged by its influence on criticism; criticism?s importance lies in its effect on the public, to whom it addresses itself. Theory?s audience is different; it listens and speaks to the broadest swath of history. Criticism is more constrained to (and by) specific works and topical trends. Criticism cannot address areas that are central to philosophy but which theory can graze because of its connection to the structural foundations of the philosophical.

To further clarify terms here, critique is philosophy, as we know from the title of many a great treatise, while criticism is the hovering over a critique without the stance of a rigorous framework. One of these post-critical concerns is the question of ontology. Reminding ourselves in the twentieth century of a much older lineage of inquiry, we know – perhaps most recently from Heidegger – that ontology is not theory, it is an interrogation of essence. Framing the question of new media art and literature as an interrogation of this kind impels us to think in less ideologically constrained terms, and while ideas of an “essence” may be both naïve and elusive, the notion of process seems much closer to what we might be seeking. For if we imagine anything like a “discipline” of digital aesthetics and poetics at this historical moment, we are soon caught by the care with which electronically mediated creative expression has been chronicled both as process and as result. In digital art, the result, as a visual product, has been the materia prima, whereas in electronic literature, it is the process that has enjoyed greater exposition in monographs, blogs, journals, conferences, groups, and organizations like this one, so that its discursive space is filled as much by objects of expression as by writerly documents of its functionality.

It is the latter of these lines of effort that has enabled electronic literature to begin its successful path toward legitimization within the academy. Some of the humanities have become digital humanities by – perhaps  temporarily – coming to the engineering paradigm and looking empirically at what comprises mechanisms for organizing memes of principally linguistic expression. In varying degrees, the aesthetization of these mechanisms has reflected the language of information systems and has not avoided showing the computational character of works of electronic literature. That books have emerged with titles like Katherine Hayles?s Writing Machines suggests that the discourse of industry has become embedded into that of poetics, aesthetics, and creative expression. This synthesis of tongues is largely responsible for our ability as critics to speak of textual fluidity and poetic process in an objective manner unlike ever before, and has bestowed a degree of stability to concepts and observations that a discipline needs. Freud followed the same pattern in the establishment of psychoanalysis, adopting metaphors like “pressure” and “sublimation” from the language of mechanical engineering for a new poetics of subconscious motivation.

I am of course not claiming that electronic art and literature harbor scientific ambitions, but rather that they now reflect a structural foundation that was lacking before major contributions to the idea of an aesthetic or poetic framework emerged, even while computational explanations of poiesis were there from the beginning. Responding to a need for objective discussion of texts and games, Espen Aarseth?s Cybertext in the late 1990?s exerted the same formalist impact on digital theory that Northrop Frye?s Anatomy of Criticism had on literary theory half a century earlier. Such was Frye?s objectivist call that not until almost ten years later, with Barthes?s idea of the writerly text, Derrida?s deconstruction and Iser?s work on reader-response does attention turn back again to complex phenomenologies of literary reception, away from the objectivist centrality of structural relations as functional constituents of a literary work.

From Exposition

I mention all of this so as to acknowledge this return from mechanism to subjectivism as the central experience of the text in this discussion. However, is isn?t human subjectivism that I want to discuss here, but rather that of the text or art machine, so the discussion is not about a full return, but rather a helical recurrence, a flyover, based neither on structural/medium nor reader-reception terms, but on those of a third path, unique to electronic art and literature, which come into view when we can feel a work escaping its own expressive plane in favor of a recursive observation of its own process, that is, in what we might imagine a mirror phenomenology. What is the demonstrable evidence of this subjectivity? It is the work?s aesthetic when it operates in tension with its own frame, its own Dasein, its being-there present to us as an automatic apparatus but one that is powered by a move toward the transcendence its own framed representation, exposing reflective qualities that resemble those of human engagement itself, which they prompt.

Interested in suggesting something beyond language, beyond representation, I am invoking the impression of a mirror so as speak of the being of a particular genus in some very familiar examples of electronic art and literature. So the process in question is not presentation but rather the escape from presentation, where trajectories or acts of perception, understood as a line traced from the object to the viewer, open out onto something different, where the work additionally behaves as its own viewer or reader. That is, the work assumes and performs the position of its Other, the vantage that we have historically occupied.

In order to effect this move, the work of art or literature must transcend the conventional conditions of its own medium as a structure of exhibition – that is, the conditions of mere presentation that I encapsulate with the first Exposition state in the opening diagram. To operate while suggesting a sense of itself, it would bring us to contemplate how it could be effecting something of its own contemplation. But why the transcendence of its own medium-hood? In order to operate to show, to illustrate, to demonstrate and to convey its own reading, a work must invert the structure provided by its medium so as to become a passive listener, reader, or beholder, and in so doing, is no longer operating through an original transmissive function, it is refuting that function by becoming the Other, the target of itself.

Perhaps we could say that such mirroring exists here in a limited form of Lacan?s view of the child?s first consciousness of individuation. There, the specular image, the image spéculaire, refers both to the simultaneous appearance of the body on a reflective surface and to the reflective act that the child experiences in seeing this second image, this “little other”. The mirroring act gradually extends from something limited to a physical medium to what is performed by humans interacting with the child, where the child can see his or her actions mirrored in those of the adult in gestural play. By implication, we can take Lacan?s argument to imply a further milestone in the development of social cognition as the exactitude of this interaction gives way to looser forms of dialogue and relationship, enabling the child to move from the expectation of strict reflection to one of unrestricted response as the primary means of engagement with the world. This amplification of the mirror process is what permits, without overwhelming confusion, the emergence of behavior outside of the expectation frame of the habitus, the environment as an always-there arrangement of phenomena. That is, with the appearance of the Other, the regularities of the observable field begin to perform differently but have not yet become understood as entirely self-aware or self-observing, the Other is still an other, and the notion of a projection whose source is what is doing the looking is not yet established, even though a rustle of deviance in the framework of the image is already evident. This is the realm of reality as the performative apparatus and in electronic textuality, it is that to which the poem For All Seasons conforms.

Transgression : Mueller?s For All Seasons,

A case of this transcendence is the secondary use of letters and words as nontextual objects, thus denying their literary function as tokens of language, as we see in Andreas Mueller?s familiar For All Seasons, where a quartet of prose pages establishes, by way of exposition, some memory embedded in the author?s experience during each season of the year. In each case, the linguistic system becomes subject to breakdown, the electronic medium showing its characteristic dynamism in allowing the text?s words to be participants in a transcendence from language and escape from the structure of textual reading, out into a figurative evocation of the recalled memory in question.

Mueller_ForAllSeasonsFigure 1. Andreas Mueller, For All Seasons. Software.

But is playful rupture in this text?s formal transcendence – no doubt a literary purist might balk at this flouting of print?s function – the sum of what we experience in For All Seasons? After all, it ends – as concept and process – as it began: as a case of transcendence, as an inverting departure from nullified image within a formal text to nullified text within a formal image, yet one without return or resolution using those same terms of form, image, or space. The escape from one form into the emergence of another is articulated through the mimetic suggestibility of natural forces at work – fish gliding through streams, the pull of gravity on falling snow, and the turbulent vortices of windstorms – and in their modification of our reading from a poetic to aesthetic one, and our relationship to the text from a lexical to a visual one. So although textuality recedes and imagery emerges, the transition is purely surface-level and retinal, if clever. The integrity of the narrative is reinforced by this translation of form because the electronic medium is equidistant from either form, text or image. Its intimacy is only with the modality of dynamic change and translation. But that very closeness to processes of alteration is what allows us to imagine it as a medium for reflection, for altering the position of the instrument itself from something invisible or transparent to something self-indicative. And in fact, for something closer to post-transcendental reflection on the work, we don?t have to resort to electronic media at all. We can imagine two examples, one each from the world of postmodern visual and the postmodern literary.

Transgression : Decollage and Humument

Reflection, always an act of turning-about, is especially evident in the arsenal of conceptual artists, who since Duchamp?s physical ninety-degree turn of non-art objects into new poses have taken materials out of their original contexts of expression and repositioned them so as to interrogate how they contribute to a kind of Cultural Invisible. Finding new basic material not in visual art?s readymade but in the already-made of advertising, Jacques Villeglé has for five decades spoken through disruption by assembling new visual conversations out of elements once employed as tokens in that space.

Jacques Villegle -Carrefour Sylvia Montfort - Picasso 1973Figure 2. Jacques Villegle, Carrefour Sylvia Montfort – Picasso, 1973. décollage mounted on canvas.

Wrenching poster chunks from their wall sites throughout Paris and fighting – or perhaps colluding – with the adhesive that fixed them into place, Villeglé?s reconfigured shards are subsequently reorchestrated into new visual orders entirely distinct from those of their origins. That messages of material consumption now speak as elements of aesthetic production suggests that reflective media are always appropriative. And while the scenes of playful reuse set the conceptual tone of these works, the ghost of culture industry hovers persistently over them. It is a tension between the original, as intended perceptual and the new, as inverted conceptual, so that, echoing with hypnotic reference to the world from which they were torn; these shards are hostages of reference between that and that other no less constructed world of conceptual art. The same approach appears in the classic and all-too-well known re-text A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel, Tom Phillips?s usurpation of an original text, rendered essentially inconsequential if not by history, then by his conversion of it into a palimpsest, is an example of the secondary discourse of de-literature. The book?s pages, each defaced, or re-faced, in a unique way, foster a new reading through a selection of words that does not conform to the text?s conventional order.

TomPhillips_Humument_P210Figure 3. Tom Phillips, A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel, Page 210, Tetrad Press Edition, 1970[-75]

The transcendence in evidence in Villeglé and Phillips is marked by an indisputable escape from the work?s original structure, where dissimulation inverts into revelation, not only of the second reading enforced by the new field of legibility created on each page, but more widely as the system of denial of the base text in which one identity yields to a new set of relations comprising both another text and another textual practice. This comes nearer to the mirror phenomenology of which I am speaking, but by nonetheless lacking evidence of its own self-observation, cannot be said to converge back onto the reflexive.

Reflexivity: Industrial Wall Panels and The Readers Project

In fact, the move is nontrivial. Works that appear to behave with mirror-like reflexivity cannot simply choose to do so, they must first establish themselves with the same attention to structure that static representative works possess. This foundation, which conveys a kind of propositional logic or order as a first step, is necessary as a basis for the subsequent refutation through which the work exercises any perceptible transcendence, what I call an impulse to freedom from the strictures not of its form but its function as a representative object, as named by the second stage here. This transcendence is often the final destination for much electronic art and literature; it finds its ontological fulfillment in the breakdown of the order, logic, or structure that was first exposed. But only when the work makes itself part of the solipsistic process of its own being can it express as icon and index simultaneously.


Figure 4. Andrew Neumann, Quartet, 2005. Panel, solid state video, LCD screen, and electronics.

Here we enter the world of Andrew Neumann, for example, in whose series of Industrial Wall Panels there hangs an unsettling symmetry of perception locked in the structured of work that allows us to see observe it observing itself and showing us both its presentation and representation in a single field of view. We might moreover observe that the process of self-observation is a transparent mark or index into its own logic and flow of operation. This is crucial to the notion of a machine-level subjectivity; we must see it having a feeling for itself as an organism.

Neumann?s panels capture the reflexive potential in sculpture. For a case of reflexivity in electronic literature that is equally centrifugal, there is the compound plurality of autonomous textual readings known as The Readers Project. Horizontally landscaped across two pages with ample margins, this work appears at first sight to operate as a conventional text for a conventional reading. Soon, however, notice is taken of the fact that the text, already in sublimated grey against its white backdrop, is itself is some flux, it isn?t moving but it isn?t stable. We might notice that between the plane of its presentation and that of our viewerly observation is an intermediate layer or process that affects this transparency. What is being altered is evidence of what is being performed; as the work exists principally not to present texts but to present readings, and offers us both.

TRPFigure 5. John Cayley and Daniel Howe, The Readers Project (screen capture).

The chromatic shapes that traverse over the text are readers – machines which like human readers, possess specific behaviors aligned around the selection of words that conforms to an order of meaning. What The Readers Project documents is the distance between the method of reading and that of meaning-making that for us is one and the same. But the distinction is worth contemplating, for lexical scanning is dependent only on the regular presence of text, but to make meaning, a departure from that foundation is necessary, and this is the basis of all subjective reading. What The Readers Project makes strange is what is to us so familiar, and this strangeness, with its aesthetic logic is based on the fact that each of the readers here, shown in its own color, operates according to its own trajectory, the rules of which are unique to each.

Following the acrostic tradition explored by Jackson Mac Low, John Cage, and other explorers of structural transgression through axial reordering, the first reader, a Mesostic, selects words for reading when these possess a letter comprising a pre-intended word. The reader wants to predetermine what it reads by creating words from letters cutting across other words, as shown in the highlighted uppercase element. Seen separately, the reader is a selection system intended to reflect the creation of a word not in any of the words it reads, and therefore its notion of “reading” refers rather to concordance, a process of revealing word patterns constructed perpendicularly to actual texts.


Figure 6. The Readers Project, partial view of a mesostic reading.
The vertical word “READING” is found across lines of text and
is marked by capitalization within the horizontal text body.

This is not the only reading process; there are two others. There is a nearest-neighbor reader whose proclivity is to move toward the right and front, selecting words that fit any natural language trigram found to be frequently present in Google search retrievals performed in real time. This process, associative at a local level, is led by a Markov chain of terms capable of being “distracted” by lexical encounters with any term?s leading neighbor. The product of this reading resembles a meandering search for the “correct phrase” that is common experience to all speakers and writers.


Figure 7. The Readers Project, partial view of a nearest-neighbor reading.

A third reader moves in the opposite, perhaps entirely counterintuitive direction – left and up, holding in memory the last two words it has read and seeking phrasal connections with any of its neighbors that may contains such term collocations. This reflects an entirely stream-of-consciousness reading against the conventions of Western text, exercised directionally but by implication in an ontological way against the narratival offers of text?s continuities.


Figure 8. The Readers Project, partial view of a collocation reading.

If earlier on J. Hillis Miller read deconstruction as “not a dismantling of the structure of a text, but a demonstration that it has already dismantled itself. Its apparently-solid ground is no rock, but thin air”[i] it was perhaps fitting to use this very dismantling as the basis for reflexivity in a word that reads itself, posing the question not of what a text is, but what it can be when the medium realizes its own subjectivity. This domain of subjectivity is vastly broader and more influential than might be imagined, it is evident in horizons, like Wittgenstein?s early logic, far from the world of thought as structured centrally by individual perception, That is, at first, and because it emerges from the most acerbic corner of modern analytic philosophy, Wittgenstein?s Tractatus: has something to say about formal logic, which is to say, the denial of subjective readings. Except, of course, that his movements within the structure of logic are entirely from within that body, not from the removed position of logic?s pedigree of declarative otherness. So when he observes that “The internal relation which orders a series is equivalent to the operation by which one term arises from another” (5.23) he describes not action from the margins but from the core of motivation, which is to say, the possibility of acquaintance with conditions of truth from within, where the order exists not as form but as cause of form, cause of meaning. And that is a phenomenological compression that likewise comprises the truth conditions of text as a world of propositions and of image pictures, even if they mutually appear to cancel one another out.

[i] J. Hillis Miller, “Stevens? Rock and Criticism as Cure,” Georgia Review.30 (1976): 34.

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