Improve Your Algorithm

Claiming the Technological Landscape


In 1999, science-fiction novelist William Gibson told an anecdote on the BBC radio programme Desert Island Discs about how he came up with the notion of ‘cyberspace’ for several short stories and his novel Neuromancer, 1984. Although he didn’t invent the term, his imagination helped to popularise its use and prefigured the implications of social interaction in the nascent world wide web: ‘With cyberspace, I found the first Sony Walkman – which is still my favourite piece of late-20th-century technology – and for the first time in my life I was able to take the music I wanted to listen to into any environment. And while moving through space with it, I saw a poster in a shop window for the first Apple IIc, which immediately preceded the first Mac, and I looked at that and I thought, “What if the relationship to the information that this machine processes could be like the relationship I’m having to my music that my Walkman processes?”’ Somehow I could see that this stuff was going to get under our skin; the Walkman is very very physically intimate technology and computing, as it was then, wasn’t very physically intimate – but I thought, “Why not?”’

Around the time Neuromancer came out, Chicago-based sci-fi buff Leo Melamed was penning his own book, inspired by the launch of Pioneer 10, the 1972 space probe with Carl Sagan’s 10-inch inscribed plaque designed to communicate basic facts about humanity to any intelligent aliens who might encounter the craft. In the resulting story, The Tenth Planet, the probe is found in another solar system by a federation of five planets run by an all-encompassing computer named Putral which must decide how to respond to the unexpected message. The innovation in the story, though, is more in its application than in its insight. Melamed was a lawyer who happened, at the time, to be chairman of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. By the time the book was published in 1987, he had reimagined Putral as a way of transforming the standard open outcry floor of stock trading, and that same year he launched Globex, the world’s first electronic trading system that changed the trading of stock index futures and the global financial landscape forever.

Fiona Marron, After Automation, 2013, video still.

Fiona Marron, After Automation, 2013, video still. Image courtesy the artist.

Melamed tells the story of his innovation humbly, in a rambling casual monologue, occasionally pausing to glance over his shoulder at the four computer screens and one tablet that line his desk ticking away with graphs and trading information. This extended interview is the backbone of Dublin-based artist Fiona Marron’s immaculate video After Automation, 2013. Melamed’s exposition is intercut with scenes from an Atlantic fibre optic cable repair ship. Running along the seabed, these cables link continents carrying the information we incessantly ping pong back and forth. In her exhibition ‘Co-Location’ at Rua Red in Dublin last year, the video was projected on to a screen mounted within Inverted Catafalque, 2013, a wooden upright octagonal frame constructed according to the design of the trading pit of the world’s oldest exchange, the Chicago Board of Trade. The seating provided for the screening is a pair of heavy-duty cases that normally house some of the optic cable repair equipment on display in the exhibition. As Melamed talks about information passing between planets and companies, we are seated among a series of concrete examples of the media for such exchanges.

Marron’s research in previous work has followed the trail of economics and the histories of stock exchanges: in After Automation, she finds a narrative that manages on the one hand to recount a familiar ‘science fictions are happening now’ trope, but on the other also exposes futures stock trading as the speculative fiction that it is. We are left somewhere in between; there is the vindication of feeling like you have uncovered some sort of paradigmatic conspiracy theory, yet this is tinged with guilt because of course you rely on these transatlantic wires as well. But does that mean you owe something to this seemingly affable man, who is ultimately also an economic bureaucrat? Gibson’s origin story is somewhat more alluring, but that is as much to do with what it doesn’t mention as with what it does; its emphasis on tactility and phenomenological perception is expressly non-economic and apolitical. Try reading it again, but this time imagining it as a testimonial for a transhumanist operation clinic. Is it still alluring? Melamed’s concerns seem more detached to a monetary ignoramus like me, but he is simply on the business end of the same stick. The extent to which we are implicated in technology is perhaps disclosed in how we use it. Both Gibson and Melamed are notable figures in that they straddle the narrowing gap between ‘digital’ and ‘real’ dimensions, but what marks out the importance of their activities is simply the recognition of a space for interaction and defining it.

In the first of Adam Curtis’s trio of subjective documentaries All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace, 2011, he quotes ‘Pandora’s Vox: on community in cyberspace’, a well-known 1994 essay by ‘humdog’, the alias of Carmen Hermosillo, who was an early participant in online forums of the early 1990s. Warning of the dangers of gender disappearance and mis-idealisations online, she wrote: ‘[cyberspace] is a black hole; it absorbs energy and personality and then re-presents it as spectacle … I have seen many people spill their guts on-line, and I did so myself until, at last, I began to see that I had commodified myself … I created my interior thoughts as a means of production for the corporation that owned the board I was posting to, and that commodity was being sold to other commodity/consumer entities as entertainment.’ Hermosillo’s alarm is admirable, but over 30 years after Gibson’s innocuous moment outside a computer store, the majority of us in the developed world carry a small computer on us at all times which acts as a combined telecommunications, global positioning, media producer and entertainment device on which many of us consistently might not ‘spill our guts’, but at the very least willingly provide more than enough information to data companies designed as email, image, and networking services. Curtis’s work on a popular level, alongside books like Fred Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture, 2006 (the book also formed a central impulse behind the exhibition ‘The Whole Earth: California and the Disappearance of the Outside’, curated by Anselm Franke and Diedrich Diedrechsen at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin last year), and Evgeny Morozov’s The Net Delusion, 2012, as well as his essays in the New Yorker and The Financial Times, have helped contribute to a growing examination of the history of the recent technological past, tracing the trajectories from hippie visions of liberation, cybernetic systems and Silicon Valley success stories. Edward Snowden’s disclosures have helped spark a public awareness and debate about where those aspirations might have led us. But the next step in shifting the debate could be away from paranoia and Matrix-like reductivism to a more proactive embrace.

There is one sentence in humdog’s ‘Pandora’ essay: ‘language in cyberspace is a frozen landscape.’ The line refers to both the sense of isolation people feel when positing their personal stories online, but also about their posts remaining online long after they had written them. The comment though, is appropriate not simply because the linguistic bases of the digital realm lies in binary and programming language. If there is a salient trait we can find in the conceptual pioneers and advocates of the cybernetic systems and its rhizomatic networks, it is the neologistic tendency and the coining of new phrases. If, as Wittgenstein claimed in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus of 1922, ‘the limits of my language means the limits of my world’, Buckminster Fuller’s ‘synergenics’, Stewart Brand’s ‘broadcatching’ or Tim O’Reilly’s ‘Web 2.0’ (to name but a scant few from any number of ‘what I call…’ words and phrases from these figures) are the means of, if not inventing, then owning a new territory. It is this pioneering attitude, more than the technology itself, that could be seen to define the incipient cybernetic paradigm: everything is merely a ‘system’ in need of an ‘interface’.

Interestingly, in the histories mentioned above, the role of artists in all this, if at all, is as witnesses and occasional commentators – not as participants, disseminators, promulgators or creators. There is a claim to be made for Brian Eno to be the most popular proponent of cybernetic principles of the past few decades – if not for his own incessant neologisms or screensaver visual art, then in the spread of his systems-based sound work. Eno’s mentor Roy Ascott was himself a more explicit promoter of those principles, in both his multimedia art and a series of essays from the 1960s onwards. The most comprehensively detailed exposition of his vision is perhaps his 1990 essay ‘Is There Love In the Telematic Embrace?’ The understanding of content and audience must change, he claims, in a system where the artwork is simply an interface to a wider, dynamic movement; the ‘observer’ who interacts is then implicitly a creator: ‘Love is contained in this total embrace; all that escapes is reason and certainty. By participating in the embrace, the viewer comes to be a progenitor of the semantic issue.’

In the growing debates around artistic practices since the advent of the digital realm, terms like ‘new media’, ‘new aesthetic’ and ‘post-internet’ have attempted to outline the ways in which we create and understand in this new landscape. This is necessary, vital work, but it often seems reduced to a literal definition of computer-based or originated work, overly fascinated by rough digital editing or pastel colours, and underpinned by an inferiority complex that whatever we perceive as reality will be replaced by artificial intelligence. Several recent examples of artists creating immersive installations that don’t necessarily fall under those current terms of the debate seem to highlight a gap in what might be missing from the discussion. What inspired this essay is a set of more physical installations that implicate and mire the viewer in a sense of the historiography of the recent technological past and its potential futures. Jumping between timelines, the territory isn’t exclusively digital, acknowledging that it is our actions that can be abstracted to create Big Data, and that algorithms are merely a set of instructions. Beyond Ascott’s idealistic rhetoric, these works could be seen as a few brief examples of a way to re-imagine and re-politicise the artistic relationships he desired, as they equally implicate and interpellate both artist and viewer.

Simon Denny, All You Need is Data: DLD Conference 2012 Redux, 2013, installation view Petzel Gallery.

Simon Denny, All You Need is Data: DLD Conference 2012 Redux, 2013, installation view Petzel Gallery.

‘One of the most important things about globalisation is content is very similar region to region – LL Cool J is incredibly popular in China.’ The quote, placed next to an image of a few men sitting on a stage while above them two screens simply show the word ‘POWER’, was part of Simon Denny’s 2013 installation All You Need is Data: the DLD Conference 2012 REDUX, shown at the Munich Kunstverein and Petzel Gallery in New York. The work comprised a set of 89 digitally-printed canvases, all mounted on railings at waist height and facing one direction. The canvases look like student-designed posters, crammed with quotes in several different fonts and with photos framed to look like Polaroids all on a fake wood-panelled background. The posters detail the Digital Life Design Conference, a high-end international networking get-together held in Munich each year (and which since 2012 has had an annual panel on ‘art and technology’ led by Hans Ulrich Obrist). Denny’s exhibition in the city coincided with the 2013 version of the conference, and each poster flagged up themes for 2012 sessions: ‘The End of Illness’, ‘Start-Up Nation’, ‘University 2.0’, ‘Super-Earths’. As we threaded our way back and forth among the railings that guided us, we were bombarded with sound-bite quotes from the speakers (John Donahoe, CEO of eBay: ‘I think you’ll see a significant reduction on retail storefronts, but retail’s stores will still play a role. Ultimately bricks and clicks is going to be a winning formula.’) Based in Berlin, the New Zealand-born artist has made a series of works looking at moments such as the arrest of Megaupload hacker/entrepreneur Kim Dotcom, or the transfer from analogue to digital television and the equipment debris that remains after such a shift. The link between his works might be the personal reverberations and aftershocks that result from the seemingly distant techie headlines. His ‘DLD Redux’ is a frustrating and fascinating maze, the determinedly lo-fi execution undermining some of the self-styled propheteering bouncing around the room. These figures depicted clearly believe they are shaping the future but, as Denny suggests, they still need to account for how those aspirations will be made manifest (or, at the very least, acknowledge that LL Cool J hasn’t been popular in Europe and North America since the 1990s).

Dennis McNulty, a could of soft equations, 2014, performance documentation.

Dennis McNulty, a could of soft equations, 2014, performance documentation. Image courtesy the artist, Pallas Projects/Studios and Irish Architecture Foundation.

Dublin-based Dennis McNulty has in recent years constructed a series of durational events that combine performance, music, cinema and sculpture, moving between prerecorded and live elements into a sort of hybrid meta-style performance. A cloud of soft equations, 2014, developed from a project McNulty carried out for Performa 11 and since performed in Berlin and Dublin, taking on a new name in each venue it is performed. It begins by contrasting the architectural aspirations of early 20th-century Russia and late 20th-century America: ‘I think we don’t know what the face of something new is’, a voice emanating from a speaker in a darkened room proclaims. The words are from architect Peter Eisenman, as the audience flips through a pamphlet which segues through details of a 1927 image of Konstantin Melnikov outside his cylindrical house while it was under construction. Each page turn is choreographed by the familiar beep from children’s guided reading stories, the voice complemented by the staggered, shuffling sound of a group people page-turning at roughly the same time. What defines McNulty’s performances is a layered awareness of temporal, technological and spatial contrasts. In one scene, an actor at a small lamp-lit desk reads out the press release for the 1988 ‘Deconstructivist Architecture’ exhibition at MoMA, New York, before using a small octagonal mirror to outline the room’s ceiling with the reflected light. Then another actor has a conversation with a voice playing from a vinyl record, placing transparencies on an overhead projector while she speaks. Improbably enough, the voice on the record speaks languidly about the FLOW-MATIC programming language and its relationship to COBOL and the Y2K bug. The juxtapositions of soft equations posit COBOL as another expressive medium, and architecture as another language in which we are embedded. Like the work of Marron, Denny and others, McNulty creates an uneasy sense of jumping back and forth somewhere from 50 years back into the past to 50 years forward into the future, with the audience placed smack in the middle. In soft equations, the record at one point seems to get stuck, as the voice describes data that is ‘so critical, so crucial, so essential, so transient, so abnormal, so infinite, so unstoppable, the guardians are reluctant to let them come to rest, language hidden deep inside these things that control other things that control other things that control other things…’ So if we are so helplessly embedded, what do we do? We can attempt situate and contextualise the ostensibly apolitical role of the pioneering programmer, and begin to analyse the realpolitk of the rhetoric and end uses of self-proclaimed ‘open systems.’ The work here, alongside that of artists like Rolf Nowoty, Rachael Champion, and countless others, open out ways that this terrain has been claimed, and indicate other ways to understand the ‘digital’ within the wider context in which we all take part. To start with, we can at least acknowledge that we are the data, set within a landscape defined by our own language.

Originally published in Art Monthly 374, March 2014.

Trisha Baga: Rock

Vilma Gold, London

4 April – 30 June 2012

Trisha Baga, 'Rock' installation view, image courtesy the artist and Vilma Gold

Trisha Baga, ‘Rock’ installation view, image courtesy the artist and Vilma Gold

Trisha Baga’s three projection installations feel like a head-on collision between someone’s home video collection and the props department from Pee Wee’s Playhouse, leaving us to muse over the wreckage. Boxes, wires, and various odd objects litter the floor, while projector light casts long shadows across the gallery. A portable stereo covered in spray-on rock blocks off the bottom part of the video of Plymouth Rock (all works 2012). The eponymous rock was a stone declared (121 years after the ‘fact’) the first solid thing stood on by the Mayflower pilgrims to the USA, moved, split and repaired numerous times since then. Baga re-interprets its story as a disjointed, multi-layered sensual adventure: what appear like someone’s holiday videos – visits to the zoo, the beach, and to the Plymouth Rock itself – are digitally cut up, drawn on, subtitled, dubbed, and wiped over.  ‘My body wasn’t made for this’, a caption states, as if bemoaning its dismemberment.

In a highly orchestrated dance, Baga pulls out every cinematic and theatrical fourth-wall trick in the book, with a mismatched cut-up soundtrack that includes music from American Beauty, Gloria Estefan’s ‘Rhythm is Gonna Get You’, and occasional low, muttering voices. Paintings hung on the wall are occasionally lit up, framed by shapes within the projected image itself, while paint-like swirls float around the screen. Wave-like digital squiggles appear on top of actual sea footage. Baga recognises the screen as a space we invest ourselves in, but also seems interested in finding out what sort of space it becomes when you get all hyper-Brechtian on it, or as one narrator from Plymouth puts it, to “find that place where I stop and you begin so you can go there and the place where we are can get bigger and bigger”.

But in this search Baga also indulges the urge to spell out the paradox of the fractured surface on every level. In Soft Rock, a small bust of a Greek warrior is cracked in two, his head sitting atop a Justin Beiber book, his shoulder on the other side of the room. We get it: the body is fractured, but still legible. In Hard Rock, a 3D digital rendition of a cardboard box revolves in the projection, several real cardboard boxes scattered on the floor. So yes, the experience of the pixel box is different from the ‘real’ box, even more so when your 3D glasses keep turning themselves off. But where often-mentioned artists like Ed Atkins and Helen Martens explore the digital-physical ravine with video and sculpture trade-offs, Baga seems to locate the issue more precisely in our own skipping, tangled processes of attention. ‘Rock’ suggests that the patchwork history of the Plymouth rock, and the formation of any narrative, is like the window-dodging clicking of on-screen computer browsing, or the collage of listening to the radio while driving through the advertising-soaked city. Between the shadows, images within the images, and echoing sounds, it’s all just layers to be collected and navigated. We’re left as ghostly beachcombers, asked to accept there is no whole we can ever piece together.

Originally published in Art Review 61, September 2012

Clench: Art Post-Electric Toothbrush



6 March 2014, London - Just as modernism concerned itself with the relationship between craft and the emergent technologies of its era, the most pressing condition underlying contemporary culture may be the omnipresence of the electric toothbrush. Though the terminology with which we describe these phenomena has yet to be widely adopted, this exhibition presents a broad survey of art created with a consciousness of the technological and human networks within which it exists, from conception and production to dissemination and reception. This work, primarily produced by artists living in New York, London, and Berlin, has been controversially defined as “post-electric toothbrush.”

The term ‘post-electric toothbrush’ has emerged as a popular descriptor of recent visual art and its surrounding discourse. While no cogent definition of the term has been collectively agreed upon, post-electric toothbrush stances share an assumption that technological conditions in general, and lifelong electric toothbrush immersion in particular, offer an increasingly useful frame through which to understand contemporary artistic practice.

“Post-electric toothbrush” refers not to a time “after” the electric toothbrush, but rather to an electric toothbrush state of mind—to think in the fashion of the perfect personal hygiene. From the changing nature of image to the circulation of cleaning products and new understandings of materiality, the interventions presented under this rubric attempt nothing short of the redefinition of art for the age of the electric toothbrush.

As such, the exhibition considers issues related to electric toothbrush policy, dental mining, the physicality of personal hygiene, and theories surrounding posthumanism. It looks at changes taking place in the age of the ubiquitous electric toothbrush, to information dispersion, hygiene documentation, human language as our teeth change shape, and approaches to tooth history.

It is important to also note that “being Post-Electric Toothbrush” is a distinction which carries ramifications beyond the art context as a societal condition at large, and that it would be antithetical to attempt to pinpoint any discrete moment at which the Post-Electric Toothbrush period begins. Any cultural production which has been influenced by a perfect hygiene ideology falls under the rubric of Post-Electric Toothbrush. The term is therefore not discretely tied to a certain event, though it could be argued that the bulk of the cultural shifts described herein come with the introduction of privately-run commercial dental service providers and the availability of that important tool: personal, affordable electric toothbrushes.

To what forms of practice can this thinking be applied? Do they cohere into a recognisable field or movement? What aesthetic and conceptual frameworks emerge from such positions? Is post-electric toothbrush art simply a voguish, mass-palatable rejoinder to the electric toothbrush art of yesteryear? With the erosion and rounding of the population’s incisors, can we begin to envision a moment post-tooth? ‘Clench’ considers issues such as increasingly popular post-human and corporate aesthetics, the museum’s role in post-electric toothbrush art’s potential canonisation, and the relationship of post-electric toothbrush art to its mouth-based forebears.



Uri Aran: Doctor, Dog, Sandwich

“I’ve discovered,” claims the haughty voice-over of Uri Aran’s video Harry, 2007, “I can provoke just a bit, but with a certain charm or grace it will go unpunished.” This cheeky brinksmanship runs through the sculptures, drawings and videos in Aran’s exhibition Doctor, Dog, Sandwich [Mother’s Tankstation; 15 September – 30 October, 2010]. Works that are at times trying, dissipated, wilfully obscure or just plain absurd are balanced, or at least slightly reined in, by also being playfully open-ended and gently humorous. Cumulatively, they manage to construct a comprehensive, if unsettling, sort of non-sense. His repeated use of horses, dogs, and cookies throughout the show gives a heavy whiff of adolescence, like one of those innocuous posters of cute puppies found in a girl’s bedroom.  But in Aran’s work, it’s as if someone has snuck into the bedroom in the middle of night and replaced the ‘Hang in there!’ words of dainty encouragement on the poster with random gibberish, something like ‘Idiot boat turtle’, leaving us as witnesses to an indefinable crime and with a vague sense of violation.

Uri Aran, Untitled (D), 2010, computer drawing, inkjet print. Image courtesy Mother's Tankstation.

Uri Aran, Untitled (D), 2010, computer drawing, inkjet print. Image courtesy Mother’s Tankstation.

A pair of desks leave a trail of clues, the wood shavings from repeated holes bored into the furniture scattered on top, alongside chocolate chip cookies, fake eyelashes, a plastic coin and a cat toy, all mired in sticky pools of uneven wood varnish. A small black and white TV, the kind that people used to have on top of their fridge, sits on the desktop of Couldn’t be here, 2010, endlessly repeating the final credits of 1979’s Black Stallion, complete with soaring strings and a boy and his horse frolicking in the sand. These works exude a precise sense of neurotic frustration, an extreme instance of a bored pupil etching their criticisms of school into their desk. There’s a similar sense of mis-firing education coming from the poster Unititled (By), 2010, where a cluster of internet-sourced portraits of people, horses and dogs are seemingly arbitrarily assigned a mode of transport. An earnest-looking Labrador is labelled ‘by boat’; a poodle wearing a beret, ‘by car’; a studio shot of a German Shepherd, ‘by train.’ The careful accumulation of these placements and designations starts to lend each image and item the weight of a cryptic symbolism, but one, you suspect, that might be hollow.

The video The Donut Gang, 2009, is an assemblage of voiced-over rehearsals, easy-listening music, and footage of a girl (in horse-patterned pyjamas, of course) trying out different phrases prompted by the camera operator. It is, as a bold title at the start proclaims, ‘A VIDEO’, while the English-accented narrator stumbles over what sounds like is meant to be a joke: “What’s round, green on the outside, red on the inside, has pips, and is sweet?” There is no punchline, just the implication of one extending from the structure of the question. Likewise, the video doesn’t claim any subject, appearing more as the preparation towards a video, though still occupying its formal structures as simply moving image placed alongside sound. The girl waves at you with the arm of an Elmo toy, with a high-pitched “Hello!,” while the narrator repeats countless times, “We tried to stay awake all night. It was so much fun.” The patterns of sounds from Aran’s other works begin to interject and interrupt: Harry’s narrator incessantly trying out phrases like ‘my love,’ ‘my dear,’ a low grumble from the crying man embracing a dog in Untitled, 2006, all the while the music from Black Stallion placing us in a swirling, never ending melodrama.

Aran’s repetition of phrases, imagery, and cultural idioms has a strange effect; as incidental occurrences, he astutely multiplies them to the frequency so as to be co-incidental, to suggest an apparent structure. But at the same time, like the experience of looking at a word until it becomes unfamiliar, their repetition moves them towards dissolution and meaninglessness. Aran’s structures are hollow, his focus instead to find in their frameworks the exact point of tension that provisionally holds together these disparate elements that are constantly threatening to collapse.

Originally published in Art Papers, Vol. 34 No. 6, November – December 2010.

April London Round Up

Matt’s Gallery Ÿ- White Cube -Ÿ Michael Werner -Ÿ Carlos/Ishikawa

‘Some lines shouldn’t be crossed’, ran the tagline for Joel Schumacher’s hammy 1990 thriller Flatliners. In the film, the vision of the afterlife momentarily encountered by the daredevil medical students is one of guilt, each haunted by past actions. The by-now familiar melodramatic scenes of near-death experiences (NDEs) – out of body perspectives, lights at the end of tunnels, encounters with long-gone kin – are all there. If Kiefer Sutherland being dead, even if just for 12 minutes, wasn’t enough for you though, you could find all the NDE tropes laid out in long form in Susan Hiller’s installation Channels, 2013, at Matt’s Gallery. A babble of voices streams from a wall of TVs and aged monitors, either blank, static or a solid blue screen, as if we have managed to stumble upon the same after-hours channel as the little girl in Poltergeist, 1982. Gradually an audible voice emerges from the noise, recounting their disembodiment, or feelings of universality and so forth. Despite the supposed insight of the confessional format, hearing a series of personal recountings in succession renders them generic, as though Hiller is not interested in the individual peculiarities of the stories themselves, underscored by their delivery with the flat over-enunciation of a voice actor. The barrier of screens reinforces this: it is a line we literally cannot cross. Hiller’s way of providing the collection of anecdotes acknowledges that whether they are true or not is not the issue but, rather, that we are well aware of these stories via any number of media sources, like Flatliners, The Twilight Zone or The X-Files.

For Hiller, the afterlife is irrelevant, it is already static and can only ever remain fixed at a distance. Wading through the late winter sea of reliable big-name exhibitions and sure-fire shows, though, the dead zone of the afterlife was never that far away. Kris Martin’s series ‘Lost Wax’, 2013, at White Cube Mason’s Yard might take its name from both the technique used to create his bronze casts of honeycomb and the original bees’ wax, but the material pun doesn’t make the end result any more interesting. The 16 panels sit mute, still clinging lazily to clusters of the plaster used to make the moulds. Downstairs, over a hundred tall, slim unmarked sandstone gravestones have been lined up in five rows like giant dominoes ready to be toppled with one push of the finger. That is, of course, if you were allowed anywhere near the sculpture. Cordoned off at one end of the cavernous basement, the work is stripped of any physical impact and might as well be a drawing of the one-liner it represents. The line of wire across the room ends up turning the work into a pun on its own death and the whole show a pointless paean to self-defeat.

On the other side of Mayfair, Michael Werner Gallery gathered a mini retrospective of the deceased James Lee Byars. A small room is crowded with sculptural anthropomorphic forms staring back at you, works from the 1950s and 1960s with craggy, cartoonish features and vacant round eyes. A small-screen plays the one-minute loop of Autobiography, 1970, which is mostly static, with a bluish tinge to the murky image in which a tiny figure in white appears at a distance for only a moment. A rope runs across the frame of doorway at the back of the room where we can lean in to see The Angel, 1989, on the floor of a back space. A pattern of large glass spheres that looks something like a stylised, curling plant – you can tell it is fragile – but all you can do is rely on the rote information handed to you about the work: that it consists of 125 hand-blown glass globes in the shape of the Japanese logographic kanji character for ‘man’: each made by one breath of the glass blower in Venice. Like the fleeting figure in the static mist of Autobiography, we are denied any direct, intimate experience of the work itself. Byar’s lifetime of work contained moments of quick, ephemeral poetry, usually presented incongruously alongside glitzy bombast; regardless of whether the combination appeals to you, this show managed to keep both at bay.

Steve Bishop, When the Lights Go Out You Keep Moving, 2013, Single screen projection and radio receiving audio channel

Steve Bishop, When the Lights Go Out You Keep Moving, 2013, Single screen projection and radio receiving audio channel

By contrast, we are explicitly told to ‘walk inside the wall’ when you enter Steve Bishop’s ‘An Escalator Can Never Break, It Can Only Become Stairs’ at Carlos/Ishikawa. You forget the instruction, or at least you don’t know what it means, until you have rounded the half-finished L-shaped wall partitioning the room and step over a radio playing floaty, Muzak-like piano riffs into a half-metre wide corridor within. Shuffling to the dead end, a small monitor on the floor plays When The Lights Go Out You Keep On Moving, 2013, a short video of what looks to be a showroom for revolving doors. We get close-ups of hinges and sliding doors in soft focus, the elevator music lulling us into feeling like we are stalking a closed, partly dismantled mall. In part, the show muses on the strength and mutability of corporate interior design: Lamp Looks in Different Light, 2013, is a set of tiny inkjet prints dotted around the room of one innocuous lampshade in slightly varying light levels: the difference is minimal. How Can One Thing In General Be Many Things In Particular?, 2013, is a cream-coated sheet of steel, at once resembling the panels that outfit any number of industrial constructions, whether a computer or a desk, while also positioned as a painting that could reference any number of all-white canvases from art history. (Bishop’s issue of MONO, released with the show, playfully reproduces several of these – photocopied in black and white, of course.) In one corner the door of a storage closet has been replaced with transparent film so we can see the mess of wood, boxes and packing foam inside, alongside a neon sign for the cafe that perhaps used to occupy the space. If Everything Has a Place then Place too Has a Place VIII, 2013, is part of the artist’s series of wall and partition removals across several of his exhibitions. It might expose some of the inconsequential, hidden aspects of the gallery workings, but here the casual Gordon Matta-Clark gesture seems of a different tone to the rest of ‘Escalator’, enacting a barrier crossing that undermines the studied, pointed blandness of the show.

Back in Matt’s Gallery, Mike Nelson’s untitled installation throws wide the floodgates with typical excess. A fantasy hillbilly graveyard, the room is filled with hundreds of bits of wood, metal and scrap trying to make themselves into sentient forms. Skulls and casts of monster masks perch on top of vaguely human-shaped assemblages, spider-like sprawls of iron wire squat next to chicken wire barrels that hold lumped blobs of concrete instead of fire. We are free to roam this wasteland of failed totems, the half-formed objects suggesting a setting (rather than Nelson’s normal commandeering of one), what feels like the abandoned, burnt out remains of a settlement built at a closed highway exit. This is Nelson’s sculptural afterlife, goading us to join him like Sutherland in Flatliners, ‘Today is a good day to die.’ Nelson’s only mistake may be in assuming he can force us to cross the line with him.

Originally published in Art Monthly issue 365, April 2013

Matias Faldbakken: SHALL I WRITE IT

Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zurich, November 2 – December 22, 2012

The absent question mark and all caps in the title of Matias Faldbakken’s
exhibition, SHALL I WRITE IT, is telling. It’s a bored, sarcastic, rhetorical
statement, and even before we see anything we know as well as he does that
there will no such generous outpouring of words or meaning. But Faldbakken
still goes through the motions of staging a reply, opening his press release with
familiar negatory quotes from Herman Melville’s ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’ (1853)
and Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman (1967): ‘”No” is, generally speaking,
a better answer than “Yes”.’ Hollow metal frames, empty cardboard boxes and
illegible images in a slick palette of black, white, and grey, Faldbakken’s stance
is one of tempered refusal, a game of half-hints filled with mute and resilient
objects that dare us to try and pick at their slick surfaces. The accumulative effect
is like walking through a foreboding, ruined pedestrian underpass, his work
creating a setting usually with the sense of some violence having taken place in
the near past, with the blood and graffiti, for the most part, scrubbed away.

Matias Faldbakken, SHALL I WRITE IT, installation view

Matias Faldbakken, SHALL I WRITE IT, installation view

The violence here is readily apparent: the crushed remains of two new fridges
hover at head height, strapped tightly together from either end of the expanse of
the gallery’s hallway by a long stretch of taut red and green belt, each appliance
crumpled and curled around the wall. Once the visual impact of Fridge Pull (all
works 2012) settles, though, it feels safe, its destruction more brattish than
anything else. Faldbakken’s strength lies more in obtuse threats. Two burlap
bags sit tied up on the floor: one holds, we are told, Neil Strauss’s pickup-artist
exposé The Game (2005), the other, well, it doesn’t matter, suggests the title
Sack of The Game/Sack of Another Book. After a minute, you notice the walls are
dotted regularly with screws. The framed photos they might have held up are
bundled up in two sets of Untitled (Image Sculptures) in the back room, fifteen
of them bound together in each with ratchets that have been tightened to the
point of bursting. The paired works sit dejectedly amid their own shattered
glass and splintered wood. In one, the print of a newspaper clipping gives
a view of a serene Scandinavian town, only two words legible in the cut-off
caption: ‘beautiful’ and ‘outcry’.

This is the most of an explicit narrative we’ll get out of Faldbakken. What’s
interesting is that this method, the solemnly performed ‘no’ of his work,
hasn’t changed or developed much over the past few years, so why does it
continue to feel relevant and alluring? As Greil Marcus put it in Lipstick Traces
(1989), ‘Negation is the act that would make it self-evident to everyone that
the world is not as it seems – but only when the act is so implicitly complete it
leaves open the possibility that the world may be nothing, that nihilism as well
as creation may occupy the suddenly cleared ground.’ SHALL I WRITE IT is an
incomplete negation: the world is exactly as it seems, but Faldbakken is still
trying to burrow his way through it. His work has the sort of frustratingly sleek,
calm swagger that tries to absorb everything and give away nothing. But in its
deliberate (and sellable) self-destructiveness it has the feel of consciously and even coyly trying to finger the dark, seething intestines of the consumerist game that the artist is playing. His sarcasm, at least, is honest.

Originally published in ArtReview issue 66, March 2013

February London Round Up

Before even having a chance to take in the small room, I find myself huddled close over a phone with two other people I don’t know, listening, shifting my weight from one foot to the other and looking around for a long five minutes. ‘The Romantics had at least been right about the feeling. The one thing the desert made you want to do was to stick something into it. All the empty space and hardly even a way to take a picture without it looking like something from a calendar for a half-passed year still shrink wrapped in the discount bin of a dollar store.’ A QR code provided on the only handout for Gabriele Beveridge’s ‘Newly Laundered Smile’ at Rod Barton leads to an audio file: a text by Paul Kneale read out by a woman describing a road trip, apparently to the Grand Canyon. It ends up defining the experience of the show: mentions of the desert, a Nikon camera and cigarettes in the audio find their physical correlations nestled among the faded colours of the four careful assemblages that make up the exhibitions. Close-up photos of female models’ faces, for hair or skin products or some such, are printed on perforated cloth that is frayed and peeling, with a few sad-looking potted cacti and chunks of amethyst propped underneath them. Their distant, hungry eyes follow us as we walk around, finding the magazine image of a rainbow stretching over the Grand Canyon, Gabrielle, 2012, held in a pastel rainbow frame, a lipstick box for Chanel Rouge shade ‘19 Gabrielle’ sitting on top. Beveridge’s skill is in hesitant photographic and sculptural collages that have the feel of a sort of bedroom-mantelpiece science; sun-faded salon advertisements sit alongside mementos and ephemera that might have been emptied out of a purse. The gathered surfaces create a set of anachronistic non-sequiturs, trawling up other times and places and letting them wax and wane uncertainly. Looking at a few concurrent, similarly sparse solo shows around London, they share this sense of understatement and evocation, but it is interesting to note what is needed to achieve that. ‘Newly Laundered Smile’ felt simultaneously too empty and overcrowded, the layers flattened and cancelled out by my experience of the other space of the accompanying audio text.

The breadth of two different practices manage to fit quite neatly somehow into an only slightly larger room at Arcade Fine Arts: Other People’s Trades featuring four works by Ardriaan Verwée and a single installation by Esmeralda Valencia Linström. Two empty canvas frames sit on the floor leaning on one wall, above them is the outline of a shelf made of the same wood, stained to a rich, dark brown-grey. A mirror rests flat on one side, holding up what looks like a small, overturned coffee table or stool. This gathering of Verwée’s work (each piece Untitled, 2012) has the sense of being a full-sized maquette for a furnished room, a model of an ideal sitting room of sorts already imagined in a form of disarray. This tone of ‘department store uncanny’ is reinforced by Untitled (diptych), 2012, where pieces of aluminium have been cut, painted and folded to appear like discarded scraps of blank paper.

Linström’s sculpture and double projection Nipple Drawing, 2012, crosses the floor with a set of parallel untreated planks of wood, the design offering some skewed advancement of Morse code or musical staves. Two digital projectors whirr away displaying still images: in one we can blurrily make out the ratty spines of a few books, in the other a green mould or fungal-like growth. On both a set of light lines mark the surface, as if each was a photo that had been taken to briefly by a toddler wielding a pencil. For the sake of vicinity we can find likenesses in Linström and Verwée’s work since both elicit a slow double-take through material alliances that appear settled at first; but what is more remarkable is that these two bodies of work don’t necessarily speak to each other as much as keep to themselves. It simply feels like two solo shows, each with a quiet potential that leaves you wanting to see more.

Élodie Seguin’s installation ‘Plan d’interrogation’ at Hilary Crisp is more shy and taciturn, turning one low-ceilinged room with a column into a shadowy game of hide and seek. Boards of MDF line parts of the floor, outlining the corners and crevices of the room. The hefty chunk of timber of Board, Gap, 2012, sits flat on the floor. A black rectangle is drawn on the nearby wall, as if the piece of wood’s shadow, but looking just ever so slightly off kilter. The large, upturned black ‘L’ of Crutch, 2012, stretches out from the column, almost lining up for a brief moment with another solid black rectangle on a further wall to make some semblance of a solid shape. But it is only fleeting: Seguin’s work demands motion, placing us as the motor in a constructivist mobile, where all the right angles give way to slightly misheard echoes, then to overlapping intimate whispers that ask you to lean closer, then to turn and walk back around another way.

Elodie Seguin, invisible boundaries (2012), Crutch (2012) detail

Elodie Seguin, invisible boundaries (2012), Crutch (2012) detail

Seguin’s work is a strong example of one of the current practices that productively rattle some of the ghosts of Minimalism, noiselessly taking up their sense of phenomenology and a politics of exhibition display. But taking that awareness of context, a sense of politicised movement and understatement to another level is John Knight’s Quiet Quality, 1974, at Cabinet. Taking a stand at the Frieze Art Fair, Cabinet’s booth just held a table, some chairs, and a wall text with the name of the artist, the title and dates of the show in the gallery. The subsequent show consists of two largely empty rooms. In one, an electric blanket is folded into a neat rectangle in the centre of the room, its plug winding out from the wall socket. It doesn’t even feel as though it is switched on. A small clipping from a magazine advertisement is the sole occupant of the other room, a gushy ‘advertorial’ style quote for a California housing development: ‘large, dramatic condominium-style homes that could offer the spacious feeling of a private home, combined with the maintenance free living we were seeking.’ The flimsy white blanket takes on a monolithic feel, a pseudo-minimalist sculpture carrying the weight of the desires of ownership and home comforts, slowly unravelling as Knight lets us pick at the threads: the development and subsequent domination of suburban, commuter-culture America, tied in here with the art fair cycle, the taming of Minimalism and the relentless re-commodification of arts practices. Perhaps I’m stretching it, and Knight had the benefit of two loaded locations, but the method of his practice emphasises the common, necessary element found in each of the shows above: restraint, or rather empty space punctuated by slight signposts that let us navigate a way to our own conclusions.


Originally published in Art Monthly 363, February 2013.