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Second Thoughts: Fred Sandback and the Virtual Line

How does an exhibition accrete meaning, gain relevance, or shift shape over time? In the “Second Thoughts” series, Walker curators reconsider earlier presentations of art, articulating new or refined conclusions. Here, Jordan Carter writes about how the discovery of a 1977 book of line drawings by American artist Fred Sandback (1943–2003) prompts new thinking about the artist’s sculptures made using yarn or elastic cord. […]

Sandback ten

Pages from Fred Sandback, Ten Isometric Drawings for Ten Vertical Constructions, 1977, artist’s book, offset lithography, Rosemary Furtak Collection, Walker Art Center Library, © 2016 Fred Sandback Archive

How does an exhibition accrete meaning, gain relevance, or shift shape over time? In the “Second Thoughts” series, Walker curators reconsider earlier presentations of art, articulating new or refined conclusions. Here, Jordan Carter writes about how the discovery of a 1977 book of line drawings by American artist Fred Sandback (1943–2003) prompts new thinking about the artist’s sculptures made using yarn or elastic cord.

Mining the Walker’s Rosemary Furtak Collection of artist’s books, I came across Ten Isometric Drawings for Ten Vertical Constructions (1977), a book-as-exhibition by Fred Sandback. The thin, pamphlet-like publication, devoid of text, comprises renderings of drawn-line constructions that emerge from a white grid atop a starkly contrasting black field. Sandback’s bold U- and L-shaped linear constructions appear three-dimensional within a two-dimensional plane. The artist achieved this by plotting forms onto matrices of 120-degree angle intersections of white gridded lines. This trompe l’oeil is facilitated by a process known as isometric projection, in which specific angles and intersections give “flat” surfaces the illusion of three-dimensionality. What appears to the eye as an object extending from the page is referred to as an “impossible object,” a term that can be readily applied to Sandback’s transformative drawings and minimal sculptures. The artist’s works transcend dimensions and, in the hindsight of our post-digital age, open his practice up to a discourse surrounding the virtual. The isometric process afforded Sandback the ability to work in an “imagined” space, positing the page as a virtual plane with indeterminate spatial possibilities for his linear constructions—literally blurring the lines between drawing, sculpture, and architecture.

This slippage between media and this expanded notion of virtual space transported me back to Fred Sandback 64 Three-Part Pieces, a 2015 exhibition of the artist’s Untitled (Sixty-four Three-part Pieces) at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St. Louis. The work consists of 64 drawings that together present all of the possible configurations of the associated yarn sculptures. The sculptural realizations of these drawings were presented in three adjacent, walled of spaces. The exhibition marked the US premiere of the work and its first realization since its 1975 debut in Munich. Each week, the three sculptures on view—each comprising three taught strands of yarn—were replaced and by the end of the run of the show 20 iterations of the work were constructed, the most ever shown in its history. Even though 44 configurations remained unseen, the level of variability achieved in this rotating display speaks to the virtual possibilities of Sandback’s minimal constructions, which challenge the viewer to actively engage in a dialogue with line and space.

Installation view of Fred Sandback, No. 1-64 from 64 Three-Part Pieces for München Kunstraum, 1975, Pulitzer Arts Foundation, Estate of Fred Sandback, courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London, © 2016 Fred Sandback Archive, Photograph © 2015 Alise O’Brien Photography

 

Sandback view 2

Installation view of Fred Sandback, Untitled (64 Three-Part Pieces), 1975, Pulitzer Arts Foundation, Estate of Fred Sandback, courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London, © 2016 Fred Sandback Archive, Photograph © 2015 Alise O’Brien Photography

Sandback’s practice upends conventions of artistic autonomy and authorship, as curators, registrars, and art handlers become what art historian Julia Bryan-Wilson describes as “art workers,” renegotiating the relationship between art and work as they labor the works to life in real time and space.[1] They do not simply place an object on the wall or on a pedestal, but put in motion an experiential mise-en-scène, in which sculpture unfolds in a relational space between bodies and the imagined “object.” Sandback noted that his works were meant to exist in a “pedestrian space,” and the yarn constructions, primarily placed along the ground or connecting the wall to the ground, invite viewers to enter a newly demarcated space. The taught fibers frame mundane spaces and create apertures onto a field of virtual possibilities.

Sandback view 3

Installation view of Fred Sandback 64 Three-Part Pieces, Pulitzer Arts Foundation, 2015, Artwork from the Estate of Fred Sandback, courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London, © 2016 Fred Sandback Archive, Photograph © 2015 Alise O’Brien Photography

 

Sandback view 4

Fred Sandback, Untitled (Study for Kunstraum Munich), c. 1975, Felt tip pen, marker, and pencil on isometric paper, 8 1/2 x 11 inches (21.6 x 27.9 cm), Estate of Fred Sandback, courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London, © 2016 Fred Sandback Archive

The 64 drawings displayed alongside the rotating yarn sculptures at the Pulitzer, which represented all possible yarn constructions, were accompanied by a series of preliminary sketches. These “flat” diagrams acted as instructions for the realization of these works within the gallery space. The lines of the drawings, which float within the two-dimensional field, beg to come off of the page and it becomes the role of curators, registrars, and art handlers to translate the image from one dimension to another. Sandback distills the sculptural object into information, returning the material process to a germinal “zero degree” state of absolute potential, in which lines on a page become platforms for reimagining the relationship between bodies and objects in space. Sandback’s drawings and sculptures exist in and out of time; in and out of space—the artist relinquishes his authority and provides an indeterminate platform for viewers to reimagine the temporal and spatial possibilities of what appears before their eyes. In this manner, Sandback implicates the proverbial “art worker” in a virtual negotiation with the line and its unstable dimensionality.

Although Sandback had no concrete association with the Fluxus movement, his Ten Isometric Drawings for Ten Vertical Constructions and his Untitled (Sixty-four Three-part Pieces), as well as his drawings and diagrammatic elastic cord sculpture certificates within the Walker’s collection function analogously to Fluxus scores and instructions. The lines, whether emerging from the grid or floating in space, activate viewers and prompt them to imagine construction in mental space or to actually physically realize the sculptural form within architectural space.

Untitled drawing Sand

Fred Sandback, Untitled, 1973, felt-tip pen, graphite on paper, Walker Art Center, Gift of Sally and Wynn Kramarsky, in honor of Kathy Halbreich, 2007, © 2016 Fred Sandback Archive

Held in the Walker’s collection, the 1973 Untitled drawing is a minimal work on paper in which the artist uses a felt-tip pen to draw five parallel lines within the center of a field of negative space. Like his preparatory drawings that are directly intended for sculptural realization, this work can be seen as a potential prompt for mental and physical constructions that transcend the two-dimensional page. Furthering this precarious boundary between score, instruction, and finished product are the certificates that accompanied the Walker’s collection of Sandback’s elastic cord sculptures upon acquisition.

pink sand

gray sand

yellow sand

Top to bottom: Fred Sandback, Pink Corner Piece; Gray Corner Piece; Yellow Corner Piece, 1970, elastic cord, donation of Virginia Dwan, 1986, © 2016 Fred Sandback Archive

The three 1970 elastic-cord corner constructions—which predate the artist’s turn to acrylic yarn—in the Walker’s collection (Pink Corner Piece, Gray Corner Piece, and Yellow Corner Piece) were acquired in the form of a certificate of authenticity, on which the artist has used a color pen—signifying the pigment of the cord to be used—to sketch out the measurements and spatial orientation for which the sourced elastic cord is to be taught and affixed to the corner of an exhibition space. The two-dimensional certificates bare an uncanny resemblance to their three-dimensional counterparts, further complicating any fixed dimensionality of Sandback’s sculptures or works on paper. The idea of a certificate or a score as a stand-in for an object-based work is emblematic of Fluxus scores and instructions (of which the Walker has significant holdings). Inserting Sandback’s works, “flat” and otherwise, into a Fluxus discourse allows for a recontextualization of his practice beyond the limiting categorizations of Minimalism and Post-Minimalism. Within the frame of the Fluxus score, Sandback’s oeuvre becomes open to indeterminate manifestations on the part of the viewer-turned-participant. Sandback’s works across media take on a virtual dimension, transforming the line, at once a static signal of order and structure, into a rhizomatic network in which museum staff and passerby take on the role of “art worker”—laboring with their minds or hands to determine and redetermine the dimensionality of the work.

Note

[1] See Julia Bryan-Wilson, Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam War Era (Berkley: University of California Press, 2009).

The Peripheral, the Edges, the Off-Screen: A Conversation with James Richards

James Richards recently presented a cinematic program in collaboration with Leslie Thornton on the occasion of the Walker premiere of Thornton’s Moving Image Commission They Were Just People (2016), as well as the opening of the exhibition Less Than One. Richards’s own Moving Image Commission, Radio at Night (2015), can be viewed online for a limited run as well […]

James Richards, Rosebud (2013); still from digital video with sound; 12 minutes 57 seconds. Image courtesy the artist and Cabinet London / Rodeo London

James Richards recently presented a cinematic program in collaboration with Leslie Thornton on the occasion of the Walker premiere of Thorntons Moving Image Commission They Were Just People (2016), as well as the opening of the exhibition Less Than One. Richardss own Moving Image Commission, Radio at Night (2015), can be viewed online for a limited run as well as in its first in-gallery presentation until the end of this year, within Less Than One. Rosebud (2013), centered on a series of censored images Richards came across in a Tokyo library, is also featured in the exhibition. The library bookscontemporary monographs on artists Robert Mapplethorpe, Wolfgang Tillmans, and Man Rayhad been stopped at customs, where Japanese officials were instructed to use sandpaper to scratch away at any suggestive photographs before they could enter the country. Here, we talk about  the seduction of touch, the sculpt-ability of sound, and the perverse pleasures of looking.  

Victoria Sung: You gave a short interview about Radio at Night when it premiered at the Walker in 2015. Bentson Moving Image Scholar Isla Leaver-Yap has also written about the piece and its sense of flow in relation to how the human body serves as a site of sensory integration and reception. I’m curious to hear you speak more about Rosebud, which the Walker acquired this past year. It seems to be a very tactile and textured piece, especially when I think about how your working process involves editing digital files on a laptop. Can you speak about this emphasis on tactility in the context of video?

James Richards: The premise of the video developed out of something utterly analogue and tactile—the sandpapering of a book page. It felt natural to then take this notion of touch or caress as a starting point and make a work that explores types of sensuality. It’s about the seductive idea of someone sitting in a customs office sandpapering away genitals, and the caressing or devotional feeling you can somewhat imagine that inducing. I guess it also touches on the idea of people queuing to rub the heel of a saint; the idea of accumulated touch as a sort of devotional thing. There’s also something in the way that the violence of the removal during the censoring process only seems to draw you in more or make you look harder, so to speak. When starting to make the work I knew I wanted to do something about different types of looking, of peering and scrutinizing.

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James Richards, Rosebud (2013); still from digital video with sound; 12 minutes 57 seconds. Image courtesy the artist and Cabinet London / Rodeo London

More broadly speaking, I became interested in video through ideas like sensation—and the moving image as a source of sensation, like sculpture—rather than through an interest in cinema or television. I view the frame of the image not as a window into something but more like a surface across which sensations pass. I guess I was also interested in finding another way of looking at something familiar. I don’t think my work strictly adheres to this, but Stan Brakhage, the American Structuralist filmmaker, spoke of looking in a way that was more akin to how a baby looks—before cognition develops to the point of its being able to differentiate and name what it is seeing; prior to this, everything is just colors and shapes.[1] This idea of a precognitive relationship, of an uninterpreted, sensational kind of looking, is definitely one of the interests that run through my videos.

Sung: Brakhage made films without sound, for the most part, as he thought it would detract from the purity of the visual experience. Sound is a central, if not predominant, element in your work. Your videos are at once ethereal and physical, and I think much of this can be attributed to your ability to weight sound or give it a certain gravitas. Can you speak to the tangible, sculpt-able nature of sound in your work?

Richards: I like this idea of the unseen affective force you can have with sound. In the visual arts, of course, sound is read as secondary, in some ways, but it can be such a powerful tool. You can address someone directly with the human voice using words, language, or a song, but then you can also do things that are much more figurative—like the sound of something happening, which conjures something very visual in the mind’s eye, or how rhythms and punctuation can return viewers back to their own bodies. You can also do things that are more tonal and emotionally filter the space or filter the images that are in the space. I feel you can control a lot in very particular ways with sound, and in quite contrasting ways. Sound is something I’ve been working with for a long time now, longer than moving image, so perhaps on a very practical level it’s the medium I feel I can manipulate and control the most, the medium with which I can create the most.

James Richards, Rosebud (2013); still from digital video with sound; 12 minutes 57 seconds. Image courtesy the artist and Cabinet London / Rodeo London

In Rosebud there are points where the sound is literally the sound of the thing you’re seeing: you see a camera submerged in water and you can hear the sound of water on the microphone of the camera, so you are in and of that moment. At other times, that sound has been replaced by an extract of a song or a percussive element, and it completely alters how you read the image; the relationship between sound and image becomes much more imagined. It generates a third sort of space, or a third sensation, between the way you’re interpreting the sound and the image.

Sung: I know you began your artistic foray with sound—the sequencing, synthesizing, and sampling of sound—and I wonder if you find yourself returning more and more to working with solely sound.

James Richards, Crumb Mahogany 1 (2016); 6-channel digital audio, computer system; 15 minute loop. Installation view, Crumb Mahogany, Bergen Kunsthall, Norway, February 26 – April 3, 2016. Image courtesy the artist and Cabinet London / Rodeo London

Richards: Definitely. The last work I made, presented at Bergen Kunsthall in Norway (Crumb Mahogany, co-commissioned by Bergen Kunsthall, ICA London, and Kestnergesellschaft, Hannover; traveling through 2016) was all about trying to spread and smear the elements of a single video across a number of rooms. In some spaces we presented configurations of speakers playing audio compositions, and other rooms had video components; rather than synchronizing the two by showing a video with two speakers on either side, for example, things were allowed to just bleed between the rooms. I find myself making further moves from the cinematic or televisual idea of synching sound and image and letting them be in discrete spaces, to convene accidentally or through people walking between them.

Sung: In hearing you talk about sound and how it possesses the potential for a certain direct or immediate address, and the moments when the sound you’re hearing might not match up to the image in front of you, I’m struck by the immersive soundtrack in Radio at Night in relation to a sense of visual distanciation. There seem to be many distancing mechanisms—you frequently use a black frame to border an image, or when you show an eye it’s not just a naked eye but an eye as seen through a handheld lens as seen through a viewfinder. Can you talk about this possible tension you’re playing with?

James Richards, Radio at Night (2015); still from digital video with sound; 8 minutes 10 seconds. Image courtesy the artist and Cabinet London / Rodeo London

Richards: Perhaps all of these quite graphic, distancing pictorial devices create space that the sound is then occupying, because sound always is in a way immersive; maybe there is something in that tension, a kind of moving around and in between those two, the pushes and pulls between sound and image. Then conversely it’s almost like the visual emphasis on shifts in aspect ratio or the resolution of an image—or in Rosebud the scratched image—actually encourages people to carry out a kind of intense viewing. It’s as if the distancing is producing almost a strange scrutiny of sorts, and then sound steps in to somehow modify that looking.

Sung: The self-referential nature of video as a durational, time-based medium is particularly captivating in Rosebud. I recently read an essay about how art invites a particular way of looking, a slow looking, which in turn may encourage patience at a time when we are accustomed to receiving visual information immediately. Can you tease out the durational aspect of your work here?

James Richards, Rosebud (2013); still from digital video with sound; 12 minutes 57 seconds. Image courtesy the artist and Cabinet London / Rodeo London

Richards: I think that’s definitely one of the pleasures of Rosebud. Even in the filming, before I knew I would make a piece with the footage, I came across these books in a Tokyo library on the last day or two of a residency and thought I’d just go and film as many of them as I could before I left. For some reason I chose to film them rather than to scan them, and I think it was totally about the perverse pleasure of introducing a time element to a still image. It speaks to a kind of gorging, or ways a camera takes something in. I like the idea of the wide open aperture and the image just flowing in. With the underwater scenes I wasn’t really looking through the viewfinder but was using the camera as a sort of vessel, as an extension of my hand that could be submerged into liquids.

Then there are shots of iconic but also shocking images of Robert Mapplethorpe or Wolfgang Tillmans in S&M scenes that have been sandpapered away at in a strange, impotent “desexualizing” gesture. But at the same time you can hear birds squawking outside, and the rustling of the hushed library where these images now reside, and all of this has a sense of “meanwhile” or “despite this.” I guess that’s something that happens with duration—I’m showing you this with an intensity, but at the same time something utterly unrelated is left in and seemingly happening. This concentrated, over-held attention on the one hand, and a shifting, wandering attention on the other—and moving between those two—is probably where a lot of the drama in the piece occurs. I guess it’s also one of the logics in the work that because the “center” or focus of the photograph has been removed, I end up working so much to accent or emphasize the peripheral, the edges, the off-screen.

Less Than One is on view at the Walker from April 7 to December 31, 2016.

Footnote

[1] Known for his experimental, non-narrative films, Stan Brakhage viewed cinema as a way to liberate the act of looking. In “Metaphors On Vision” (first published in the journal Film Culture in 1963), he wrote: “Imagine an eye unruled by man-made laws of perspective, an eye unprejudiced by compositional logic, an eye which does not respond to the name of everything but which must know each object encountered in life through an adventure of perception. How many colors are there in a field of grass to the crawling baby unaware of ‘green’? How many rainbows can light create for the untutored eye?”

Becoming American: Fionn Meade on Less Than One

The first in a series of entries exploring Less Than One, on view through December, “Becoming American” begins with a consideration of author Joseph Brodsky (1940–1996), whose essay provides the exhibition title, and Flags (1965), a painting by Jasper Johns included in the exhibition. At an early age Joseph Brodsky experienced much of what it […]

Installation view of Less Than One, with works by Jasper Johns and Kara Walker

Installation view of Less Than One, with works by Jasper Johns and Kara Walker (foreground)

The first in a series of entries exploring Less Than One, on view through December, “Becoming American” begins with a consideration of author Joseph Brodsky (1940–1996), whose essay provides the exhibition title, and Flags (1965), a painting by Jasper Johns included in the exhibition.

At an early age Joseph Brodsky experienced much of what it means to be an exile in one’s own country. Born Iosif Alexandrovich Brodsky in 1940 in St. Petersburg (later renamed Leningrad), he grew up in poverty after his father lost a ranking position in the Russian Navy due to a surge in anti-Semitism against Jewish Russian families in the postwar years leading up to Stalin’s death in 1953. Brodksy quit school as a teenager and embarked on his own self-styled education, beginning to develop the cultural imagery that would eventually win him the 1987 Nobel Prize for literature.

Dodging many of the very real barriers of his time and place, Brodsky grasped intently for something different, working odd jobs—including as a coroner’s assistant, metalworker, and as part of a geology research team traveling to Central Asia—all while assembling an unusual arsenal of artistic skills. Brodsky taught himself Polish, for example, in order to translate poet and dissident Czesław Miłosz (a Nobel laureate who also became a US citizen), and learned English so he could translate John Donne and read Herman Melville and Emily Dickinson. Out of the prejudice and censorship surrounding him, Brodsky fashioned a unique style of direct observation and an unflappable belief in individual freedom and what he called the importance of “world culture,” a phrase borrowed from Russian essayist and poet Osip Mandelstam (1891–1938), a touchstone figure for the young artist. Indeed, Brodsky’s idiosyncratic style is one that evaded authorities for some time due to its unusual bearings.

As Brodsky writes in the title essay of his collection and intellectual autobiography Less Than One, he was part of a group of young artists and thinkers imagining something new beyond the strictures of Soviet life: “If we made ethical choices, they were based not so much on immediate reality as on moral standards derived from fiction…. In its ethics, this generation was among the most bookish in the history of Russia, and thank God for that. A relationship could have been broken for good over a preference for Hemingway over Faulkner.” This “uncommon visage,” as Brodsky would later come to term his imagining of an ethics based in aesthetics, is exactly what guided the poetry he wrote and distributed as a young man, a form of underground literature printed on mimeographed sheets (called “samizdat” to describe the censored DIY publications of the Soviet bloc era) and often recited by Brodsky and others on street corners.

 Joseph Brodsky with his cat Mississippi, 1991, photo: Bengt Jangfeldt

Joseph Brodsky with his cat Mississippi, 1991, photo: Bengt Jangfeldt

Writing with a great wit and flare for the intimate observations of daily life, but with little to no overt political address or commentary, Brodsky gained steady recognition in the underground Soviet literary scene of the time and eventually acquired the counsel and mentorship of the great Russian poet and witness Anna Akhmatova (1889–1966). It was just this flare for the observed beauty of daily life that eventually caught up with Brodsky as he was forcibly committed twice to mental institutions by Soviet authorities and later sentenced to five years hard labor in a work camp in the Artic, accused, tried, and convicted by the Soviet state. Even as Brodsky’s real crime was the circulation and popularity of his essays and poetry in underground forums, it was the charge of his not having a steady full time job, hence “social parasitism,” that was officially leveled at Brodsky during a trial that would add to his international notoriety upon the leak and distribution of his eloquent self-defense. A transcript of his trial was smuggled and distributed in the west, highlighting the following exchange, one that eventually reached an international reception:

Judge: What is your profession?

Brodsky: Translator and poet.

Judge: Who has recognized you as a poet? Who has enrolled you in the ranks of poets?

Brodsky: No one. Who enrolled me in the ranks of the human race?

Due largely to coordinated efforts on the behalf of Brodsky via an international network of writers—including notably the New York–based English poet W.H. Auden, an adopted American citizen as well—Brodsky was released from his five-year prison sentence early after 18 months and allowed to return to Leningrad. Harassed continually upon returning, Brodsky was encouraged to leave for Israel, which he refused to do, before being forcibly exiled from the Soviet Union at the age of 32 to Austria where he met with Auden and was eventually received as an immigrant to the United States.

Brodsky would eventually translate much of his own poetry from Russian into English, and he increasingly wrote prose in an adopted, inimitable English. As American poet Mark Strand once put it regarding Brodsky’s full embrace of the English lexicon, “The English he writes is exotic. The choices of words he makes are those that no native-born speaker would make.” Reinscribing and revitalizing language as many American innovators before and after have done, Brodsky’s English is both arresting and nervy, a remix of styles that is formal in flourish yet fresh in its oddity.

                        Life, that no one dares

to appraise, like that gift horse’s mouth,

bares its teeth in a grin at each

encounter. What gets left of a man amounts

to a part. To his spoken part. To a part of speech.

Taken from the poem A Part of Speech, written shortly after coming to the States in 1972, the excerpt above echoes a primary theme in what would come to characterize Brodsky’s mature work, namely the repeated acknowledgment of the responsibility in the “spoken part” of protecting individual artistic expression and freedom, a part that Brodsky identifies with the agency and urgency of protecting the place where art is encountered, where “a work of art addresses a man tête-à-tête, entering with him into direct—free of any go-betweens—relations.” What gets left is a part, Brodsky implores, a part to play in protecting the space of direct artistic encounter.

Installation view of Less Than One

Installation view of Less Than One

When Brodsky eventually became the first immigrant to be appointed US poet laureate (in 1991), he was asked if there was any particular significance to be gleaned from the selection of a person born outside the United States receiving the honor. His immediate call and response was worldly and characteristically crisp, “Would you ask the same of Lafayette, who was from France? It’s the history of the place.” Referring to the French aristocrat and military officer Marquis de Lafayette who fought for the United States in the American Revolutionary War, Brodsky quickly added with self-awareness and self-effacing wit that he very much regarded himself an American. “I’ve been here 19 years, I pay taxes here,” he said, further declaring that in his new post as US poet laureate he would advocate that poetry be published and made available in hotels and supermarkets throughout the country: “People who buy The National Enquirer would buy poetry. They should be given a choice. I’m absolutely serious.”

Now on view at the Walker, the exhibition Less Than One takes its title from a 1986 collection of essays that would help Brodsky win the Nobel Prize for Literature the following year. A poetic meditation on the nature of human existence and artistic expression, his text suggests that a person—defined in political and aesthetic terms—is always “less than one.” We can never be a discrete whole at any moment in time, Brodsky argues, as we are inextricably tied to our past and future selves. This drives the writer and artist to attempt to meet reality through words, images, and an uneasy embrace of artistic personae.

Brodsky wrote passionately throughout his career of art’s ability to trouble consent, question power, and disrupt the “heralds of historical necessity,” arguing instead for a “polyphony” and multivocal resonance that exists in the place “where art has stepped.” Exploring such themes as iconoclasm, the graphic use of silhouette and shadow forms, and the questioning of identity through performance, Less Than One celebrates the differential urge and unruly spirit that lies at the heart of artistic practice.

Jasper Johns's Flags (1965), installed in Less Than One

Jasper Johns’s Flags (1965), installed in Less Than One

The uncommon visage that can result within the space of direct artistic encounter, “free of any go-betweens,” as Brodsky put it, introduces what American philosopher William James described as the positivity of many-sided perception, not unlike a boulder or gem. Elongating perception into a shape that is sensed as duration suspended, the “direct relations” of artistic encounter are not unlike experiencing time with a friend, when you lose track of time. When Jasper Johns wrote the following note in his sketchbook in 1964, he underscored a pragmatic method that placed repetition and a startled awake active perception at the heart of his practice, and that resonates to this day: “Take an object / Do something to it / Do something else to it. [Repeat.]” Breaking away from the dominant painterly mode of the 1950s that consisted of highly personal and expressive abstraction, Johns looked to “things the mind already knows,” incorporating flags, targets, numbers, and other familiar signs and symbols into his artistic production. These ordinary objects take on an iconic, emblematic presence that articulates a particular type of postwar American iconoclasm—represented here by the various doubled, inverted, and multi-colored flags on view in Less Than One.

The initial encounter with Flags, 1965, at the entry to the exhibition is one of immediate recognition coupled with a companion estrangement, the familiar design of the American flag outlined in green, black, and orange (top), and gradations of grey (bottom) against a mottled grey background, with a white dot centered above and a black dot bullseye below. As an exercise in visual perception, Flags asks the viewer to focus on the dot above for a time, then close one’s eye briefly and switch focus to the dot below, activating a red, white, and blue afterimage as our retinal receptors tire from holding the initial impression and seek out a fuller range of the color spectrum triggered. Looking at Flags is an exercise in active perception where one must submit to a time beyond the clock, beyond constantly updated information, beyond the flatness of visual compression and image production, beyond ever widening abstractions of finance, beyond the atomizing nature of networked communication, and, also, beyond the rhetorical demagoguery of our moment. It is rather an opening to the active looking and “uncommon visage” that Brodsky adopts, into “direct relations” with the cultural imaginary of becoming American.

 

A Narrative for the Body: Shahryar Nashat’s Present Sore

Artist Shahryar Nashat recently made Present Sore (2016), a composite portrait of the 21st-century body mediated by substances both organic and fabricated. In this new interview, Walker Bentson Moving Image Scholar Isla Leaver-Yap and Portikus curator Fabian Schöneich ask Nashat what drives his work—the politics of the body, its digital and physical augmentations, and its obsolescence. Present Sore is presented on the […]

Shahryar Nashat, Present Sore, 2016. Walker Moving Image Commission

Shahryar Nashat, Present Sore, 2016, video, 9 minutes. A Walker Moving Image Commission

Artist Shahryar Nashat recently made Present Sore (2016), a composite portrait of the 21st-century body mediated by substances both organic and fabricated. In this new interview, Walker Bentson Moving Image Scholar Isla Leaver-Yap and Portikus curator Fabian Schöneich ask Nashat what drives his work—the politics of the body, its digital and physical augmentations, and its obsolescence.

Present Sore is presented on the Walker Channel from April 8 through May 31, 2016, as part of the Walker’s Moving Image Commissions. It is also featured in the Portikus exhibition Model Malady (April 22–June 19, 2016).

Fabian Schöneich: Your most recent video, Present Sore, streams online via the Walker Channel and is installed in your gallery exhibition at Portikus. The format of this work is vertical: 9:16 instead of 16:9. It reminds me of the way people shoot video on their phone. Can you tell us what led to your decision of rotating your camera?

Shahyrar Nashat: It’s true—smartphones have generalized the use of vertical framing. When I came to Portikus for an initial site visit and saw the gallery, I immediately saw how a 16:9 format video would be crushed by the height of the space. On top of that, I had always struggled with the horizontal format of 16:9 because you can never fill the frame when you want to capture a limb vertically. Present Sore is an oblique high-definition figure study of a composite body. The video’s upward progression (from feet to head) necessitated a vertical format.

Schöneich: Your work often questions and highlights the homogeneity between object and body. Abstract but clean objects are representational of the body, or else the body is representational for the object or the sculpture. In Present Sore, we see the human body not as a whole, only in detail—like a close-up of the knee or the hand.

Isla Leaver-Yap: Totally. Present Sore’s focus on detail fragments the subject, showing the mechanical moving “parts” of the body and isolating their function as tools. This fragmentation implicates a wider cultural landscape that has preferences for certain types of bodies, pointing as well to an economic landscape that obfuscates the parts of labor—both human and inhuman. Shahryar, I was wondering if you could speak to this “composite” quality you referred to earlier, and talk about the bodies, types, and genders you choose as your subjects?

Nashat: Mainstream cultural representation of the human body privileges a homogeneous and wholesome body. I have always searched to represent bodies that sit outside those traditional ideals. The bodies I’m interested in might have diverse motor functions, cosmetic interventions, and applications. Like the injured elbow in Hustle in Hand (2014, video, 19 minutes). That’s why I like wounds or prosthetics. They signal injury and, therefore, anomaly. Limbs are similarly interesting. Framed away from the rest of the body, they question it, while also allowing some psychological distance from the notion of persona. For me, this is where you open the door for desire and projection.

Shahryar Nashat, Hustle in Hand, 2014

Shahryar Nashat, Hustle in Hand, 2014, HD video, 10 minutes
Courtesy Rodeo, London; Silberkuppe, Berlin.

Leaver-Yap: What do you mean by “desire” and “projection”? Both terms seem particularly resonant with how your work intersects with ideas of queerness. Your work blurs lines between fetish and tool and often trades in promiscuous formal relations, by which I mean things that resemble or “stand in” for that which they represent but also complicate that representation: a vertical format as a body, a Paul Thek artwork of a rotting piece of flesh for a psychic human wound, or an artificial prosthesis as a 21st-century ideal tool for the body.

Nashat: I think art has always operated with the mechanics of desire and projection. Not only as an incentive for an artist to make work but the way the work is appreciated and consumed by the audience. The “stand-in” is a powerful strategy because it works through deception, which is another powerful ingredient. It all sounds very theoretical, but what I guess I am trying to say is that the frustration of meaning is central to any work because it creates desire. The tools I use in my work—framing, editing, a geometric object next to the close-up of a wound—participate in that enterprise.

Schöneich: Does imperfection define desire for you?

Nashat: “Perfect” versus “imperfect” sounds like “good” versus “bad.” I don’t think it’s about morals. When I watch a movie or TV show, for example, the interesting characters are not necessarily the ones that have personality flaws or act inconsistently. I don’t care whether they’re good or bad people. But I do like it when there is a perversion in them, some kind of inconsistency. Incoherency creates a compelling and complex character. That’s desire.

Schöneich: How important is gesture in this work? I’m thinking especially of the sections of Present Sore where a lip is pulled or an ear is touched or plugged.

Nashat: Capturing a body that is inanimate or frozen in action made sense in the 1990s when photography was concerned with creating tableaux vivants. But for me, the body in action is more interesting because it’s not just “on display” for the camera to get the best shot. It competes with the camera and forces it to find different strategies. It’s less mannered than a pose perhaps, and the formal and aesthetic gesture is not coming from what you look at but the way you look at it. When you invest the body with actions and gestures, you write a narrative for the body. You give it agency. I must say, though, that there are very active ways for the body to be passive—like a smoker or a sleeper, which are equally powerful images.

Shahryar Nashat, Present Sore, 2016. Walker Moving Image Commission

Shahryar Nashat, Present Sore, 2016, video. A Walker Moving Image Commission

Schöneich: How did you film Present Sore? Tell us about the overlayering of images throughout the video.

Nashat: The layering was an accident that I ended up keeping. I have been relying on software bugs and my own technical mistakes a lot lately.

Leaver-Yap: Your work is so carefully choreographed and edited that it’s really interesting to hear about the importance of accident within your practice. Accident seems to me to be such a human quality, while being attentive to accident is something very digital—a quality of being watched or surveilled. I was struck by something Moyra Davey said to me about shooting video last year. Moyra shoots mostly analogue photographs, and now she shoots digital video. She told me she liked how “video hangs onto accident” in a way that is particular to the form. The digital captures physical vulnerabilities as much as it can augment or erase those very qualities in post-production. I was wondering if you could speak to the notion of error, mistake, and accident in your work a bit more?

Nashat: In Hustle in Hand, my editing program was interrupting the playback of my video. One frame from a completely different section of the video would intrude into the clips. I ended up keeping this glitch because it breaks the linear narrative of the timeline—it’s like a preview of the footage that is yet to come. In Present Sore, meanwhile, I brought the wrong resolution into the project, but then I decided to keep it as it complicates the view of the body. Capturing body limbs is such an ordinary image to do. You need these kinds of tricks to ramp up attention. Technological accidents are what make the work more vulnerable. If you keep them, you can of course normalize them, but I find it useful for them to remain as anomalies that serve the work.

Shahryar Nashat, Factor Green, installation view, 54th International Venice Biennial, 2011. Courtesy of Rodeo, London; Silberkuppe, Berlin. Photo: Gaëtan Malaparte

Shahryar Nashat, Factor Green, installation view, 54th International Venice Biennial, 2011
Courtesy Rodeo, London; Silberkuppe, Berlin. Photo: Gaëtan Malaparte.

Schöneich: Already in early works, like in Factor Green (2011), or in your exhibition at the Folkwang Museum in Essen, you investigated the meaning and the visual presence of the pedestal or plinth itself. At Portikus and the forthcoming Walker exhibition Question the Wall Itself, you present a series of sculptures—pedestal blocks—resting on chairs that you say are designed for them to “relax.”

Nashat: Yes, the pedestal is to the artwork what the foot is to the body. It provides the support that allows the artwork to stand and be on display. It’s like a pair of crutches. Present Sore toys with the fact that high-definition imagery being now at the service of “supporting” the body. It makes the pedestal obsolete. Chômage technique is a French term used when, say, a factory lays off its workers but maintains their salary. In a world of bodies shown in pixels, pedestals are a kind of “chômage technique”—they have no one to support anymore. In my installation, they can retire and enjoy the viewing of the bodies they once would have supported. The pedestal has always been an underdog, or in the service of something else. But in this configuration it as if it’s won the lottery and is off to retire in Florida.

Present Sore is a commission by the Walker Art Center with major support from the Bentson Foundation, and Portikus, Frankfurt/Main.

Meredith Monk: 16 Millimeter Earrings and the Artist’s Body

At once a choreographer, composer, actress, singer, and director, Meredith Monk is known for a body of work that is often considered unclassifiable. Since the 1960s, her practice has spanned across disciplines of dance, theater, visual arts, and film, and has included solo as well as ensemble pieces. Monk’s self-fashioned degree in “Interdisciplinary Performance,” obtained […]

Installation view of one of the Meredith Monk galleries in the exhibition <em>Art Performs Life: Merce Cunningham/Meredith Monk/Bill T. Jones </em>, featuring elements from <em>16 Millimeter Earrings </em>(1966/1998)

Elements from 16 Millimeter Earrings (1966/1998), as installed in the 1998 Walker 1998 exhibition Art Performs Life: Merce Cunningham/Meredith Monk/Bill T. Jones

At once a choreographer, composer, actress, singer, and director, Meredith Monk is known for a body of work that is often considered unclassifiable. Since the 1960s, her practice has spanned across disciplines of dance, theater, visual arts, and film, and has included solo as well as ensemble pieces. Monk’s self-fashioned degree in “Interdisciplinary Performance,” obtained from Sarah Lawrence College in 1964, remains the best definition of her work, as the artist often combines multiple performative elements in individual pieces. Her approach results in works that cannot be singularly defined as dance, theater, concert, or film works, but are instead a unique synthesis of artistic disciplines, most broadly described as simply “performance art.”

One of Monk’s earliest pieces is 16 Millimeter Earrings, created in 1966 and originally staged at the Judson Church in New York. The performance began with Monk seated facing away from her audience while playing the guitar and singing, then went on to combine vocal recordings, theatrical acting, and film projections, and finally ended with the burning of an effigy meant to represent the artist herself. 16 Millimeter Earrings incorporated physical props, such as a slinky and red crepe paper streamers, as well as less tangible components. Audible during the performance were partial recordings of the traditional English folk song “Greensleeves” as well as passages from The Function of the Orgasm, written by the controversial psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, which argues for sexual liberation as a panacea for all ills, both physical and psychological. Reflecting on the work in 2010, Monk commented: “With the concept I had in 16mm Earrings I realized that anything in my life could be used as material: my hair, my body, my crossed eyes, anything about me physically or mentally… It wasn’t that I felt I was doing a confessional piece at all… It was taking anything of my being and making that a plastic material, like paint.”

Meredith Monk, 16 Millimeter Earrings, 1966, performance

Meredith Monk, 16 Millimeter Earrings, 1966, performance

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Nam June Paik: Television Has Attacked Us for a Lifetime

While the “Golden Age of Television” is said to have lasted from the late 1940s through to 1960, few visual artists engaged with the TV set until the early 1960s. Nam June Paik’s (1932–2006) Exposition of Music—Electronic Television, held in March 1963 in Wuppertal in Germany, is widely seen to mark the advent of “video […]

Nam June Paik, 'TV Cello' (1971), video tubes, TV chassis, plexiglass boxes, electronics, wiring, wood base, fan, stool, photograph. © Estate of Nam June Paik. Courtesy Walker Art Cente

Nam June Paik, TV Cello, 1971, video tubes, TV chassis, plexiglass boxes, electronics, wiring, wood base, fan, stool, photograph. © Estate of Nam June Paik. Courtesy Walker Art Cente

While the “Golden Age of Television” is said to have lasted from the late 1940s through to 1960, few visual artists engaged with the TV set until the early 1960s. Nam June Paik’s (1932–2006) Exposition of Music—Electronic Television, held in March 1963 in Wuppertal in Germany, is widely seen to mark the advent of “video art,” and the point at which the television became both the subject and object of an artwork. Originally titled Symphony for 20 Rooms, Paik’s exhibition was considered a total environment, drawing on the spirit of Surrealism (a severed ox head greeted visitors in the first room, while in a bathroom a human mannequin lay submerged in a tub) and Fluxus (via treated instruments, such as “prepared pianos,” adapted by wedging objects between their strings). The exhibition also brought together an installation of 13 television sets, arranged either directly on the floor or stacked on top of one another. Each transmitted distorted live signals—some as stripes or wavy lines, others collaged so as to simultaneously show overlaid moving images.

Nam June Paik, 'Kuba-TV' (1963) seen as part of Exposition of Music – Electronic Television. © Nam June Paik

Nam June Paik, Kuba-TV, 1963, seen as part of Exposition of Music—Electronic Television. © Nam June Paik

A number of TV sets on view required activation by the viewer. One television was connected to a microphone and transmitted a signal affected by the one’s voice. Another TV was attached to a pedal and would similarly show a distorted image if handled by an audience member. “Television has attacked us for a lifetime, now we fight back,” declared Paik, who conceived of the television as an object to be exploited, tinkered with, and ultimately humanized. As in his later works, such as TV Bra for Living Sculpture (1969) and TV Cello (1971), Paik subverted the notion of the TV as a determined instrument of power. Instead, under his influence, television sets and the televisual became instruments for performance and play, either by invited performers, such as Charlotte Moorman (1933–1991) or the active, participating viewer.

Wolf Vostell, Dé-collage (1962), Offset lithograph on paper, Copyright retained by the artist, Courtesy Walker Art Center

Wolf Vostell, Dé-collage, 1962, offset lithograph on paper, Copyright retained by the artist; courtesy Walker Art Center

A few months after Paik’s exhibition, German artist Wolf Vostell (1932–1998) opened Wolf Vostell & Television Decollage & Decollage Posters & Comestible Decollage1 at Smolin Gallery in New York. Vostell presented a number of TVs placed on office furniture, each set to receive a slightly different, modified signal. Upon entering the exhibition, audience members received bottles of liquid, which they were encouraged to smear on wall-mounted LIFE magazine covers. For Vostell, the exhibition was a place of activity, where one could “participate in the creation of Décollage at the opening […] to eat art and to make art by eating.”2 Vostell had begun to orient his practice around the term “dé-collage” in 1954, upon spotting the word used in a newspaper to refer to an airplane crash. For the artist, “dé-collage” meant the inverse of collage—the erosion and destruction of an existing image, as opposed its formation through cumulative addition of multiple elements. Vostell applied the term to his engagement with televisions, which he incorporated into his work as early as 1958 in Theater in the Streets, a happening staged in Parisian public spaces. Throughout his practice, Vostell posited on the very materiality of the TV set, embedding these in concrete, arranging motorized TVs on broken glass, and “dé-collaging” live television signals.

Photograph of Wolf Vostell's 'TV Burying' (1963), © Peter Moore

Photograph of Wolf Vostell’s TV Burying, 1963, © Peter Moore

While both Paik and Vostell employed the television as an object for performance, Vostell’s happenings emphasized destruction, a theme he believed it was his duty to reflect upon as an artist. Staged contemporaneously to his exhibition at Smolin Gallery, TV Burying was an event Vostell organized as part of the Yam Festival in New Jersey, which included actions by artists Dick Higgins (1938–1998), Allan Kaprow (1927–2006), and La Monte Young (b. 1935). In Vostell’s performance, televisions broadcasting live footage were attacked with custard pies, wrapped in barbed wire, and then carried in procession and buried in the ground. Part flagellation ritual, part crucifixion, TV Burying ceremoniously sacrificed the TV set before an audience.

Cover of Marshall McLuhan's first edition of 'Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man' (1964) published by McGraw-Hill

Cover of Marshall McLuhan’s first edition of Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, 1964, published by McGraw-Hill

Paik and Vostell developed their 1963 exhibitions while Marshall McLuhan (1911–1980) would have been writing and editing Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, published only a year later in 1964. The book includes McLuhan’s phrase “the medium is the message,” whereby “the message of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs.”3 Paik and Vostell were among the first artists to critically engage with the television as an everyday object, stripping away its connotations as a prized possession or marker of class distinction. Slathered with concrete, upturned, or placed casually on the floor, their TVs are ordinary, part of everyday life. By turning televisions into playful instruments and modifying their signals, Paik and Vostell subverted the notion of the TV as a conduit for the passive reception of ideology. In their hands, televisions were controlled by human will and manipulated by the body. They rendered the viewer a participant and the television as subject to anyone’s influence, a medium for play and experimentation.

Notes

1 McLuhan, M. (1964) Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill, p. 9

2 Also referred to as TV Trouble or 6 TV Dé-coll/age in existing literature.

3 As can be seen on the exhibition preview card.

One Sound After Another: Film and West Coast Minimalism

Morgan Fisher and Jack Goldstein—both featured in the exhibition Ordinary Pictures—belong to a small community of Los Angeles–based artists who applied structural critiques to the industrial Hollywood apparatus during the early 1970s. Both were employed for short periods within the studios themselves, drawing insider knowledge from their day jobs while maintaining a critical distance from […]

Morgan Fisher, Picture and Sound, 16mm, 11 min. 1973. © Morgan Fisher

Morgan Fisher, Picture and Sound, 16mm, 11 min. 1973. © Morgan Fisher

Morgan Fisher and Jack Goldstein—both featured in the exhibition Ordinary Pictures—belong to a small community of Los Angeles–based artists who applied structural critiques to the industrial Hollywood apparatus during the early 1970s. Both were employed for short periods within the studios themselves, drawing insider knowledge from their day jobs while maintaining a critical distance from cinematic production and a keen analysis of how this social phenomena, so unique to Los Angeles’s identity, could engage with and comment artistic production.

Fisher’s Picture and Sound Rushes (1973) is a documentary adaptation of Hollywood industry material. Introduced dryly by a monotone narrator seated at a nondescript desk in the manner of an ironic John Baldessari, Fisher explains that the film will demonstrate the “cases,” an industry term for three portions of production use film: synch (image and sound, both recorded in real time), MOS (an acronym for mit out sound or without sound), and wild sound (a filmed recording of only the sound element of a scene). Also presented is a final fourth option, “null case,” in which neither sound nor image is recorded; as this option has no industrial use, it is not part of the Hollywood lexicon. By working with film as a series of industrial, standardized units, Fisher contributed towards a West Coast adaptation of Minimalism.

Fisher has described his work in film as being in relation to the material limits of the medium: How do the intrinsic properties of film lend themselves to what is available for production, and what types of images can it support? Fischer would later summarize: “Film of all kinds is unified by its material facts.” Breaking down the film into its material properties sheds light on the systematic units of cinema production—the film itself and the strikingly non-cinematic way in which they were used in day to day studio functions. The utilitarian use of film, in which its status as material is laid bare, is what interests Fisher. The film is still taken as a single unit of a film reel. Mathematically precise, each reel contains the same number of stills. In the case of the Fisher’s Picture and Sound Rushes, each still can nearly be isolated as an entity; there is no narrative arc or unfolding of a drama. One image, one still, one object after another.

As Fisher has elucidated, this articulate attention to the material properties of film is tied to his study of Minimalism, of Donald Judd, Carl Andre, Walter de Maria, and Blinky Palermo. For him, the reel is a unit composed of a set number of units which have material properties in and of themselves. Picture and Sound Rushes presents the four cases in equal number. Examples of each are provided six times, all 27.45 seconds long to show that “each case is equally important.”[1] Or equally unimportant, as none of the cases contain significant footage—the work maintains an aspect of outtakes, or throwaway footage only maintained for daily memorandums and then soon left on the cutting room floor.

Jack Goldstein, Untitled, 1969-1971/ 2013. Courtesy of the Jewish Museum, © Estate of Jack Goldstein.

Jack Goldstein, Untitled, 1969-1971/ 2013. Courtesy of the Jewish Museum, © Estate of Jack Goldstein

In the 1970s, Los Angeles balanced the influence of East Coast Minimalism with a critical engagement in “throwaway” commercialism. In January 1971 Jack Goldstein, shortly before enrolling as a graduate student at Cal Arts, installed a series of stacked precut wooden blocks, resting one on top of another, at the Pomona Art Gallery. At once weighty and monumental, the sculptures equally bore a temporal fragility at one moment, with any gust of air they could fall, their existence impermanent as celluloid. “I am interested in the simplest relation of parts,” Goldstein would explain.[2] Like Fisher, Goldstein worked for a short time in commercial film production and embedded his practice with a critical fascination for the industry’s tropes.

 

Jack Goldstein, A Suite of Nine 7-Inch Records (The Tornado), 45-rpm records; pressed color vinyl with offset labels and sleeves, 1976. Walker Art Center, McKnight Acquisition Fund, 2014

Jack Goldstein, A Suite of Nine 7-Inch Records (The Tornado), 45-rpm records; pressed color vinyl with offset labels and sleeves, 1976. Walker Art Center, McKnight Acquisition Fund, 2014

Goldstein’s A Suite of Nine 7-Inch Records (1976) are brief recordings of wild sound—the audio effects of a burning forest, dying wind, wrestling cats, or a tornado. Loosened from their signified, the sounds become multipurpose units, which are at once generic enough to meet any range of uses and specific enough to convey, without viewing, a direct image. Goldstein did not record these sounds: they are appropriated sounds, re-recorded onto colorful SPs. Goldstein’s act of authorship rests in the critical reveal of Hollywood production, a laying bare of the disparate, absurd elements of how films are made.

Goldstein’s distrust of the finished cinematic product is consistent with Fisher’s close reading of the industry’s commercial and social power. For Fisher, pulling back the curtain on Hollywood’s facade was an innately political act, grounded in a Benjaminian distrust of cinema and the manufactured social experience. By creating a fourth possibility in Picture and Sound Rushes, a “null case,” Fisher allowed the cinematic construction to fail, ultimately contradicting the status quo of an industry from which it is derived. Coming of age as the motion picture studios began to collapse from the citywide giants of mid-century, Fisher provides a close read of the celluloid foundation on which these industries stood and undermines their possibilities for future expansion.

Carl Andre, Manifest Destiny, stacked bricks, 1986. Installed at Donald Judd House, 101 Spring Street, New York. © Carl Andre.

Carl Andre, Manifest Destiny, stacked bricks, 1986. Installed at Donald Judd House, 101 Spring Street, New York. © Carl Andre

Notes

[1] Morgan Fisher “Picture and Sound Rushes” in Morgan Fisher writings (Generali Foundation and Museum Abteiberg: Cologne, 2011), 38.

[2] Jack Goldstein quoted in Willoughby Sharp “Rumbles,” Avalanche 2 (Winter 1971): 8.

The Visual Music of Hippie Modernism: Scoring The Ultimate Painting

In 1965, on the outskirts of Colorado, in the desert fields of El Moro, one filmmaker (Gene Bernofsky) and three artists (JoAnn Bernofsky, Richard Kallweit, and Clark Richert) established an alternative space of communal living. It was coined Drop City, not only because the founding members and transient visitors had “dropped out” of mainstream societal strictures, […]

Clark Richert, View of Drop City, "the Complex," in El Moro, outside Trinidad, Colorado c. 1966

Clark Richert, View of Drop City, “the Complex,” in El Moro, outside Trinidad, Colorado c. 1966

In 1965, on the outskirts of Colorado, in the desert fields of El Moro, one filmmaker (Gene Bernofsky) and three artists (JoAnn Bernofsky, Richard Kallweit, and Clark Richert) established an alternative space of communal living. It was coined Drop City, not only because the founding members and transient visitors had “dropped out” of mainstream societal strictures, but also because the artists-turned-architects “dropped” mini-complexes that took on the form of geodesic domes, in the spirit of Buckminster Fuller, atop the landscape’s topology. Although they were influenced by Fuller’s architectural strategies and philosophies, they took an ad hoc approach to the production of their living structures—acting as bricoleurs, they repurposed refuse, using car tops to form their dome habitats. By the late 1970s Drop City was abandoned, evacuated of hippies performing alternative lifestyles and left in ruins.

Like many dissolved art collectives, the living members of Drop City are neither in agreement as to the original aspirations nor the legacy of their now iconic commune. For some, Drop City was meant strictly to be a functional living space. Despite the frequent leaks caused by rain falling through the cracks between the composite metal fragments, some defended the domes’ structural integrity, pointing to the maintenance needed for the upkeep of even the most urban of apartment units. Others, however, posited Drop City as an art project in which aesthetic and social aims outweighed utilitarian purposes. For them, the commune was a realization of the mission of modernity, an albeit short-lived fusion of art and life. The domes provided a theatrical backdrop to the bodies that circulated the commune and formed a constellation of aesthetic radicalism and social upheaval.

UP J

Clark Richert, Richard Kallweit, Gene Bernofsky, JoAnn Bernofsky, and Charles DiJulio, The Ultimate Painting, 1966/2011

While the artistic intention behind the geodesic domes and the commune remains in contention, there is one art object—recreated in 2011 and on display in the Walker’s galleries—whose status is undisputed: The Ultimate Painting (1966/2011). The work, which took the form of a circular canvas covered with trippy, quasi-futuristic poly-chromatic shapes, was attached to a rotary apparatus that allowed it to spin at various speeds. Increasing the dynamism of this early participatory and kinetic artwork was a control panel with arcade-game-like buttons that projected various stroboscopic lights onto the rotating circular composition—creating indeterminate, immersive, and at times discombobulating, visual experiences. The Ultimate Painting presented viewers-turned-players with hundreds of different visual computations depending on their own rhythmic engagement with the five red buttons at their disposal.

ex2015hm_ins_gal3 Visual Arts; Exhibitions; installation views. Hippie Modernism - The Struggle for Utopia, October 24, 2015 - February 28, 2016, Galleries 1, 2, 3, and Perlman. This Walker-organized exhibition, assembled with the assistance of the Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive, examines the intersections of art, architecture, and design with the counterculture of the 1960s and early 1970s. Curated by Andrew Blauvelt. Tour schedule includes Cranbrook Art Museum, June 19–October 9, 2016, and the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, February 8–May 21, 2017.

The author puts The Ultimate Painting in motion inside the exhibition, Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia.

Although one might not readily link the product of a hippie commune characterized by “droppings” of junkyard-made dome living structures with avant-garde visual music, there is an uncanny parallel between The Ultimate Painting and the visual music apparatus known as the Optophonic Piano invented by Russian Futurist artist and composer Vladamir Baranov-Rossiné (1888–1944) in the early 1900s. The “optophone”—which, translated from the Greek, means “visible sound”—comprised many hand-made elements by the artist that would presage the color-wheel projectors of the 1960s, especially The Ultimate Painting. The Optophonic Piano was a hybrid audio-visual apparatus comprising a piano keyboard plugged into a screen onto which variable circular color compositions unfolded based on which keys were struck.

The color configurations of the circular projections were determined by a number of small, abstract hand-painted disks (gouache and watercolor on celluloid) that in hindsight share a striking resemblance to the Ultimate Painting in miniature. These discs were linked to chords within the organ.

 

Vladamir Baranov-Rossiné, Optophic Piano, c. 1916

Vladamir Baranov-Rossiné, Optophic Piano, c. 1916

Baranov-Rossiné explained how his intermedia instrument operated:

Each touch of the keys of the organ, which are fixed in a chosen position, make a certain apparatus move quicker or slower, together with the transparent filters, through which a beam of white light passes … Light filters … single colored filters and optical elements…prisms, lenses or a mirror are employed. The complex filters include elements of graphic art… Add to this the possibility of changing the position of the projector, the form of the screen, the symmetry of the compositions, their movements and intensity, and you can imagine this light piano.1

Disc

Vladamir Baranov-Rossiné, painted glass disk of the Optophonic Piano

Irrespective of whether the Drop City artists who collaboratively created The Ultimate Painting would agree that “light” was their primary medium, it was this natural, yet painterly element that turned a static painting into an “ultimate” ever-changing kaleidoscope. In the words of Baranov-Rossiné one month following his November 1924 Otophone performance at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow: “My apparatus … provided unusual expanse in dynamic painting, the sort of color painting one might only dream about… In one second, billions of pictures: a willful, universal kaleidoscope.”2

Baranov-Rossiné turned his colorful dreams into reality, scoring new possibilities for future experiments in the interstitial space between the visual and the auditory.

disk detail

Vladamir Baranov-Rossiné, detail view of painted glass disk of the Optophonic Piano

The “light piano” Baranov-Rossiné describes could very well be Drop City’s Ultimate Painting, which likewise moves at various speeds due to the choreography of the player’s fingertips and the resulting light forms. Whereas the “graphic art” of the Optophone lies in the painted disks hidden within the apparatus, the painterly gestures of Drop City are readily apparent on the surface of the circular canvas. The key similarity, however, is the shared importance of light in creating a multi-sensory experience. It is the manipulation of light that allows for the generation of a myriad permutations of color patterns, allowing for an audio-visual experience that bridges the material and the immaterial. Both the Optophonic Piano and The Ultimate Painting rely on the player to take an active role in the unfolding of a synaesthetic orchestra—the intermingling of the tactile sounds of keys and buttons being pushed and the mechanical noises of the projector humming and the circular canvas accelerating and decelerating in rotation.

Notes

1. Rossine, Vladimir, Aleksandra S. Shatskikh, and N. B. Avtonomova. Vladimir Baranov-Rossiné : the artist of Russian avant-garde, St. Petersburg: Palace Editions, 2007, p. 40–41.

2. Ibid., p. 41.

Walkaround Time: Photography of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company Collection

  When the stage lights go up in Walkaround Time (1968) the nine dancers are frozen, almost in mid-step as if they had been moving before the performance began. There’s something frozenly mechanical about this opening tableau, the cogs and gears of Marcel Duchamp’s The Large Glass imagery (on which Jasper Johns’ décor was based) […]

James Klosty, Merce Cunningham Dance Company in Walkaround Time, 1968. Collection of the Walker Art Center. © James Klosty

 

When the stage lights go up in Walkaround Time (1968) the nine dancers are frozen, almost in mid-step as if they had been moving before the performance began. There’s something frozenly mechanical about this opening tableau, the cogs and gears of Marcel Duchamp’s The Large Glass imagery (on which Jasper Johns’ décor was based) has, as the dancers themselves, momentarily ground to a halt. This is the moment photographer James Klosty captured in his 1968 photograph of the dance, a print of which is in the Walker’s Merce Cunningham Dance Company Collection.
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2015: The Year According to Black Futures (Kimberly Drew & Jenna Wortham)

Kimberly Drew and Jenna Wortham. Photo: Naima Green To commemorate the year that was, we invited an array of artists, writers, designers, and curators—from abstract painter Jack Whitten to musician C. Spencer Yeh, choreographer Trajal Harrell to designer Na Kim—to share a list of the most noteworthy ideas, events, and objects they encountered in 2015. See […]

2015-headerKimberly Drew and Jenna Wortham. Photo: Naima Green

Kimberly Drew and Jenna Wortham. Photo: Naima Green

To commemorate the year that was, we invited an array of artists, writers, designers, and curators—from abstract painter Jack Whitten to musician C. Spencer Yeh, choreographer Trajal Harrell to designer Na Kim—to share a list of the most noteworthy ideas, events, and objects they encountered in 2015. See the entire series 2015: The Year According to                                 .

What started as a series of casual DMs between Kimberly Drew and Jenna Wortham has evolved within the last year into an ambitious and multifarious research project that launches publicly today under the name Black Futures. The hybrid project will combine short essays and original, commissioned artworks from a variety of sources, all drawn from personal networks that span from storied institutions to Internet artists to online communities. “We’re devoted to the act of preserving and documenting contemporary blackness in the post-digital age,” the state, “and our ultimate plan is to create a time capsule that reflects the deep contours of global blackness at this precise moment in history.” In line with this vision, Black Future’s year-end list offers a nuanced exploration of the year’s undercurrents, from activism and appropriation to gender identity and global interconnectivity.

Kimberly Drew (@museummammy), currently the Associate Online Community Producer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, founded the Tumblr blog Black Contemporary Art, and has delivered lectures and participated in panel discussions at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, the Performa Biennial, Art Basel, the Brooklyn Museum, the Bronx Museum of the Arts, Creative Many (Detroit, MI) and elsewhere.

Jenna Wortham (@jennydeluxe) is a staff writer at the New York Times Magazine, where she previously covered technology and Internet culture. She has also written for The Fader, The Paris Review, The Hairpin, and Vogue. Other side hustles include: Bloop, Heartline on Bel-Air Radio, Everybody Sexts, the Emoji Art Show & Girl Crush Zine.

2015-01

Dawit L. Petros, Salute to Donald's Fascist Demagoguery, 2015 / Courtesy the artist

Dawit L. Petros, Salute to Donald’s Fascist Demagoguery, 2015. Courtesy the artist

$OCIAL PRACTICE

Social activism, community organizing, and subversion have been at the foundation of art movements since the dawn of time. But, in 2015, we have witnessed (and seen some grand, financial support for) a new wave of social practice art-making. Artists like LaToya Ruby Frazier, Mark Bradford, Theaster Gates, Rick Lowe, Maria Gaspar, Titus Kaphar, and Wangechi Mutu have been making major waves place-making and fundraising. With the US election on the horizon and the world basically in shambles, these artists have the audacity to help try and make the world a better place.

2015-02

2 New Black Geographies

Mahdi Ehsaei: The Khaj-e-Ata Beach in Bandar Abbas (capital of Hormozgan) rests against the Persian Gulf. It is a popular place for inhabitants and tourists. Afternoons are filled with children playing on the beach.

New Black Geographies

Afro-Iran is a hyphenated identity that may not be familiar to most, and Mahdi Ehsaei’s gorgeous, Kickstarter-funded photography project provided a textured glimpse into the lives and communities of African Iranians that have settled alongside the Persian Gulf. African slaves were sold to wealthy families in Persia as servants and concubines, and these are their descendants. The diaspora is so vast and varied, and in recent years we’ve been afforded the opportunity to learn about our pasts and move forward deftly into the future. Additionally, that’s why the ongoing body of work by Zanele Muholi, a queer South African photographer who documents the lives of lesbians and gender-nonconforming people in Africa, is also among the most important narratives to gain global recognition this year.

2015-03

Bathroom door at the ICA Philadelphia/Photo: Kimberly Drew

Bathroom door at ICA Philadelphia. Photo: Kimberly Drew

#GenderMuse: Talking Gender in Museums

The gender revolution has arrived (again.) This year, museums globally have been charged with reconsidering how they can be receptive to the myriad identities of their visitors. It’s our hope that unpacking cis-gender-centric museological practices will be one of the art world’s greatest challenges in the 21st century. That said, news flash: gender equity is more than just bathrooms! Yes, gender neutral bathrooms are a step in the right direction, but they surely aren’t the only qualifier for gender-inclusive museum practices. So, get on it y’all!

2015-04

Martine Syms, Notes on Gesture (Still), 2015

Martine Syms, Notes on Gesture (Still), 2015

Notes on Language & Internet Vernacular

Claptalking is a uniquely black gesture, an action one associates primarily with black women and black womanhood. It is a part of our colloquial vernacular as familiar as any other part of the English language. As emoji became popularized in America and social media services like Twitter adapted their software so that the colorful cartoons would show up in tweets, something interesting began to happen. People, including non-black Americans, began using the claphands emoji to emulate claptalking online. Is this linguistic minstrelsy? And is it the Internet’s fault for facilitating it? None of these questions have answers, but Martine Syms’s provocative and brilliant project helps to explore the meaning of language and, by association, the ways online media and the Internet debone culture from its origins, how we process digital representation and cultural migration in a post-Internet era. (Further reading: Manuel Arturo Abreu’s Online Imagined Black English.)

2015-05

Photo: Natalia Mantini/Paper Magazine

Cardi B. Photo: Natalia Mantini, Complex magazine

The Year of the Hoe

2015 was undoubtedly the year of the hoe (and in many ways, “whoremongering.”) Self-proclaimed, self-affirming hoes like Amber Rose and Cardi B forged a new path towards decolonizing black female sexuality. Rose’s How to Be a Bad Bitch is perhaps the first book of it’s candor since Karinne Steffans’ seminal 2005 book, Confessions of a Video Vixen. Rose doesn’t hold a candle to Steffans as a novelist, but the Amber Rose Slut Walk has had an undoubtedly profound impact on the public dialogue around black female subjectivity.

2015-06

A still from Tabita Rezaire’s online work asking how the Internet operates as an imperial force.

A still from Tabita Rezaire’s online work asking how the Internet operates as an imperial force.

#CyberNewSlaves

An enormous and ongoing theme from 2015 was the slow-rising awareness of the Internet as a biased, hegemonic, and very-not-neutral space. It is not the democracy we’ve lulled ourselves into thinking it could be. Plenty of dialogues have emerged about how multibillion-dollar corporations like Uber, AirBnb, Facebook, Spotify, and the like continue to reinforce—not disrupt—age-old hierarchies. But none have been as entertaining as the work of online artist Tabita Rezaire, a French-Guyanese-Danish multimedia artist living in Johannesburg, South Africa. Her work addresses the colonist attitudes of the Web and forces you to address that we might be co-opting a new form of slavery, one that’s too far embedded to extricate ourselves from.

2015-07

7A Constance Wu

Constance Wu

“I’m not going to ask Lena Dunham to write a story about Asian-American girls; that’s not her experience. But if we want more stories about Asian-Americans, then we have to help foster the creators, the writers, the producers, the directors. I’m trying to read more books that are written by Asian-Americans. It’s important to me that I read these stories.” —Constance Wu

2015-08

Addressing Appropriation

2015 was a year of strange cultural confusion. Identities were borrowed, racial histories co-opted, and the post-Internet etiquette of “sharing first and worrying about crediting later” came to a head with the Fat Jew and a handful of other popular aggregators. But perhaps no one broke it down better than Amandla Sternberg, actress and musician, in a YouTube video talking about the dangers of appropriation and what is lost when we just assume aesthetics, fashion, and ideas are up for grabs.

2015-09

A typical social media post during #BlackOut

A typical social media post during #BlackOut

New Online Narratives

There’s something so revolutionary about black Internet users deciding to simply make themselves known a few days each year by flooding Tumblr with resplendent images of blackness. It’s a way to push back at an overwhelmingly Eurocentric images of beauty media and claim a little space for oneself. Acknowledging the power to create and control independent narratives—to define what it means that the Internet is intended as a democracy—was one of the most important themes for keyboard activism in 2015.

2015-10

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Unconventional Archiving

In January 2015, the New York Times ran an article outlining web initiatives by major art museum including the Whitney Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, and others making images in their collection accessible online. In the piece Ken Johnson asks, “Will global interconnectivity promote homogeneity and less idiosyncrasy?” The clear answer here is: hell no. This year was chock full of intensely creative infrastructures for global interconnectivity. For example, Tulane University’s Bounce Archive, Sonia Boyce’s Black Artist and Modernism, the #CharlestonSyllabus, the digitization of 1.5 million of the Freedmans Bureau’s papers, and many others are inflating the traditional definitions of archives or databases. Global interconnectivity was turnt in 2015 and we can’t wait to see what 2016 has in store.

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