Divining the Mine in Ours

At the time of this writing I’m in San Antonio [1], collecting more material for the archive. If, like me, you’re a fan of plaintive train whistles, you’d love San Antonio. Downtown the calls are frequent, if half-absorbed into the city background noise. Doppler-bent chords rise just above the din of wind, HVAC, the audio of earbuds, a rolling engine’s wail singing through the various death cries of whichever Game of Thrones blade battle sends me off into sleep (talk about ‘inscription’)…

 

The shiny black painting visible as you enter The Open is the real fixer of the ‘Inscription’ theme that has animated this first NFPL season’s programming. It’s an untitled painting by Gean Moreno, offered as a gift after we completed work on the 2007 Inova dual show featuring Moreno and Jennifer Rochlin, a California artist, and Moreno’s massive, chaotic ultra-mess of a show titled Don’t Torture the Rotten Ducklings, a conflation of 1970s structuralist film and horror-genre posters by upwards of 60 artists, titled after a kitschy 1972 Italian horror (‘giallo’) flick by director Lucio Fulci.[2]

 

Moreno was generous in offering a piece, more generous in giving me a choice of works. I had a hard time choosing, several caught my eye. What attracted me to this sorry, wry, gorgeous painting was the story of its making. Meant to reference graffiti scratched into the plexiglas of public bus and subway windows— as unintentional textualizations imposed upon motile landscapes—a hammer blow into the hard, shiny surface of clear resin was supposed to just crack the surface, like a blunt-force punch or bb-pellet does to a window. Instead, the hammer went through the canvas entirely, leaving a gaping hole, such that if hung on a wall the wall itself is visible through the painting. Painting geeks like me dig this kind of painting subversion, but ultimately that’s not enough. It was the disruption of intent, and Moreno’s acceptance of the accidental ruination, that won the day for me. His acquiescence to chance spoke volumes about Moreno’s personality, and neatly described the ethic underlying his methods. Intent only gets you so far. Beyond that, the thing itself takes over, exerting its own form of control.

 

Happenstance suggested Evan Gruzis’s Public Paintings project as the inaugural work for the NFPL’s grand opening. I don’t recall how the subject of Gruzis’s whiteboard paintings came up, but when he spoke of the idea of making blank canvases meant to be drawn upon by the public, I recognized a perfect echo of the original NFPL’s form and mission: a library of blank books to be filled in by anyone who wants to write or draw or scribble or tag or modify any of the books in any way.[3] Gruzis’s project recalled The Open Work by Umberto Eco, and artists who expand the category of audience-fulfilling artwork like John Cage, Yoko Ono and others who seek a more equal role for audiences than assumed passive observers of a performer’s intent. Most curious was Gruzis’s mentioning the pressure that a person might feel inscribing their doodle for exhibition, in a gallery, with the presumed audience adjudging their input, possibly even with a swipe of the dry-erase board eraser Gruzis cannily provided, offering up the Rauschenbergian potential of addition through subtraction.

 

The tangle of film hanging on the wall near the door, ascribed to Amy Granat, speaks to the remnant quality of inscription. Some inscription is living, not only animate but able to reanimate a dead moment around it—for example a hobo code transmitting across space and time, imparting relevant meaning to new travelers; or its city equivalent, graffiti communicating any number of exigencies, conditions, control points, ego-tags taking possession of shared space like advertisements do, but less temporarily. The beauty of Granat’s Faux Bones is that it only occurs as a work of art in its animate state, projecting its native image on a surface even as the images become occluded or enhanced by a compounding series of scratches, blips, gouges and other supposed imperfections as the fragile emulsion makes its way through the projector. Such scratches are normally the bane of filmmakers, but Granat is exercising the will of the union of film and machine, conditioning the film to make itself, animating stillness in real space and time just as movies bring still images to life. Most film aims to preserve a continuous present, though, unreceptive to alterations caused by real space and time.  Granat not only celebrates, but essentializes such invasions.   

 

Liberation from time and space was a goal of the Situationists, particularly Raoul Vaneigem:

 

The end of all separations undoubtedly begins with the end of one particular separation, that between space and time. 

 

Vaneigem’s quest was to break through alienation imposed by the society of the spectacle, which separates us from each other, atomizing our purpose and meaning into mere survival. 

 

The establishment of life’s ascendancy over survival is the historical movement that will undo history.[4] 

 

The art world is not separate from the world. Like any specialized field, it has its languages, dialects, gestures, physics, codes, nuances, secrets, cabals. With his ongoing series of fake exhibitions, Pedro Vélez draws a line between Vaneigem and Bernie Sanders, and even our ‘fake news’ moment, with stops at Yves Klein’s Leap Into the Void (1960), and Bas Jan Ader and Tracey Emin in between. 

 

With a swift gesture, Vélez takes back control from a semi-real cabal of art-world gatekeepers, freeing his imagination from constraints of budgets, logistics and responsibility, to fashion exhibitions that don’t need to exist in real space and time, since they violate several principles of physics (and permissions) anyway. The combination of Damien Hirst and Daniel Buren, for instance, is probably not within the traditional spectrum of curatorial decision-making, but offers a sly mashup of binaries, Hirst’s art/life and art/death conflation with Buren’s maximinimal white/color stripings. The alchemy of combining Apocalypse Now, ‘Dan Graham’ (as an ouevre?) and Ceal Floyer (here one understands the capture of a sensibility is intended), is like E=mc2, an equation that condenses separates into a time-warped whole: the self, a stand-in for all selves, confronting its shadow-self, lit up on four sides by video projection of its self-image. The point of this, Vélez’s first such exercise in an ongoing project of fake exhibition-making,[5] seems to be its impossibility, the exact loosening from reality’s constraints that assures it’s never-happening. Vélez is known for his directness as a critic, but this is as subtle a bird-flip to art’s hierarchies as you’ll see, rendering the stable order as imaginary as his own gesture, a forced acknowledgment of the equal reality of both. In this scenario David only wings Goliath, who keens dumbfounded for a seized moment before recollecting his own power. 

 

Vélez also prefigured that bricks-and mortar art shows would become rare and fragile relics in the world of virtual transmission. Now, oddly, if it ain’t virtual, it never happened. And that’s the condition of the art world, which is outpaced by the current, politically-driven backward masking of our real world: If it happened, it never happened. Facts are run backwards through the tape machine, rendered intelligible as secret codes windowing an alternate reality. 

 

º º º

 

I’m a huge proponent of dialing down metaphor abuse. For example, any sports event is consummated a ‘battle,’ while soldiers sworn to serve are sent into actual battles of morbid consequence every day by our military-industrial complex, the actual shadow government hiding behind electable officials and constructing a world in its own image as we struggle to understand the impossibility of peace. There are battles, and there are battles, and we should preserve the real meanings of words lest they become meaningless. ‘Hitler’ comparisons fly around all too often, such boy-cried-wolf scenarios becoming apparent only when it’s too late, for example the step-up from Cheney to the current USA figurehead representing only his own narcissistic image at the head of our executive branch. (Yeah, I won’t dignify the situation by typing the name.) Amanda Tollefson nailed the metaphor with her Unmistakable Resemblance buttons, exaggerating the shade of difference between our autocrat-in-chief and the horrifying dictator with only slight caricature. Such gestures can admittedly feel tiny against the monolith we’re facing, but like Velez’s gesture, revolutionary gestures always begin slightly, as a single thought in a single mind, which seeks connections to other minds, quietly and subversively, until those minds are seen to join together in masses of bodies, if not unified then agreed to a singular purpose of freeing us from the regressive, arrear-guard yokes imposed upon us by a tyrannical minority. 

 

Antoni Tàpies graffitoed signs of Catalan identity into his paintings, signs and symbols that served as crucial communication nodes for the fascist-defeated Republican network during and after the Spanish Civil War. Graffiti on Locust St. during the time of the Hermetic Gallery (1993-1998) was far less dramatically poignant, symbolic mostly of tagger-ego. Though such reclamations of public space used to drive me and other small-time business owners crazy—in part because taggers didn’t seem to realize who they were actually victimizing, certainly not the precincts of civic power—my understanding of the situation has evolved. The whole idea informing my fascination with ‘inscription’ begins here, in this tense and unresolved space between private/public, shared/protected, constricted/free, the boundaries and borders of domains we inevitably share but somehow want to cordon off for determinate use and hierarchical access. 

 

Graffiti is uninvited inscriptions upon the world, interventions on public and private space that reclaim it from those who would hold it secured from chaotic aesthetics. But spray-paint and marker scrawlings are civil bonds if seen from a different angle. They are reclamations of public visual zones away from private interests. If our visual fields can be assaulted by an unending, undefeatable jungle of advertising, literally every way we turn, why can’t we allow messages not intended to trap us, but perhaps even to free us? 

 

If I had to boil down Paul Druecke’s artistic project to one idea, I’d say it’s the question of why things get named. Not just how—we know that, the history of place-names traceable back to and through colonialization and its more ancient victims—but why one name prevails over another, why an official name remains even as it gets overtaken by more informal names (British skyscrapers are good examples, particularly The Shard, which actually adopted the snarky public imprimatur as its formal name in a game of public/private one-upmanship). One of Druecke’s strata-maps, Whiteboard Poem for Winkie (2015), remains   after   his   initial   NFPL  entry  to frame his own permanent-marker-on-dry-erase-board inscriptions as a kind of very personal graffito, a declarative naming of places and things. They feel like visual versions of mumbling while walking, designating sights and occurrences in the city as private monuments of personal meaning. For instance, my personal Nikipedia defines ‘Chambers Street’ as my friend Dominic Chambers, and Chamber Gallery just down the way, and the judicial saying “in chambers,” more than whatever the street name’s actual reference might be. Official designations resonate with unofficial names. 

 

Xylor Jane’s numerology drives her colorful abstractions. She works in numbers to divine relationships and draw them out in colors and patterns, referencing specific dates and times and locations of their making and interconnectedness with where the works are intended to wind up—if in this case a postcard-mobile drawing. While curating for Inova, I’d wanted to do a monographic show of Jane’s work back in 2007, but circumstances didn’t allow it. The postcard [framed so that both sides are visible, but please ask if you’d like to see the back] is a relic of our exchange, and a mere hint of how grand that show would have been. I’m not into numerology myself but understand the imposition of purpose and relationships between the invisible language of the stars (seen simply as the geometry of constellations, or with much further complexity as in quantum mechanics) and our movements as dimensional beings. Numbers imply both a continuum and randomness, fractal multiplications and clear, solid units of measurement. The Chinese calendar imparts characteristics and tendencies on annualized groups, and astrology by months. I have friends willing to note my star charts, but I wonder what use I’d make of this knowledge, whether being told that this is a bad month for interpersonal relationships would help me navigate better, or just help explain (at a distance) why things go so right or so wrong at a given moment. The question seems to be whether we inscribe our fates post-haste, as we pass, or whether our fate lines already run ahead of us and we merely follow them along with more or less a degree of knowing or seeing. 

 

One of Evan Gruzis’s Public Paintings embodies this pinion between past and future, having been fully inscribed according to the artist’s intent by the random assortment of visitors to The Open who jumped in with dry-erase markers and eraser-as-drawing-tool. I, however, took it upon myself to wipe the slate clean, as it were, resetting the whiteboard for a new set of markings, since it’s well within the purview of the work for me to do so. When I cleared my act of erasure with Gruzis, he specified that he himself could never do it, by his own order he’d have to accept whatever state the painting arrived to him in when designated “finished” (by the end of the exhibition, though the open methodology of The Open complicates that), but that he had no say over whether I, or anyone else, for that matter, chose to erase the whole thing. My erasure was as much a contribution as Paul Anthony Smith’s hours-long drawing session a couple months ago, when he basically converted Gruzis’s painting into one of his own. The blue-and-black bricks motif is still faintly discernible, if you look closely, because as we learn in life, no erasure is ever complete. Cindy Loehr’s memory attests to that. During the NFPL memorial display of work and ephemera she left behind after her untimely death in 2014, one particular event stands out. A group of close friends and strangers heard readings of Loehr’s (via her nom de plume ‘Cynthia Grey’) as a means of reminiscence on her powers of observation and emotional reflection. Loehr/Grey was an eternal optimist, attested to by the seeming innocence of her conjoined person-circles (an example from the collection of Michelle Grabner is on display), and despite the tragedy of our loss of her, her optimism and hint of eternity remains. 

 

Which brings us to David Shrigley’s little ditty, probably formally titled as Untitled (Change Is Undesirable, Everything Is Perfect Here), from his 1997 exhibition at the Hermetic Gallery, his first solo exhibition in the United States.[6] This and another piece in the Hermetic Collection (of cut graph paper) are very early examples of Shrigley's explorations beyond ink-on-white paper cartoons toward shaped paper, drawings on photographs, and sculpture (culminating in his unintentionally ultra-timely big thumb currently atop Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth). This ink intervention in a photo-frozen tourist scene changes the meaning of change, renders an opinion even as its unmistakably wry tone calls that opinion into question. Is it? I ask the picture, when ‘change for the sake of change’ has rendered American democracy moot?

 

It seems we no longer share public space. We can be standing on the same street corner, you and I, but we see entirely different things. You see threat, I see home. You see chaos in need of order, I see a balanced flow of order and disorder. In the uncanny novel The City & The City, China Miéville renders an allegory of Palestine/Israel taken to its extreme: By law, even though we inhabit literally the same space, you and I cannot notice, recognize, even see each other, because we do not recognize each other’s legitimate claim on the space, much less each other’s legitimacy of existence. This uneasy balance takes the place of mutual recognition. It would be a crime for me to acknowledge you. At the moment Miéville’s work seems less fiction than non-. 

 

An artist who shall remain unnamed once said to me, in all seriousness, that ‘if a show wasn’t reviewed it never happened.’ I was astonished, unable to reply either due to my reticent Midwestern nature or sheer flummoxedness. Really? So what about all the real, actual people who actually really saw the show, came into the gallery and looked at the work in real space and time? If no review gets published, is the experience wiped from their minds like the erasable memory engram of various sci-fi memes? The comment isn’t entirely out of line, though. For us, now, today, memory is no archive. We have long departed from oral history traditions, which require “a telling and a listening that is intense, and intentional.”[7] In that sense, yes—if a history of a people is told but no one is there to listen, it can fade from active memory, but the imprint of the actual history remains in the world, having affected everything. Knowledge is merely a form of recognition, though they are forms of knowledge that do not require recognition.

 

In conclusion, if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to see it, it makes a sound. If you don’t think so, then our entire existence as a species depends on whether that little gold record shot out into space on Voyager ever gets heard.

 

 

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NOTES

 

1. In residence at the Artpace International Artists-In-Residence program (IAIR), San Antonio, from January 18, 2017-March 20, 2017.

 

2. At the time I was program curator at the Institute of Visual Arts (Inova) in Milwaukee, which no longer exists. Brochures (or what the education program director Polly Morris called ‘cataposters’—a portmanteau of ‘catalog’ and ‘poster’) are available describing Gean and Jennifer’s work at the time, and the general scope of the Ducklings exhibition. 

This being a film town, some folks were up in arms over Moreno’s kidnapping of the structuralist films in the show, including a famous work by Tony Conrad, because Conrad and others should not be listed as participating artists if they had not given permission, nor could be thought to want to have their work brutalized in such a manner—which was to be shown over the cacophony of posters, pasted willy-nilly all over fucked-up temporary walls made from scrap lumber and cardboard. Mark Borchardt’s Coven was among the films projected, but he was cool with it. We didn’t seek permission from Conrad and the others in the show, so the film folks respectful of artists’ rights certainly had a point. As curator it was hard to explain that part of Moreno’s curatorial and artistic strategies (the two blend together almost seamlessly) are to subvert such doctrinal limits to warp work out of its comfortable platforms and bend it swill to serve purposes of cultural crossover, contamination, contagion. For Moreno, closely tied to the Cuban emigré community of Miami, the stability of our structures is illusory at best, a wilful fallacy at least. His subversions are meant to say ‘Look, you don’t have the control you think you have anyway, so….’ and, thinking on it, he might leave that sentence trailing into ellipses, as is his habit of speech, though he will argue eloquently to the end of his point if asked or provoked. How then, to welcome this subversive strategy into ‘the institution?’ The University as a place of archived knowledge spurring new exploration, great respect paid to maintaining original context for the archived works, so that they can be conveyed within useful interpretive frameworks. How to create a space of exchange between such respect, and Moreno’s deliberate intellectually-driven disrespect? To him, respect is being paid to the work by recontextualizing, by reanimating it, in his terms, bringing it back from its dead place (in the archive) and re-enlivening it by testing its inherent meanings against backdrops wholly unfamiliar to its original time and place. He’s the preservationist anti-collector, enunciating that things are what they are only once, for a brief flash of time, then we must recognize them as something else—themselves, or a ghost of themselves, with an aura of zombification attached. 

 

3. Several examples of the original NFPL, a portable, interactive sculpture encompassing the books, the shelves, and whatever space it currently occupies, line the lower bookshelves in the reading area of the space. They are still available for filling in, or surveying what’s been entered into them. The intent was (and is) to create a library that the public literally creates itself, according to its own desires. Xerox copies of the Umberto Eco essay (The Poetics of the Open Work) cited in the essay’s next sentence is also available in the space—or a PDF is available here: https://www.monoskop.org/images/6/6b/Eco_Umberto_The_Open_Work.pdf

 

4. Raoul Vaneigem, The Revolution of Everyday Life, [Tr. Donald Nicholson-Smith] Éditions Gallimard (Paris), 1967/PM Press (Oakland) 2012. 

 

5. The untitled postcard was first shown in Vélez/Hutchins, a dual show of Vélez and Jessica Jackson Hutchins, at the Hermetic Gallery in 1999. It opened the space of that show to include this other, virtual show, like a phantom limb dragging a whole other set of ideas into the room, a glimpse into parallel reality via a simple postcard, an instrument already meant to collapse space and time.

 

6. I’d love to take credit for “my amazing discovery,” but as with most or all discoveries, the knowledge was actually given to me by an astute observer. All I did was recognize the astuteness of the observation. Brad Killam had traveled to Copenhagen and seen Shrigley’s work at the Nicolai Wallner Gallery, and brought back the recommendation for me. I took the work immediately, which I guess was prescient, if the opinion of one collector is compared with Brad’s and my foresight. She called the work ‘stupid,’ which it certainly was and is, but she failed to recognise the psychological resonance and dark humour behind Shrigley’s scratchy drawing, crossed-out misspellings and pathetic characters in search of unavailable meaning.

 

7. This excellent summation of the active mode of oral traditions is from author Beth Brant’s “The Good Red Road” from Contemporary Native American Cultural Issues, quoted in Chapter 5 of Indian Stereotypes in TV Science Fiction by Sierra S. Adare, University of Texas Press, Austin, 2005, p. 70.