Modem & Contemporary
As a curator I can candidly say I feel some pressure to pretend I first came across Juanli Carrión’s work through methodical research, but in fact, it was just from rather random Internet browsing. In 2010 MoMA PS1 launched the registry “Studio Visit”. A kind of digital residency: a web presence for yourself under the prestigious banner of MoMA PS1. It also helps lazy curators in New York; I suppose I trust the institution enough to let it filter the vastness of the Internet for me.
In early 2011 I casually clicked on Juanli’s thumbnail on “Studio Visit”, I came across a detail of Intermision - Mysterious Incident in Lake Desmet (2010). It is a photograph of a folding chair and a card table in the desert at night, ominously floodlit from an unknown source, possibly a vehicle. Having then recently seen Patricio Guzmán’s documentary Nostalgia for the Light, it brought to mind the accounts of Chilean leftists murdered during Pinochet’s regime, their bodies disposed of in the Atacama desert. I imagined the chair and table were a place of respite for a soldier taking a break from digging a mass grave in the sand—work best done at night to avoid the blazing sun. The empty chair meant his break time was over.
While I was struck by the piece, I failed to make note of Juanli’s name, and as quickly as I stumbled upon his body of work, it was gone.
In April I came across the Intermision - Mysterious Incident in Lake Desmet installation at the aptly named Pretty Vacant, A Group Exhibition in A Modern Ruin. The photograph I saw months before was in this gallery-warehouse, mounted on top of a wooden structure resembling a bladeless guillotine. Stepping on its base, the viewer was able to put on a pair of headphones, listening to a sound track made of a collage of voices taken from western movies, reading a sentence from the plaque of the actual site of the Mysterious Incident in Lake Desmet in Wyoming. I looked from side to side amid hundreds of people, trying to spot the work’s creator. It didn’t take long for the audio piping through the headphones to become the silent thoughts of the faces around me. The artist never emerged, but I remained haunted by the experience.
Two months later I was in Madrid. In one week I found no fewer than three exhibitions presenting the work of Soviet modernist movements: Building the Revolution: Art and Architecture in Russia, 1915-1935 at the Caixa Forum, Russian Avant-Gardes at the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, and A Hard, Merciless Light: The Worker-Photography Movement, 1926-1939 at the Museo Reina Sofía. Madrileños were clearly obsessed with the modernist art forms of the Bolshevik revolution and its aftermath, though with good reason. The Suprematist paintings of Malevich and Lissitzky brought architectural complexity into composition that would typify the move towards industry and technology in art. Their utilitarian and rational expressions engaged with the increasing presence of mechanization and urbanization, pioneering geometric abstraction.
After returning from Spain I found my thoughts returning not just to the visual vocabulary forged by the Suprematists and Constructivists, but to their historical context. The October Revolution marked the disappearance of the existing Tsarist order, successfully ushered in an era of societal transformation. Artists offered their skills in the service of the revolution, furthering a concrete social role for art in life. This cultural renaissance in visual arts and architecture would influence the Bauhaus and De Stijl movements, as well as Universal Constructivism in South America.
In July I met Juanli for the first time at the closing of his exhibition 10.21-23 The Plague of Darkness at Y Gallery, with no idea that I knew his work. There he was exhibiting Duratrans prints over light boxes, depicting “star constellations” of Google maps’ locations across the United States belonging to particular multinational corporations like Exxon, Wal-mart, or Pfizer. We spoke about a work he was planning: Building the Neverending Ruin of the World based around Victor Burgin’s philosophy on photography as an instant ruin or an archive-monument, capturing a previous state of the world.
By that time I was organizing the show Parts and Labor at the Abrons Arts Center in New York, and saw his project adding a discourse of contemporary technology. The telecom technology and the Google algorithm, the focus on process as a component of the work, the bureaucratic imagery of the installation, the quasi-photomontage products: they all fashion a uniquely modernist expression in a 21st-century context. Placing his installation among works with flat planes of color, geometric shapes, and nonobjective representation, I would trace his use of industrial motifs and social purpose to the Russian avant-garde.
The project capitalizes on the transparency, the sense of public engagement that comes from making work within and during an exhibition rather than before it. Similar to “Studio Visit”, the use of Skype in Neverending Ruin facilitates a digital residency, though transmitting the artist’s actions in real time and substituting the drafting table for a computer desktop. Juanli’s terminals in New York and Vitoria-Gasteiz exist as micro-models of the Shukov Tower, the Soviet radio tower and Constructivist architectural marvel. They transmit signals across a latticework of fiber optic cable, but, more importantly, they construct a new crossroads of between disparate points in time and space.
Visiting Juanli’s website after that meeting, I was confronted with his work with which I was already familiar— Intermission—and I remarked to myself at the porous boundaries between Internet and real life, between virtual, imagined, and actual experience.
As I write this essay, protestors in the tens of thousands are occupying Wall Street in New York City, where dubious business practices catalyzed the current global recession. The protest has been inspired by the successful demonstrations of the Arab Spring, which also served as inspiration for los indignados in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol and Barcelona’s Plaça de Catalunya, among other locations in Spain. Not only organized through the Internet, these movements also use the Internet to disseminate a rhetoric opposed to government policies that privilege the wealthy as the middle and working classes find opportunity slipping through their fingers.
I don’t believe that another Socialist revolution is upon us, but our entry into the 21st century is clearly calling for new orders, both locally and globally. An Internet-based society should see options expanding, not contracting. The proliferation of voices in the media may require filters, but not those set by corporate interests. I think it’s an excellent time to examine the visual culture established a century ago, showing its continuing potency as it arrives in an era of instantaneous transmission of image, of thought, and of artistic expression.
Adrian Geraldo Saldaña
Building the Neverending Ruin of the World
“It has been sagaciously discerned by Simonides or else discovered by some other person, that the most complete pictures are formed in our minds of the things that have been conveyed to them and imprinted on them by the senses, but that the keenest of all our senses is the sense of sight, and that consequently perceptions by the ears or by reflection can be most easily retained if they are also conveyed to our minds by the mediation of the eyes.” (Cicero, De oratore II, LXXXVII, 357, quoted in Yates, 1966: 4)
Building the Neverending Ruin of the World uses the image as a means to explore the idea of memory in the virtual world by analysing the new systems that generate it in that ‘invisible’ space that is gradually taking over the space of the contemporary social sphere.
The project originated from Victor Burgin’s essay “Sonnen-Insulaner: On a Berlin Island of Memory” in the book Memory Culture and the Contemporary City, in which a number of writers consider the theme of urban memory and the way that a memory culture is being constructed in and by the contemporary city based on its architecture, art and monuments. Burgin takes as his starting point Didi-Huberman’s analysis of Roland Barthes’ theory on the ability of the photograph to keep something alive and goes on to draw a distinction between the concepts of imago (image) and vestigium (vestige, trace, ruin) as a way to explain how the world bears the mark of a loss. He later cites the American painter Jasper Johns’ desire to produce an object that speaks of the loss, destruction and disappearance of objects. Burgin sees this object as being the photograph, which, as an image, is the trace of an earlier state of the world, a vestige of how things once were. He goes on to conclude that the sum of all photographs is the ruin of the world.
Juanli Carrión turns his attention to the concept of ubiquity and seeks to give material expression to the invisible space or the virtual space through two locations: Vitoria-Gasteiz in Spain and New York in the United States. He begins by searching on Google for images that portray the word ‘ruin’ in these two places: Hondamen in Basque, Ruin in English and Ruina in Spanish.
As the basis of the process, the artist will put together a collection of images that the Google search engine allows us to view. He will then use these images to give material form to one of the possible ‘ruins’ of the world, which he will construct based on the images found.
Carrión will be in the ARTIUM exhibition space throughout the entire duration of the project, sometimes in person and on other occasions as a virtual presence through the live broadcast of the artist making the project at the Abrons Arts Center in New York. Using the Google images, the artist will gradually ‘construct’ in both venues a series of photographs and a sculpture that will give rise to a project that combines performance, net-art, audiovisual elements, photography and sculpture.
In this manner, Carrión will deal with the theme of memory in the virtual world, as well as the changing concept of recollection.
Mnemonics or the art of improving memory developed around the year 500 BC. The poet Simonides of Ceos invented the system of memory aids, which became an educational discipline in the Graeco-Roman world. The purpose of memoria technica was to teach people how to use mental images or imagines agentes and the emotional charge in them to improve the intellect.
Frances A. Yates, in The Art of Memory, tells us that problems to do with the mental image, the activation of images and the capturing of reality through images have been present throughout the history of mnemonics. Yates traces the art of memory over the centuries, showing how it has been closely linked to art and the development of iconography. She particularly focuses on the usefulness of the painting as an image of memory and dwells at length on crucial instances related to her subject, such as the theatres of memory of the Renaissance and the Baroque and the ‘Tree of Memory’ devised by Raymond Llully.
Carrión uses webcams, information control, the Internet and the act of observation as some of the determining elements in his project and touches on the aesthetics of surveillance, a genre that has developed numerous variables since its appearance in the 1970s, especially following Foucault’s consideration of the subject in his political analysis of observation in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. According to Foucault, we are not in the society of the spectacle, as announced by Guy Debord, but in the surveillance society. Carrión’s work is a much more distant and abstract example of the surveillance genre and one in which the political component resides not in the act of observation but in the content of the work done by the artist on the other side of the camera.
There is also a certain connection between Foucault’s comments on surveillance and ‘the eye of God’, which, in the history of photography, is identified with the camera and which, in this case, could be linked to the power that the artist confers on the spectator. Foucault asserts that power comes from the bottom and talks of how we citizens comply with the disciplinary structures imposed upon us via the surveillance camera (Foucault,  1979: 217).
Thus, the citizen, like the artist or the prisoner in Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon ( 2009) modifies his behaviour in front of the camera because he knows he is being watched and he enters into the game of being observed by his own system, of falling into his own trap. Our society has happily adopted these instruments of power and has turned them into an everyday mechanism through webcams and YouTube, social networks and live TV, which are nothing other than off-shoots of Bentham’s Inspection-House.
We could regard the virtual world as the prime example of what Marc Augé defines as the ‘no-place’ (non-lieu), an anonymous and interchangeable space, an environment for communication and consumption that forges financial and commercial nexuses in a system that the very idea of the virtual has made ‘global’ due to its ubiquity.
Pierre Nora circumscribes within milieu de mémoire the collective memory that derives from the occupation of a particular place for generations. These milieux have disappeared with the emergence of our present-day ‘developed’ societies, with things such as monuments and museums, commemorative events and annual celebrations, travel guides and history classes, which provide us with different and disparate places as receptacles for memory—where it is formally invoked—and which Nora calls lieux de mémoire.
So, if we connect memory with the virtual world, what should we call the virtual space? A milieu de mémoire? A lieu de mémoire? Or perhaps a non-lieu de mémoire?
In Building the Neverending Ruin of the World, Carrión talks about the concept of recollection that is changing as a consequence of the virtual era, of the organisation and subjugation of the power to which the image is still subject in cyberspace through language, location and even politics. In addition, the virtual experience is frequently reduced to the image and it is on this that the project focuses.
In the well-known Der Bilderatlas Mnemosyne—the subject of several studies by Didi-Huberman, mentioned earlier—the German theorist Aby Warburg (1866-1929) put together a series of panels of images based on his particular vision of the world of art and his Pathosformel (Pathos formulas or emotional formulas), universal stereotypes used by artists. According to Warburg, images survive beyond the precise moment they were created and enjoy a life after death, a Nachleben. He spoke about ‘dynamograms’, as that type of form that survives in the manner of images and so remains as a trace, as a ruin identified as memory, Mnemosyne. In his Atlas, Warburg sought to construct a kind of theory of human memory through images. One can only speculate on how he might have drawn up his Atlas if he had had the Internet as a search tool and as an area of research.
The images that fill the net are increasingly subject to a series of premises, norms and restrictions put in place by governments, companies and individuals. What is left is a sanitized ‘collective’ selection of the images that make up the world in the virtual public space. Many of these images can be viewed but not ‘used’, since they are encumbered by property rights, thereby restricting our control of the space they represent but allowing us access to the image of it at a particular moment.
In addition, images are also victims of the human need to catalogue and structure since they exist in the virtual world through tags, labels with which we ‘organise’ our images. These tags clearly elucidate the predominant tools and allow us to see the structures of power that direct and control information.
Today Google is the window through which more than 70% of Internet users worldwide begin their search for information on the Web (according to market research carried out by Google itself, the figures are USA: 81%; Great Britain: 90%; Australia: 93%; France: 90%; Germany: 92%; and Spain: 93%).
Juanli Carrión tells us about how it is the giant Google and its famous search algorithm that today determine the collective imaginary. An algorithm created for a useful and practical purpose when it comes to gathering information but which, with the passing of time, has become contaminated by other, mainly commercial, interests, the goal being, so Google says, to offer users higher quality hits. However, this directly affects non-commercial users of the search engine and the way in which memory works within it. Today, there is no other Lady on the Web but Lady Gaga, and that is not because more important Ladies have never existed.
Google’s argument is that it trusts the user and their critical judgement when it comes to filtering the hits, a declaration of neutrality that is more than open to question.
Google’s search algorithm is based to a large extent on location and the user him or herself. In other words, the order in which hits appear varies for different users, even if they are in the same room, since one of the factors Google takes into account is the search history of the IP address of the computer used. Where is the neutrality in this?
But it is not just a question of the order in which hits appear but also of how many hits we can see, since Google continues to reduce the visible hits to make searches more ‘useful’, as they put it. A search can throw up millions of hits, though we are only able to see a selection determined in advance on the grounds that these are the most relevant of all those found by our search criteria. The limit, as imposed by Google, stands at 1,000 hits.
The Web is obviously becoming less and less the ‘public realm’ of its early days and is proving unable to fulfil its promise as a truly open place where individuals and collectives would find a forum for free expression that would turn the virtual world into a milieu de mémoire. The materialisation of our recollections is fading in a virtual locus that it would perhaps be more appropriate to call the non-lieu de mémoire. An undoubtedly far more environmentally-friendly system that will update itself after our disappearance and overwrite us. As F.T. Whity says in “Anamnesis and the Ruin as a Whole”, civilisations are built ruin upon ruin, like a palimpsest of demolished pasts. But what is the ruin, Whity asks, if not the trace, the vestige of what once was, the remaining part of every vast empire, the soul that contains in every ruin the totality of what was?
Blanca de la Torre
Bentham, Jeremy ( 2009): Panopticon; or, The Inspection-House, Kessinger Publishing.
Foucault, Michel (, 1979): Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (trans. Alan Sheridan), New York: Vintage Books (Surveiller et Punir: Naissance de la prison 1975).
Warburg, Aby (2000): Der Bilderatlas Mnemosyne, Berlin.
Yates, Frances A. (1966): The Art of Memory, Routledge.
Juanli Carrión - Artist
Jonathan Durham - Director of Visual Arts Abrons Arts Center
Adrian Geraldo Saldaña - Curator Parts and Labor
Maia Murphy - Program Manager Recess
Allison Weisberg - Executive Director & Founder Recess
Subject: The Journey
Date: 9 october 2011 11:54:56AM EDT
To: Allison Weisberg
I just came back home after watching John Akomfrah’s The Nine Muses at MoMA. The movie is a really poetic and beautiful piece talking about immigration and human adaptation taking the idea of The Journey as a central line.
I was watching the movie and inevitably my mind started to think in “The Project” even before the first credits finished.
The first quote in the movie makes me write in my notebook the following: “EACH DAY IS A JOURNEY AND THE JOURNEY ITSELF IS HOME” Matsuo Bashô
The artist practice as a journey... which ends in the show of the results... results as memories of the journey.Is art the journey? Or, is what comes at the end of the journey?
The artist is alone at the beginning of the journey, and during it others joint him (curators, institutions, producers, galleries, friends, sponsors, buyers, critics...) The more people you begin to meet on the journey the closer to the end you are. Once the journey is over art becomes a “ruin” the trace of something that is no longer.
Bulding the Neverending Ruin of the World wants to demonstrate how the Internet and the exclusion of the experience (of the image) is changing our perception and our journey trough life.
We as individuals can create a vision of the world, our life is the journey in which this vision is built. Nowadays our vision is polluted by the filters that designates what our vision should be. This is a project that talks about this “experience” thought image apparently neutral and uncurated in Internet, but where is this “neutrality” going to bring us.
From: Jonathan Durham
Subject: Re: The Journey Date: 7 October 2011 08:16:42AM EDT
Just to toss a few responses in the air, I think it is clear that to realize Juanli’s project, he must employ the work of several administrators, as well as the tools that (hopefully) are at their disposal. Desks, computers, wireless connections, Skype, video projectors, print outs, web cams - all office tools that an artist would see as standard issue for an art administrator or gallery office. And by extension artist panels, lectures, and “events” would fall into this category and I would imagine that the more the better would be in Juanli’s best interes.
This for me - in terms of the notions you set forth of “plural roles and voices,” goes straight to an economic idea of how an artist may operate and how they may conceive of an exhibition in the alternative spaces in which we work. This is also I believe more particularly true for an artist who moves his/her studio from space to space - residency to residency with no fixed location. I was having this thought while we were at the ISCP mixer - the thought that all the artists here have in some way agreed to work with administrations at the most basic level of just having a space to work. That is - the artists have accepted the condition to a large degree that to make their work they need the acceptance and support of a program with formal applications procedures, review panels, etc - a filtering and at times homogenizing process. This is basically an economic decision made by poor artists. This includes myself as an artist and administrator who has participated on numerous sides of this process.
I think Juanli’s project and the connections of administrative/exhibition spaces and programs has to do with a kind of connection of voids, or a connection between blank spaces. The Google search for ruins is a passive activity and is properly referential to earthwork artists who have used the landscape as a site outside of the gallery space that that is somehow captured/organized/surveyed/mapped and represented by categorical methods back in the gallery. The focus on the Google algorithm as “the parameter” touches on our passive mode of communicating and exploring virtual space. It also just has to do with economics, advertising and popularity - things that allow Google to thrive.
But there is really no where to go with this process other than to enjoy the process. The technology sets up the integers and parameters in such an extremely limited way that conceptually this project is really no different from someone searching for the top 6 best selling pieces of lumber and cutting them based on where they land in the list.
There is actually a huge amount of material that one can search for that would never have the privilege of being processed algorithmically. To take Mark Leckey’s search for bear negligee in his piece The Long Tail for example.
From: Allison Weisberg firstname.lastname@example.org
Subject: Re: The Journey Date: 7 October 2011 1:24:49PM EDT
Thanks, Jonathan. I think it’s helpful to consider the roving nature of artists and artworks as a condition thrust upon them by economic parameters, rather than one selected and cultivated. The mundane action of applying to residency programs, and the complementary administrative component of facilitating the work, connect nicely to the algorithmic computation raised in Juanli’s Never-ending Ruins.
That said, there was an intentionality to Juanli’s active application process here. Juanli was adamant about the multiplicity of voices, and he was certain Recess needed to be part of this dialogue. The involvement of the three institutions (Abrons, Artium and Recess) augments the slippage of the Juanli’s own role of artist into that of the administrator.
I have been suspicious at times, that this was some kind of performance on Juanli’s part--a desire to render elastic the distance between disparate points on his mapped ruins. Whether this performance is intentional--and I have decided it is not--the performative aspect of producing this sprawling project is exciting, if not challenging to me.
Recess often thinks of itself as an artist collaborating with other artists rather than a curatorial platform. Tamar Ettun, an Israeli artist Recess is working with for Performa, recently pointed out to me that young art historians and theorists hate calling themselves curators. While I think many still enjoy the title, there is a movement away from defined scopes, and Juanli has capitalized on the unmoored players of the contemporary arts.
From: Adrian Saldana
Subject: Re: The Journey Date: 9 October 2011 11:54:56AM EDT
Thanks Allison and Jonathan,
Very good points raised. I connect Juanli’s efforts - performance as Allison put it - with the process-based practices seen famously in the 1960’s. His digital search for ruins and the resulting works adopt the elements of accumulation and improvisation, while remaining wholly rational and intentional. Juanli’s scheduled use of Skype in his gallery-residency between Abrons and Artium has a lineage in part to works like Bruce Nauman’s “Flour Arrangements”, where the artist committed himself to pushing piles of flour each day for over a month, and especially in his more recent “Mapping the Studio (Fat Chance John Cage)”, recording the late night non-activity of his studio.
One important distinction between that era and now is the shift in the political economy of cultural production in New York. The realization of artwork has shifted from an amorphous “artist community” to today’s numbers of individuals operating through institutions, be it the 501(c)3, the commercial gallery, the museum, or the art foundation. This speaks to the commodification of space (studio and gallery) into luxury, the rising costs of living and healthcare, and the debt acquired from receiving an education in fine arts. An artist whose practice was completely independent from institutional support for space and materials would operate with a great deal of independent wealth. (All topics currently raised by the Occupy Wall Street protests in downtown Manhattan.)
As such, there is an interesting transaction that occurs between the “umoored players of contemporary arts”. Where do the resources of Allison and Maia end and those of Recess begin? How does Abrons’ mission get met versus the aspirations of Jonathan, Carolyn, and Adrian? The same for Blanca and Artium. As administrators we develop an infrastructure for cultural programming but at the same time operate as individuals with creative pursuits - artmaking, curating, collaborating. “…”
Also, Jonathan, I am quite intrigued by your proposal to search for the top six best selling pieces of lumber and cutting them based on where they land in the list. While rooted in the mathematics Google’s search algorithm, that and Juanli’s process evoke a type of alchemy - assigning value and meaning to the alloy that rises to the surface.
Subject: Re: The Journey Date: 9 October 2011 11:54:56AM EDT
Hello everybody and Happy Columbus day...
It has been very rewarding to read you all. Here are some opinions about some of your points and some new things I may have never said before about the project.
I think we are all on the same page when talking about the process: obviously Recess is, as we can read in its mission, Jonathan is saying it very clear in his e-mail, Blanca is too since she is doing Praxis, and Adrian is curating the project in his show. Talking about myself, this has been one of my biggest concerns in the last 4 years, and (acknowledging Allison’s concerns about the possibility of a covert performance), I have big issues about how the art world is digesting the practice through the generation of objects, shows, criticisms, etc. In all my projects there is a complete intention to question the actual formats of art presentation, as I think Allison and Maia were able to realize in the book launch that took place at Recess some time ago. Here, my role as an artist is also becoming something of an administrator since I am poor and I cannot pay someone else to do it for me and also because I am the kind of artist that likes to have complete control of the development of the project. In this case the parameters of the project are very important to their conceptual development and thus even more involved on an administrative level. Now I want to explain the chronology of everything in this project: as an artist, besides my need to do projects I think one of my primary goals is to communicate the ideas that cross my mind, and it is here when, as Jonathan said, as poor artists we need the containers and the institutions in order to be able to show all of this process. It is also true that it is in the hand of the artist, or at least in mine, to try to approach those spaces that I think are closest to my ideas and processes. And this can be a game with two players or more. In this case I was invited to be a part of Praxis, because Blanca thinks my work fits with the statement of the program. I don’t work by pre-order, so I proposed to her to develop this project, which I had been researching for about a year at that point. Due to the characteristics of the project, the need to develop it in at least two places was obvious, and which better places than where the show was taking place and the city where I work and live. That was what made me start looking for a container where I could develop the project, ultimately approaching Recess. My interest was strong, as Allison has noted, for even if as the artist we most often don’t have the power to select where we are going to show our work, I try my best to do it in the places I think are most appropriate.
I don’t think the act of applying for residencies is mundane, and I agree with Allison’s comment when she says that the Google algorithm can also be found in the process of selection when we apply for residencies, grants, etc. It is my belief, and I think I can speak for all of us, that the commercial value of our practice (artistic, curatorial, editorial, etc) is not at all the most significant thing, so we find each other in order to create something together. In this case, as Jonathan said, I as the artist am giving contents for spaces, Abrons and Artium are giving a physical blank space to be filled, and Recess is giving reinforcement by taking part of the publication and the public program, which I think is the ideal format to continue our discussion in the public realm. This is a project which takes the form of a performance (residency) in a group show in a nonprofit institution that becomes a solo show in a museum, which will result in some images and objects. When an artist creates a piece in his or her studio the result of their process--their piece--is then shown in a container. Here, by moving the creative process into the containers, they become part of the artistic practice, building upon Allison’s perspective of Recess as an artist collaborating with other artists.
I like the note of Adrian referring to the project as having parts involved with the 60’s, and he makes an important point citing the difference in the political economy in the city of New York that in my opinion applies to all of Western culture. But prefer to say, connecting with Allison, that the limits of personal and corporate goals are blurred and sometimes uncontrolled.
But lets focus on the content of the project itself. In the specific case of Bulding the Neverending Ruin of the World I am questioning the filters of information within the art world that appear in Google. It does matter conceptually the fact that I am looking up the word Ruin inside an art institution (Abrons) and a Museum (Artium) in two different locations geographically and conceptually speaking, since the Google algorithm takes this parameter as one of the most significant when offering us the results of our search.
I definitely think that this is an experiment in which every part is going to find its own results.
Subject: Re: The Journey Date: 16 October 2011 3:31:37PM EDT
It’s been wonderful reading these collected thoughts so far. Just wanted to toss a few more into the ether.
I’m writing to you from JFK, a waiting room in another airport, from a train and then a hotel. During patches of wifi and in-between jet lag. Alternating between jotting down ideas on paper and entering notes to myself in a gmail draft. My point is not to hijack this thread into my personal travelogue, but to illustrate the paradox of a type of communication we employ today. Is this incredibly active, to record thoughts while traveling great distances in time and space, or is it very passive, to put down and pick up in fits and spurts.
Google itself is incredibly active. It sifts through millions of sites, a wreckage of time compressed to present a semi-curated collection of information. However, our typical interaction with it, as users, is passive. Juanli is taking a passive activity, Google image searching, and rendering it active, taking an image and printing it, archiving it. Creating a museum and gallery show and publication around it. Rendering the digital into analog. The images he finds today may be less relevant than those he finds tomorrow, or those he finds a country over from the one he is in now, at least according to Google’s algorithms. The ruins he works with will become ruins once again.
Reading through the past communication and considering the slippage of artist into administrator I’m reminded of a story I heard recently of Alana Heiss, organizing Under The Brooklyn Bridge (1971), a milestone in her career. The show literally took place under the bridge, a space that was then a forgotten, unused and dirty corner of the city. She sought permission from city hall to organize the event in this location, but ran into trouble when they declined to grant it on the basis that it was an art show. Out on a technicality. When she changed nothing, but pretended that the project was the set of a movie shoot, permission was granted. A performance to seek administrative compliance, and to organize what went down in memory as a great show.
Looking forward to more
Subject: Re: The Journey Date:19 October 2011 2:56PM
I have to send the text to the translator on Friday morning, that means that tomorrow I will edit the text and send it to you on Thursday for your approval. Would be great if you have something else to say ( not necessary a long e-mail... maybe a simple sentence, a word, a link...)
From my part I just want to say that I really think Maia’s idea of the Google’s result as ruins it is completely right. We could say that I am materializing one of this virtual ruins, a series of object that are going to talk trough a aesthetic exercise the hierarchy existing in the internet based in this case in language and location. A ruin that will talk about how Internet is not the democratic public sphere that we think it is.
Looking forward to read more of you.
From: Allison Weisberg
Subject: Re: The Journey Date: 19 October 2011 4:25:39PM EDT
Here’s one last crack. I’m glad Maia’s jetlag led us to discuss this project in terms of time (implicit in any conversation about place). As Maia flew across the ocean, communicating not just in new places, but in new time zones and their respective states of active and passive positions, I started thinking about Terry Smith’s term contemporaneity, which he coins in Antinomies of Art and Culture. Smith takes on the multiplicity of “nows” in our contemporary moment: “Contemporaneity consists precisely in acceleration, ubiquity, and constancy of radical disjunctures of perception, of mismatching ways of seeing and valuing the same world, in the actual coincidence of asynchronous temporalities, in the jostling contingency of various cultural and social multiplicities, all thrown together in ways that highlight the fast-growing inequalities within and between them.” This layered chaos that Smith so elegantly describes is exactly the kind that Juanli invited when he conceived of this project and then compounded when asked so many players to join in its realization. In fact, it is only in the context of “asynchronous temporalities” that this project makes sense at all. Again I’m convinced that performance plays a large role in the contemporaneity at work here. I’m referring to Juanli’s performance in actively curating his producers, and our own in initiating the conceit of writing an essay in the form of an email chain. As Maia was writing on the train on the way to the hotel, Adrian’s earlier question, “Where do the resources of Allison and Maia end and those of Recess begin?” comes back into play. The stakes of this question are heightened when you think of Allison and Maia as performers. I guess I’ll add a when here too: when—in the contemporaneity of the present moment—do the resources of the individual end and those of the organization begin?
From: Jonathan Durham
Subject: Re: The Journey Date: 19 October 2011 6:11:01PM EDT
The resources of the individual end when that individual chooses to request the resources of others rather than pay for the resources of others. In this case the request is made to use other organizations resources mainly because the resources requested are generic - computers and thumb drives are moving in the same sea of press releases, texts, and email chains that make up the morass that we “administrators” know as work. It is significant that these resources are considered shared because they come from non-profits. There is an effort with the project to buy nothing and salvage everything which I think again comes from a point and time and position in the economy where an artist needs to make every effort to float over this morass light-stepping where they must in order to produce the contemporary look of an installation.
From: Allison Weisberg
Subject: Re: The Journey Date: 19 October 2011 6:29:38PM EDT
But this question of resources is complicated by the fact that Recess isn’t contributing anything physical. Spread thin with several projects programmed long before Juanli approached us, our resources are more nebulous. What is being shared--rendered communal--by the nonprofit structure? Jonathan, I think you’re on to something when you say the artist strives to produce the “contemporary look of an installation.” I have a hunch that this contemporary look, is authenticated not only by computers and thumb drives, but also by the multiple points of interest (both temporal and spatial) on which Juanli is capitalizing.
For: Jonathan Durham
Subject: Re: The Journey Date: 20 de octubre de 2011 17:19:16 EDT
Yes. The “contemporary look of an installation” would consist of whatever mode of information storage and transfer is appropriate for the moment. Whatever wish fulfillment portal (Skype) is most used at the time. And the broadest sweep of potential players in the production of the exhibition to give the project a global “feel.” And I agree with you Allison that this is basically performative. The resources you are lending are the further authentification of this project’s scope by having Recess attached. This is not so much about physical resources but more about logos, text, talk and recognition. Recognition being the most important for Juanli, for Google, and for the images produced.jd
Subject: Re: The Journey Date:19 October 2011 2:56PM
Unfortunately there is a deadline for this text, since we have to print it and have it ready for the opening of the show.
This conversation seams to me like the beginning of something else, like the introduction of a much longer debate that could be continued in the public program that will take place in December.
As a conclusion I would like to “pause” this virtual conversation by saying that what is going to be printed is an edited version of our conversation for two reasons: first because of the limit of space (since we just have a certain amount of pages for this text) and second, to try to focus the attention on which I think are the most relevant subjects for the project itself (using here one more time my self-determination as administrator/editor/curator/artist).
Jonathan, I think in the last e-mails you are flying just on the surface of this project’s subjects of interest. First, I think the authentification of which you speak between artist and institution would be reciprocal (if there is any authentification at all, which I don’t believe is the case). As Allison said, it is a total matter of space and time here. I think it is important to revisit here the meaning that an artist has to an institution, and conversely an institution’s significance to an artist. Without a space and time to show his work, an artist can “create” as much as he wants, but without the exposure of this work the art process is incomplete from my point of view, as art for me is a means of communication, and communication requires at least two participatns. So yes, I want my work to be viewed, or “authenticated” as you said, as much as possible. But there is no recognition or validation involved here in any direction. That said, one of the many intentions of this project does involve a questioning of the physicality of institutions in the “contemporary” way of showing art.
Thank you very much to all for your valuable contributions and for participating in this experiment with me.
The Strain of the Imaginary in Photography
Like rays of light shimmering out of a high beam, the work of Juanli Carrión turns on the ambiguous and mysterious fact of mere representation, especially when such representation is photographic. Perhaps in all the ambitious efforts to lay-out theories of photography too much has been made of the phenomenon of the lost reference point and the melancholy that has sprung up as a result, when, in fact, it is certain that photography’s true essence lies in its imaginary and phantasmal quality. That is to say, the image would be, according to that condition, the rest of an occurrence, the fruit of an appearance whose nucleus is irradiant and projected. As an eco and residual apparition of the occurrence, the entire photographic image contains another projected image within it, and it thereby initiates a context of reception that removes all certainty as to what it is “in reality” that we are seeing. Or, as it has been said in a more squarely phenomenological spirit, a nagging suspicion persists in all the images one glimpses. Juanli Carrión frames his work in a complex game that turns on the projective nature of every image, with the duplicity brought on by the daily fact of looking at a photograph and seeing, with it, the supplementary condition it inherently implies. We supplement images not only with the textual apparatus with which we try to annotate them, but also with the background noise that accompanies them, along with the memories evoked by each recorded experience.
This projection, which is both literal (in terms of the light) and psychological (in terms of reception), affects our considerations of the natural, from the standpoint of our assimilated cultural sensibility, as well as the naturalization of culture as a newly overlaid environment abounding in meanings. In this regard, as authors like Jonathan T.D. Neil have pointed out, the work of Carrión could be linked to the American tradition of photo-conceptual landscape, where the inheritance of Anglo-Saxon painting turns ironic and reanimates otherwise dead landscapes. The replacement of the landscape as a meaningful natural concept by the disembodied plateau gives rise to a reanimation that we might call, in effect, zombie landscapes. It is no coincidence that this comes from the air photography was once able to convey, supplemented by a cluster of sonorous and objective evocations, because with them we remember that the birth of photography is associated with the romantic landscape. The vedute, or fragments of nature salvaged within the frame, a simple act of signage, salutes us before an origin that enjoins the early byzantine discussions of aesthetic philosophy, close to the virtue of gardening, and the irreparable transformation wrought by heavy industry on the contemporary landscape.
In a series like Kei Seki (2010) or On Stage (2010-2011), we find these superimpositions on the first layer of the exercise of symbolic projection by way of the transfiguration of the space with artificial light. In this same sense, the inscriptions of text on these public spaces would be messages that, like captions to a photo, serve to modify our consciousness about the symbolic dimension of place. The work of Juanli Carrión offers, in that way, a reading of spaces, and then a second reading that transcends and complements the literalness of the first, while becoming something of an allegorical strategy.
Víctor del Río
Remapping the Kitsch
This exhibition takes its title, Atlas Shrugged, from the landmark 1957 novel by Ayn Rand, exploring a dystopic America where the world’s leading innovators go on strike after feeling exploited by society, refusing to allow the rest of the world to use their ideas and investigations. On the occasion of Juanli Carrión’s first solo exhibition in New York at White Box Projects, the title is appropriated in an ironic way, as opposed to the Philosophy of Objectivism advocated by the novelist, in order to speak about dystopia in an alienated landscape of an undefined reality and time.
The representation of the contemporary landscape may be conceived as a reflection of spaces realized almost unconsciously, where the natural environment is perceived through and within the imperceptible process of transformation. In this depiction of ever-changing realities, the inert image loses an essential meaning, interchangeably becoming a subject and/or an object as subject.
Juanli Carrión dissects the landscape to speak about a contemporary dystopia, analyzing the potential beauty in an intermediate terrain between the natural and the artificial. Certain human traces are present in all of the photographs, either subtle or absolutely blatant, but always there, threatening. All of them contain implicit stories that may appear as vacant as the scenario that contains them.
His work references the iconic New Topographics movement, which epitomized a paradigmatic shift in American landscape photography. In concordance with their depiction of the maligned landscape, Carrión suggests a false consciousness of the real spaces that were probably never as pristine or idyllic as they may have once been in the social imaginary conscience. The artist repositions or eliminates the traditional mid-plane horizon; a perspective that throws the picture plane off balance and adds to a certain uneasiness of contemplation. Carrión’s photographs stand as a tragic reminder of what has been displaced by human development, blurring the distinction between cultural and natural landscapes.
With water acting as a leitmotif, Carrión avidly juxtaposes the man-altered landscapes with the idea of what those settings were or could have been without the traces of human exploitation. Obviously as the demands on the photographic medium since the New Topographics have radically changed, Carrión conscious usage of the light box format counteracts the otherwise laconic quality of the images. Nevertheless, a sense of disorientation sets in as you move in closer to discover a subtle movement in the water, which permeates the scene, leaving us with a kitsch-like sensation. This is reminiscent of the light boxes that typically decorate local Chinatown restaurants, giving another sarcastic nod to the individualistic capitalism championed by Ayn Rand. The destabilizing effect is further emphasized by the atmospheric humming sound heard from the light boxes. Each depicted environment underlines a tension between the conceptual strength of the images and their formal irreverence.
Despite the apparent opposition between the avant-garde and kitsch as argued by Clement Greenberg, Carrion’s work clearly defies and overrides any easy delineation between what is today considered kitsch and cutting edge, at far remove from what was once exclusively determined Avant-Garde.
Moreover, the artist challenges the views of kitsch held by Adorno, as the parody of an aesthetic experience in relation to the cultural industry and its conception as a sub-product of the market. Carrión subverts this definition by taking an ironic stance in works that shift between explicit tackiness and implicit content, suggesting an apology of its own kitsch while illuminating a tangential redefinition of the new topography.
Blanca de la Torre
Naturalness and Surprise in Camp
A significant characteristic in the contemporary usage and analysis of images is the ability to situate oneself in the space of consciousness presupposing that which is shown is real, manipulated, or complete artifice. The question is not simple, and in the end, this positioning is not definitive, yet without a doubt it leaves a mark on the reading and interpretation of the image. A paradigmatic example was the widely publicized photograph showing George W. Bush with a plastic turkey on Thanksgiving Day in 2003; an unannounced visit to the US troops in Iraq that carried a hidden surprise. According to Johan Swinnen, without the appearance of what he called “extra photographic data,” or data that adds information to the image from other fields unrelated to the visual field, the photograph “remains in absolute silence”.
In the realm of contemporary art, there has been a revived interest in the search, redefinition and representation of ‘the Real’ that questions elements as disparate as the transformation of geography, culture vs. nature, quotidian gestures becoming grand themes, as well as the construction of identity in flux as a result of ongoing social, sexual, and political changes. Increasingly it seems there is a need to fictionalize elements of reality to the extent they acquire the qualities of our worst nightmares. This point of view echoes the thesis of Slavoj Zizek in his article “Passions of the Real, Passions of Appearance” included in the book, Welcome to the Desert of the Real. The capacity to transform real events into fiction is a psychoanalytic solution that allows us to overcome these events, and through a symbolic distance, ultimately separates human beings from animals. Moreover, one can consider that the representation of reality in the face of art, which can be compared to the wolf of “the Real” – acts as a therapeutic solution to understand, assimilate, and alter the perception of our environment.
Juanli Carrión’s Atlas Shrugged series incorporates within a formal serenity, a juxtaposition of elements, at times antagonistic, yet bearing an intriguing complexity. The curator, Blanca de la Torre, accurately points to one such antagonism when she defines this coexistence in his works as the reminiscence of the photography in New Topographics within kitsch. In this sense, one may further interpret this type of miscellany as a practice that is purely camp. In “Notes On ‘Camp’” , Susan Sontag enumerates fifty-eight situations, examples, cultural references - notes that come to define the uninhibited attitude of camp in contrast with the ‘establishment,’ which is generally evaluated and measured with great seriousness and etiquette. These “notes” are dedicated to Oscar Wilde, who for Sontag represented a paradigm of what is purely camp, and from whom, she extracts phrases from his well known writings, thus leaving the reader with certain clues that bear homage to the author. Her usage of notes in place of the essay, is perhaps the closest attempt towards defining the elusive quality of this concept: “The form of jottings, rather than an essay (with its claim to a linear, consecutive argument), seemed more appropriate for getting down something of this particular fugitive sensibility. It’s embarrassing to be solemn and treatise-like about Camp. One runs the risk of having, oneself, produced a very inferior piece of Camp.” As a result, the most interesting attempt to define the concept through examples considered as jottings about camp that may compose a camp piece in and of itself, are comparable to those that Sontag enumerates in her concise text. This constitutes perhaps, the best possible homage to the Irish author’s method of writing.
For his solo exhibition and installation of seven light boxes, Juanli Carrión combines a precise gaze over public spaces, maintaining elements or vestiges of nature with the framework of the light box as an industrial montage. On the one hand, there are Carrión’s images and on the other, his light boxes are appropriated from those produced for typical Chinese restaurants; a structure within which any image may be contained yet nevertheless, carries the concrete trace of its origin (“Made in China” acts as the slogan of a new capitalism). Therefore, Carrión’s images evoke the endless transformation, manipulation, or re-creation of nature, inevitably contaminated by the presence of industrial or recreational vestiges within the natural landscape. Uninhabitable and familiar spaces appear to become equalized through the ‘distancing’ produced by photographic representation and the use of identical light boxes, differentiated only by the mechanism of a subtle motion effect in the water. This sensation of movement enacts a verisimilitude of reality, as well as creating a virtual impression, conveyed through the photographic medium; a prison from which ‘the Real’ will never escape.
In the case of the Atlas Shrugged series, the semblance of the “natural” is the representation of an unattainable nature, the impossible return to an origin free of manipulation, mistreatment, and inaccessible. At once, as we confront the appearance of the ‘natural’ (not exempt from paradox) in a world where the industrial presence is a sign of progress as well as a cause of environmental, ideological, and economic conflicts, an equation remains unresolved to date. The element of ‘surprise’ in Carrión’s images, in more concise reference to the title, relays a hidden pun underlying the series of images that despite the global overdrive of visual information, remains surprising in the punctuations of illusory movement in the light boxes, while playfully avoiding reductionist seriousness. To conclude, Atlas Shrugged posits the dilemma of globalization in an overly exploited natural environment that homogenizes countries, their territories, and the behaviors of their inhabitants (in tune with an equalization generated by technical modes of production). Carrión’s nonchalance as if shrugging his shoulders, seemingly unconcerned with the environment or rather unable and helpless to change it, signals an apolitical stance, that is to say, according to Susan Sontag, purely camp.
Álvaro de los Ángeles
De mimesis on poiesis
“… as appearance and not as a copy, works of art are images.”
Th. W. Adorno
Keiseki: Traces, evidence, prints. A Japanese word formed by kei, scene and seki, stone. It derives from the term Suiseki that is used to talk about rocks and stones which due to their natural shape arrive to emulate in our mind landscapes, objects, animals…, images. These rocks are valued and even venerated since they are able to suggest forms that tend to mimic what exists in nature. The human being doesn’t intervene in these representations and when he does he only does it to give that status. This representation is understood as an emergence of what once wasn’t and from that moment “is”, by subjective determination.
Juanli Carrión “finds” landscapes that have already been contaminated by human intervention. The artist chooses them to subsequently change them, recreating scenarios that remind us of images that are similar to something unreal, futuristic, like the shots of a science fiction film.
They are scenarios stranded in a sort of non-place, lost and seemingly foreign to civilization. However, according to the artist himself, they show “the erratic reality of human being”. Traces, remains of an unfinished process that the artist takes up to make it artistic. Kei: scene that represents a colorist spectacle that is intended to reconsider the nature of the landscape found and with that, the nature of the spectacle itself. By giving the last twist to the mimetic game, the artist sees in these constructions that seem “real”, a reference to Suiseki. The only difference is that this is a Land-Art intervention which rather than mediate in what is natural it acts on what was already artificial. The result, disturbing images that ironically refer to the deforming appropriationism the western view applies to eastern culture and which here extends to all intrusions of the exotic.
Carrión takes the stones found in that non-place from their status as uncanny elements and grants them artistic autonomy. Representing them, he creates them because he doesn’t copy them; he only transforms them to make them different by converting them into the piece itself. Piece that is never a reproduction of something real but the anticipation of what didn’t exist before, that explains his capacity to open up to a world of fiction that is self-sufficient. Because through representation what is created distances itself from its direct referents in reality, and in this way questions reality itself as an absolute and true category to turn it into multiple, into subjective.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, among many other ruptures and transformations, one of the most important movements in art history took place: the artist changes from being an inventor-artisan to become somebody that chooses, that selects a piece that is already made. The artist executes a gesture of an intrinsic transformative potential. It is necessary to remember the pioneering “action” of Duchamp in 1917, when he sent his celebrated urinal, Fountain, to the annual exhibition of the American Society of Independent Artists. An industrial object chosen by the artist and signed under the pseudonym R. Mutt. Marcel Duchamp referred to this action in the following way: “My Fountain was not a negation: I simply tried to create a new idea for an object that everybody thought they knew. Anything can become something else, that was what I wanted to show”.1
Carrión’s stones, which are industrial remains of an unsuccessful engineering, witness the progress and are examples of abandonment, become support and object of a new reality, the artistic, and they seem to quote Gadamer when he says “to recognize that the sense of mimesis only consists of making something be there”.2
In the artist’s choice a shift to fiction is in process, provoking that, from this moment on, all is negotiated within the artwork itself. It is here when Carrión uses an ironic strategy that primary seems to leave out the question of mimesis to concentrate on the direct appropriation of references that sink their roots in the contemporary popular culture of excess. However, this is only an apparent oblivion, the tug of battle with the continuous reality through a new duplication: the use of the ironic resource. The settings pictured are filled with smoke, with impossible colored lights that relocate the images in a kitsch aesthetic, as happens in some photographs taken by Carrión or in the video Kei-Seki (2010), in which an abandoned concrete tunnel turns into the entrance of a gloomy disco whose main feature is the absence of human presence. They are pieces that gravitate between the gibe of the imaginary of mass culture and something alien, uncanny in the Freudian sense of the term, like something that was once familiar to us (heimlich), but at the same time is strange (unheimlich).3 Some kind of unfamiliar feeling takes place when we contemplate these images that combine known but unconnected elements and which lack what we expected to find: the human being.
Perhaps, the irony lies in the incongruous superposition of elements taken from different fields like Suiseki culture, engineering or kitsch aesthetic, multiple and diverse “realities” that account for the impossibility of talking about a unique reality, and consequently, the impossibility of reproducing it. All is relativized, even the transcendence of the artwork itself, in a twist that goes from the sublime to the ridiculous, by questioning the reality as an absolute status and evidencing the traps of representation. Everything becomes appearance, apparition, an emergence of something that since it didn’t exist previously, is therefore not a copy.
The project continues with the Kigata-ishi, sculptures made of concrete that, again, emerge from this tension between natural and artificial. They are cactus that grow in the portrayed landscape, or they are rather a representation made of cement; because mimesis, since Aristoteles, is not only an imitation of the real, but also an artifice, an elaboration by the poet of the real. They are sculptures that accurately reproduce the cactus despite the artificiality of the material. When he moves them to the exhibition space and turns them into an installation, Carrión adds elements that are intended to emphasize their non-naturalness, like the blue neon lights or the smoke that surrounds the pieces and invades the room. Such excess, such overload of adornments, seems to plagiarize an absurd idea of something spectacular subtended by mass culture. Through this, the artist returns to the ironic resource and makes fun of the traditional understanding of art as imitation of nature. The Kigata-ishi follow a circle of appropriations, comings and goings between reality and its representation, between natural and artificial, a setting made of mirrors in which everything seems to be what it’s not.
Carrión separates his work from reality, and by reversing the rules of representation he establishes a game of appearances and confusions that end up placing art inside an ontological reality that highlights the ability of any language to go beyond itself.
Maite Garbayo Maeztu
1 ”My Fountain was not a negation: I simply tried to create a new idea for an object that everybody thought they knew. Anything can become something else, that was what I wanted to show”, Marcel Duchamp speaking to Ulf Linde (1961), quoted in Harald Szeeman, ed., Marcel Duchamp, Basel and Ostfildern-Ruit: Museum Jean Tinguely Basel and Hatje Cantz, 2002, p. 90.
2 Gadamer, H-G. Poetry and Mimesis in Aesthetics and Hermeneutics, Madrid, 1998. p. 126.
3 Freud, S. The Uncanny (1919) in Complete Works. New Library. Madrid, 1996.
The Currency of Kitsch
Since the 1970s, artists, particularly in the west—and in the US, this means “The West,” our one-time frontier lands and the setting of our most romantic creation myths—have built or intervened in the landscape to great effect: Michael Heizer, Walter De Maria, Robert Smithson are only some of the most well-known. Their works—Double Negative, Lightning Field, Spiral Jetty—have taken on the status of cherished pilgrimage sites for the global cosmopolitans that tour that semi-autonomous social and culture industry we call the “art world.” Escapist sentiments underwrote many of these projects, as urban settings began to corrode, both due to economic negligence (inflation, labor unrest, the oil embargo) and a kind of conservative intellectual decadence that was desperately holding on to the achievements of an earlier age. But so did photography, or “media” more generally, throw some chips in the game, as the distances traveled came to signify the geographic linkages and spatial networks in and by which images and—or rather “as”—information would be exchanged. Such is the ultimate lesson of works such as Smithson’s earlier Non-Sites, whose materials are shot through with information. This is ontology (what things are) and epistemology (how we know them) stirred and poured into the spaces of a radically reduced aesthetic, one which gave way onto an inexorably expanded field of art.
That photography, or imaging, was instrumental to the reception and enduring import of these works was lost on no one. And as the calculus of images and mediation has grown, romantic attachments to the pilgrimage act have increased as well. Having “gone there” gets the last word, just as today, in the context of performance and what we have dubbed participatory work, “being there” is held as essential to even apprehending what is going on, let alone understanding it, because in the end it is one’s personal experience that licenses one’s claim to speak about, let alone for, the work, whatever we take this to be.
Now there are two things I feel are worth pointing out here, and the first has to do with the correlation between on the one hand the activities of the “three Ps” of contemporary art, pilgrimage, performance and participation; and on the other the promotion of individual, personal experience as the final arbiter or authority of aesthetic meaning. If there is something vaguely Evangelical in flavor about this equation, then it is not to suggest that what we are witnessing is the seepage of religious thought into our well-defended secular precincts but rather that the current and currency of a blanket faith in “personal experience”—from the rising importance of the opinion poll to one’s “personal relationship” with art, Jesus, or whatever—finds a kind of symptomatic corollary in people’s growing appetite for the sense of reality that comes with, say, the performance form or through the supposed sanctity of the pilgrimage.
The second thing to point out is perhaps best addressed as a question, and that would be: “symptomatic” of what? To this I want to answer “abstraction,” or at least the kind of abstraction that we have been witnessing at the economic level, whose financial failings and crises have revealed hitherto undreamt of fabrications and fabulations, such that the very notion of finding something “concrete” underneath the folds of all of this “fictitious capital” becomes downright laughable. Nevertheless, it is just this fugitive sensibility (“capital flight”?) which would seem to drive the urge to confront reality in all of its unmediated splendor, even when that reality itself seems somehow lacking and so in need of, say, enhancement.
Exemplary in this instance would be the total mediation that accompanied something like Marina Abromovic’s “The Artist is Present” at the Museum of Modern Art, for which webcams transmitted every moment of the artist sitting in her chair across from lines of willing and waiting “participants” hoping for their little dose of one-on-one reality. Yet one doesn’t need recourse to the circuits of information technology to find examples of this kind of reality enhancement in other places and at prior moments. Looking at Juanli Carrion’s Kei-Seki project reminds us that during the period when American artists were undertaking their westward expansion, the great pyramids at Giza (in 1960) and the Temple of Karnak (in 1972) were being “brought to life” by new sound and light shows, an aesthetic correlate to then-President Nasser’s social and economic modernization programs. What once showed up on the glass plates wielded by nineteenth-century photographers such as Antonio Beato was now both promoted as a prideful symbol of Egypt’s national heritage and its movement onto the modern political stage. It did not hurt that the tourism industry began its takeoff during the same decade.
We cannot but recognize such aesthetic enhancements echoing at the core of Carrion’s project, just as we cannot now fail to see the Egyptian sound and light shows for what they are, and that is kitsch. What takes place at Giza today is a kind of cultural cheapening which cashiers the historical reality of the monuments of a once-great civilization and, later, a proud nation, in the interest of a bland tourist spectacle in which, to borrow a well-worn phrase, “all that is solid melts into air,” here in the solvent of bright lights, cloying music and faux-imperious voiceovers.
The Marxian alignment is not accidental, insofar as the “monuments” that Carrion has adapted to his own aesthetic ends are the remnants of an aborted infrastructural project in the Spanish countryside about 100 kilometers from Valencia. The concrete forms alone are worthy of some of Todao Ando’s better stylings or even Michael Heizer’s ongoing desert folly, City (1970 – Present). That the roadway which these pylons were meant to carry was actually built some 500 meters away can only add to our understanding of these forms as products of the kind of capital excess that accompanied the financial surpluses and speculations of the past decade. Spain’s own role in the sovereign debt crisis that enveloped the Eurozone in the first half of 2010 should stand as a reminder of the depths to which the abstractions of financialization can reach: when a country gets snared in the game of economic acronymization—quite rightly, the Spanish took umbrage at their having provided the plural for the “PIGS” (Portugal, Ireland, Greece, Spain) economies at which the markets took aim—then there cannot be much argument that what we have to do with here is an achieved autonomy—albeit of global finance—about which good modernists could only ever dream.
Yet the enjoyment one gets from considering Carrion’s abandoned infrastructure no doubt derives, at least in some part, from the realization that one cannot really “cheapen” that which doesn’t have any kind of value in the first place. The lighting effects here raise the very possibility of aesthetic value at the same moment that they would undermine it, a kind of all-at-once “pump-and-dump” scheme on the market for aesthetic equities. In the hands of Bernd and Hilla Becher, for example, such images would function in some anomic documentary capacity, providing a glimpse of the various morphologies of global industry and infrastructure. Carrion seems to understand that this is not enough, that the photograph’s power to act upon such forms on its own has been seriously diminished in an age of imaging when manipulations and effects come first and the representative evidence of concrete reality comes trailing behind. What underwrites that reality in this case, in a reversal of Roland Barthes’ famous analysis of the image’s “rhetoric,” are “special effects,” though here these effects (lighting, smoke) are applied directly to the environment to be imaged, or to the site as image, to the “scene”—this is what kei means in Japanese—that the images then double by producing further effects.
This scenic doubling is taken a step further with the installation that constitutes the “Third Chapter” of Carrion’s project: there, cast-concrete agave plants, lit from below in the manner of the Sankeishi-seki images, appear scattered in a field of smoke, while a video plays above. That video, also titled Kei-Seki (another doubling), shows a manmade arroyo lined with blue lights and decked-out with a disco ball. The only movement in the image belongs to the ball’s faceted reflections, which stream at changing speeds (an effect of the image, not the scene) across the arroyo’s retaining wall. In all of this it would be tempting to say that Carrion’s project simply has to do with smoke and mirrors, which it certainly does, but here again the effects are meant to reveal more than they disguise.
And the cast-concrete agaves offer one significant revelation among many, because they ask: How does one cheapen nature? How does nature become kitsch? One might argue that industrialization has treated nature cheaply, but this is not the same thing. The expansion of global industry into every geographical pocket of the globe ensures that “nature” will in fact become more “rare,” more “precious,” and so more expensive with time. It becomes kitsch, on the other hand, when we fabricate it, when we “cast” it as—and in—something which it is not, and then celebrate it, often by lighting it up. Kitsch cuts both ways here too: Mount Rushmore no less than plastic pink flamingos.
Given the preceding we must recall that Carrion’s Kei-Seki project finds its referential raw material in the Japanese practice of suiseki, where stones are collected and appreciated—“worshipped” is too strong a word, but it offers the direction in which the sensibility leans—for how much they look like some imagined landscape or other natural setting in miniature. The logic here is not really even metonymical, insofar as the stone is not taken to be “part” of the greater landscape, to count for it in some representative way. Instead the stone stimulates some falsified recall and proffers a fantasized landscape—ordered, serene, even blissful—of the mind. This is what Milan Kundera, in his stinging diagnoses of kitsch, calls our “categorical agreement with being,” the escapist representations either handed down (in totalitarian states) or sold (in capitalist ones) in order to divert attention from the unacceptable, but no less structural, excesses of any empire of signs. “Kitsch is a folding screen,” Kundera writes, “set up to curtain off death.”
Kitsch offers a kind of tenuous delusion, which is why it found such fertile ground in the former eastern bloc countries and held some urgency for writers like Kundera whose characters sought to sidestep its pernicious effects. The political landscape has changed in the intervening years however, which is not to suggest that kitsch is any less prevalent today (indeed, certain critics, such as Hal Foster, have identified its mechanism’s at work in the seemingly innocuous proliferation of yellow ribbons and nationalist anthems during the years of “Bush Kitsch” in the US between 2003 and 2008). But the landscape with which we have to tend at present is more expansive; it is the geography of capital that has been revealed in the crises that followed on the implosion of the US housing market. Now, a full four years later, the stalled real estate and infrastructural projects in every major urban development center, from Panama City to Abu Dhabi to Chonquing, promise more contingent “monuments” on the order of Carrion’s Kei-Seki—monuments whose momentary status as such can still be celebrated as announcing, even requiring, the necessity of continued capital investment.
Carrion’s Kei-Seki dramatizes this implicit announcement, and places it in the context of an aesthetic sentiment—yes, kitsch—that has long been in the business of covering up and diverting out attention from the unseemly excesses of whatever political economy rules the day. The question remains whether we’re attentive enough to want to do anything about it.
New York, August 2010
Jonathan T. D. Neil
You Belong to the Night
Colored lights, lasers, a discoball: these are today’s crudest, most base signifiers in the rhetoric of nightlife design. We relate to them as bodies in a space where these technologies work in concert with music, architecture and the socially coded consumption of intoxicants to produce a special kind of place, not dissimilar from what Mikhail Bakhtin describes in terms of the canivalesque. This is a space of catharsis, an eventually affirmative space where temporary transgression and a social remixing guides the way through the end of night to the return of reason which the dawn always seems to promise, as hangover, a commute, brunch.
The interior design and architecture of the spaces we inhabit when we circulate in this nightlife economy is a place intended to facilitate motion—ritual has always been about this. Music here is one of the organizing centers around which this development is built. It is one of the day’s muscular limbs when it comes to the making of interior spaces, spaces for experience. The traffic and collision of bodies thus facilitated becomes a kind of social architecture on its own terms, but in turn an infrastructural element in a larger plan. The making of nightlife, more than just circuits along which bodies travel, is about the interiorizing of the night. It invites darkness inside, sets it in play with architecture and moving bodies, turning place into experience. The night invited however is not the night opposite the working world, when business ceases and capital goes to sleep, while its agents retire to the warmth of family, of dinner, of the bed. This is rather the night of the forest, animated with activity and the sounds of life, of death, of hunting, of fucking.
Juanli Carrion’s temporary Kei-Seki installation stalks these grounds.
The elements selected by the artist used to ornament an abandoned public infrastructure project construct a certain kind of domesticity under the otherwise indifferent sky, fictionalizing night where there might otherwise only be a night, one barely distinct in a endless succession of others. There is something uncanny about this play of opposites. For though the night is open, it is not incomplete, and it is never public, at least not in the way that infrastructure or a public road may be. The night is something altogether else, but perhaps there is a complexity being introduced here, debuted, even. A second idea of the public, of publicity, comes of age and—now ready, at long last—makes its appearance.
I mean, we can feel it, can’t we? Stepping out at night, the public rushes up to meet us, breaking over us and washing everyone together. In the past, we mourned the retreat of public spaces as the evaporation of rationality, the loss of something sacred and essential. What were missed were the old men, gathering together in the morning or in the afternoon to perform the ancient ceremonies of point and counter-point, of yay and of nay. In coffeehouses, great halls, and chambers of all kinds, in newspaper columns, they gathered, holding forth on the issues of the day. They have been crowded out, these elders, and we are left only with their reanimated corpses, jawing at us from on high. We have been re-privatized, each of us set upon a personal mission of authenticity, at least until the sun sets.
Kei-Seki dramatizes the evening of the public sphere. As night falls on an incomplete project of modernity the signs and symbols of another, counter-public take the stage. No less performative, this new us no longer pantomime a rational disinterest; rather, a bestial constellation of desire is our feint. Once we left the house at dawn clothed in all our best ideas; now we work inside all day only to emerge at night, like animals, ready dressed. Our language is all light and color, when it’s not strictly sex, and we’d avoid it altogether if we could. Communication no longer takes the form of action; instead we present a constellation, a set of symbols turning back on one another – a narrative of a kind. People don’t want to be told at night, so much as they want to see.
It’s the end of something, isn’t it? To light it up like that. To domesticate the false start, the dead-end, precisely as a destination freezes the moment of abandonment and elevates it, placing it at the center of our vision. Look here! We’re told. Marvel at the consistency of our collective incapacity. To commemorate the incomplete is also to preserve potentiality in its fullest sense, undiluted by the inevitable disappointment of its inscription within material. There is an odd sort of melancholy at work here, as we hold fast to what might have been as a way of possessing what never was. I mean, what possible use of (Carrion’s site) could ever be preferable to his ornamenting of it in the dancing lights of a waning age, still in the full bloom of its possibility?
But what of the historical circumstances—it’s a freeway of some sort we’re talking about here, and not some kind of great national library or cultural center. In its cynicism, the artist’s operation on the chosen site seems to invite projection from the earnest cultural critic, eager to turn every piece of folded development into a signal event, every piece of abandoned architecture into a mythic ruin. Not so much a mythic ruin, as capturing a ruined mythos. Disenchanted, yes, but also discontinued, somehow, left off. It can’t be kitsch, for if kitsch signals anything it is ‘completeness’ that of being finished somehow, closed and impenetrable. Not all kitsch is made of plastic, of course, but it persists on earth like plastic, neon and insensible.
To formally define the persistent stuff then, this kitsch, let’s fix the word to some shapeless but discrete material form and set it next to the abstract partners that animate its category—we might call them image, idea and attitude. See it now, out of focus and against some indifferent or neutral sky. The kitsch object or product in the Greenbergian sense is an affirmation, confirming the rightness of the world as it is, carrying with it a coded spirit borne twice over in its manufacture and its dissemination. And yet the thing remains a thing: it is kitsch as much for its lightness as for its populist appeal or affirmative content. But how now to differentiate the weightless stuff of mass culture from any other image, when the latter approaches a similarly anemic weightlessness?
As pictures move fluidly between page, screen and architecture, scaling to each new support with fortified elasticity, circulation itself becomes power. So it was always with the kitsch object or image. A monument in its scale and singularity could never be kitsch—despite whatever vulgar form or chauvinistic spirit animated that will of its creator. Kitsch, rather, always arrives in a multiplicity. And always, furthermore, in motion.
How, then, to set about making images which might show us something new about this power signaling its transition into obsoleteness? Perhaps ideally by showing us how to perform its opposite, through an enacted and firm powerlessness performed within an image. Whereas many artists today push harder into the sphere of circulation, seeking out folds in tried and tested modes of production and distribution to complicate the images in which they traffick, Carrion seems to be working here in the opposite direction. Taking the agave (or pitera) plant, native (but not indigenous) to the Spanish region of Valencia, he has a scale replica fabricated in concrete. The Gorgonic artifact then sets course for two destines, in sequence. The first will be a return to the “natural” site of the original Kei-Seki intervention, where the new plant will inhabit an old landscape alongside its organic progenitor, hiding in the day’s dust and (in its discreetness) turning landscape into image. The second destiny will be a natural placement in an unnatural environment built to accommodate even the most recalcitrant forms into its ongoing narratives of cultural and political history.
This sign, then—this unstable stone plant in all of its threatening protrusion—can only ever be an image. The concrete thing realizes itself thus by a firm insistence on being the opposite—in turn, it is the product of the terminal visual gesture of our new age: a removal from circulation, the end of weightlessness.
Carrion thus seeks to push the image as far as it will go, to demarcate as much as possible how heavy it really is, or can be. He seeks the borders of its persistence. What will last longer – the plant cast in concrete? Or its picture on the wall, in a book, on the Internet? Where does the image take place—in its physical solidity, its migration to and fro, alone in the desert or before all of us, together? The image is our enemy, right? Kitsch squared? False consciousness incarnate? Then why are all of us here again, together? Perhaps we would rather be concrete plants lying by the highway in the sun.
We are removed, it’s true. Our fate is always to be coming home to a place we’re barely from, our edges sharp and hard in the new style, cemented. We speak so many different languages and the night sky looks different, they tell us, halfway across the world. For some, this is enough. For others - us, perhaps - it has become clear that the great cult of experience must be opposed; that its tyranny has accomplished nothing. Maybe another way of saying this is that a social relationship mediated by images is still a social relationship. The thing about Tin Pan Alley songs was that everyone knew the words. And you can’t see Carrion’s lights by day. It’s as though they were never there.
New York, Summer 2010
is Boško Blagojević and S.C. Squibb