Friday, January 7, 2011

Art Then Technology (Part 6): Authority is a Technology

Fat Bastard: end of fourth day of installation.
(Return to Part 5)
I hate the canard about abstract art acting as a 'visual pause' in the otherwise hectic environment of consumer capitalism, I always have. The part I dislike is the justification of the 'pause', it's such weak tea. I am not a huge fan of either capitalism or consumerism, but I love the spectacle of Times Square and the squirrely density of consumer goods at my corner bodega. I enjoy the density of imagery and noise, and the press of the crowd; that has not always been the case however. Not long after I arrived in New York I took refuge in a Dan Flavin retrospective. 

I was still struggling to make the transition back to city life. The intensity of crowds and noise here can be stressful to anyone, even those well acclimated to city life. I grew up in Chicago - not a small city - but because I had lived for the greater part of 6 years at the end of a dirt road on the Olympic Peninsula, a place where there were very few unfamiliar faces and a lot more trees than billboards. When I first moved to the woods I had found the quiet disquieting, the lack of visual stimulus disconcerting. But by the time I moved to New York I had grown unaccustomed to the huge amount of input city life entails. I was no longer inured to the presence of unfamiliar faces and signage. But I only became aware of exactly how hard the mind works to process that stream uninvited information after my mind had relaxed in their absence.

It may seem like an obvious fact, that there is no way to look at a word and not read it, that even a word in French or German, the mind will make an effort to sound it out (not true with Greek, if you can't read the alphabet your off the hook), but what I discovered is that the mind does this with ALL words ALL the time. If your not used to it it quickly wears you out. Likewise with faces. Every half block or so I would experience a spike of excitement as my brain thought it recognized someone we knew. My brain was hallucinating familiarity. I was exhausted by the constant presence of unfamiliar faces that my mind was struggling to recognize and signage I was compelled to read. For the first few weeks after I moved to New york I found myself retreating to my room at the end of each day with headaches, knocked out by an effort that everyone around me took for granted. 
Shortly before I left for New York - about the woodsiest image ever made of me.

Because I had roommates, there was no private space I could retreat to however. Add to this that I still hadn't mastered the rhythm twisting hips and shoulders that allow New Yorkers to move through a crowded sidewalk press without touching or being touched. I arrived at the Flavin exhibition completely bugged-out and bruised. I am pretty sure I was assigned to see the showby a professor. Up until then I can't remember being interested in Minimalism. I imagine that like most people with a passing acquaintance with Flavin's art, I entered the retrospective anticipating something a bit less engaging than a symposium on canning technologies. But, as much as I hate to admit it, the show was a much needed visual pause. The galleries were empty. It was the first time since arriving in New York that I had not felt crowded or overwhelmed.

If it hadn't been for my desperate need for an escape from New York I doubt I would have given Flavin's work much thought, but I as it was I spent hours wondering about Flavin's flatfooted installations of different formations of florescent light fixtures. Its worth noting however that about that same time I found the Met's off-campus collection of rebuilt european Cloisters to be a beautiful visual pause as well, but there are pauses that put the mind at ease and there are pauses that put the mind to work. I find that when I find myself in a new museum I often head to the medieval art first. The galleries aren't usually as crowded as other more popular areas of the museum, and I love the transparency of the depictions of obedience, violence, and dominance. I enjoy puzzling over the the minds that shamelessly heaped effort on depictions of horrific torture, abject humility and the siren call of "sin." In the art work of medieval craftsmen I saw familiar expressions of wealth (craft, precious materials) and power (domination and violence), but within an brand authority that was alien to me. It is a like a glimpse at an elephant through the slats of fence. I could rap my head around  the strangeness of its parts, but I knew the the shape of the entire animal would always elude me.
Art student taunting the art of yesterday at the Met's Cloisters.

The Flavin retrospective was more akin to not thinking about elephants. The SoHo galleries were converted industrial lofts with uneven wood floors, left over from an era of stacked light industry. The space had been partitioned with the same sheetrock construction I had lived in most of my life, and the art was nothing more than the cheapest of all possible lighting fixtures. Unlike the art of saints and sinners Flavin's work was the product of a world I know very well. It was banal, but I knew it was also a highly valued expression of the moral universe I grew up within. I had never been interested in Minimalism but I set to work thinking about what exactly I was looking at. I decided I was looking at sculpture, and that it dealt with all the issues I had spent discussing during my apprenticeship with Tom Jay - grounding, surface, composition, etc. Flavin's choice of base was no base. His choice of craftsmanship was no craftsmanship. His choice in subject matter was no subject matter. It was, I realized, the best solutions to those problems I had ever seen.

My mission when I moved to New York was to rediscover how to make sculpture in a way that was meaningful to me. After years of explaining bronze casting I realized that for most people the things around them might as well be manufactured in hollow trees by magic little people; bronze statuary, all the more so. I wish I had collected the various theories people came up with to explain how bronze sculpture was made (most people seemed to think dipping or electro-plaiting was involved). I realized that the uninitiated were bewildered and bewitched by the novel wonder of it, but in a way I found discouraging. The bronze casting made it Art, it didn't matter how good or bad the sculpture was. The authority of the material - the way it materialized wealth and mastery, was identical to what I was seeing in the Cloisters. What I saw at the Flavin retrospective that I most admired, was a transparency of manufacture - no Keebler Elves there, just a bunch of store-bought sheet-metal lamps arranged on the walls and on the floor. The technology I found myself admiring had nothing to do with the light fixtures, it was the logic of refusal. What was being refused was the authority so clearly expressed in the feudal art work on show at the Cloisters. What was being expressed was far more difficult to put my finger on.
Maquett for Seraphim (1995); the last piece I completed before abandoning bronze.

Just as Art is a modern technology, a denatured form of systematized knowledge totally unlike its premodern anticents on display at the Cloisters, and far more closely related to the moden technology of scientific knowledge (see Part 5 if you need that unpacked), modern authority is a modern technology distinct from early forms of authority. In his book, What Technology Wants, Kevin Kelly points out technology is art: “The word technelogos is nominally Greek. When the ancient Greeks used the word techne, it meant something like art, skill, craft, or even craftiness. Techne was used to indicate the ability to outwit circumstances, and as such was a trait greatly treasured by poets like Homer.” But he also admits that Plato, “like most scholarly gentlemen of that era, thought that techne, which he used to mean manual craftwork, was base, impure, and degraded.” For better or worse it is Plato's attitude that remains most intact within today's within the art world. Dale Chihuly, for all his craftiness, might as well be making dream catchers with yarn and Popsicle sticks as far as the October crowd are concerned. This is not a monolithic consensus however.

Recently Roberta Smith broke rank and complained against the current curatorial regime at the MoMA, admitting that she had hoped the massive architectural expansion completed a few years ago would allow the museum's historical program "to grow beyond its longtime role as guardian of its stringent, male-dominated, Cubist-based version of Modernism." Smith's frustration is that "Conceptual art is the new Cubism." That the new historicism "traces what seems to be becoming the Modern’s sacred text: the 'dematerialization of the art object' set in motion by Conceptual Art and its derivatives, Process Art, earthworks and performance." But you don't have to an apostle of the Whitney Independent Program or versed in later-day Frankfurt School theory to arrive at the nearly the same conclusion as the Modern's curators. I came to my own ambivalence towards craftsmanship and object making the good old fashion way. I burned out.
One of a series of performances I did with my friend and collaborator Petros Anaganostakis.

I spent my first two years in New York driving my professors crazy because I refused to make anything I couldn't immediately destroy. There was an anxiety on the part of the faculty that I wouldn't have anything to show for all the work I was doing. But after years of mastering the ins and outs of a highly demanding craft, the complex tools and finicky processes required to produce art intended to survive the Apocalypse, I was determined to make nothing.

I set out to solve the problem of how to make sculpture as simply as possible. I didn't want to do anything that hurt my ears, smelled bad or wasn't exciting to do. I ended up trying a lot of different things. I made molds of things, but made no castings (dull) I spent hours beating up a sheet of metal and hours more working to return the sheet to it's pristine shape (noisy). With a friend I collaborated on performance in which we tried to kill each other, this involved building massive costumes that were ripped to pieces in the fight (that was really fun, but best case senario was spawning something akin to the Blue Man Group - No Merci). This is all stock art school stuff and none of it was a very good match to who I am and what I wanted to be doing. But not long after I saw the Flavin show I started playing with a couple dozen wooden blocks that I cut out of a sheet of plywood someone had abandon in the wood shop. Of all the things I tried, the simplest solution I could come up, stacking wooden blocks directly on the floor, was the best solution.

I had been trying to recreate the blocks Frank Lloyd Write played with at his drafting table. I remembered hearing that Write used Froebel Blocks as a 3D sketching tool and that the blocks were originally designed as a teaching tool for small children. Write was a Kindergardner, the blocks were  an element of Froebel's original Kindergarden program. I had learned that bit of pedagogical esotera around the same time I was learning to read (I went to primary school across the street from Write's home and studio), but it had stuck with me... mostly. I knew that the blocks were designed in the 19th century and that they were remarkable for being abstract, that they were abstract at a time when art was not - they were used to teach lessons of composition and instill a knowledge of "universal beauty" to the generation that would produce the first truly abstract paintings and sculptures. It wasn't long before I cut 1000 more blocks and knew that I wanted 10,000 more.
Cleaning up blocks.

Here, I thought, was something I enjoyed doings; that involved no screeching metal, nasty smells. or mysterious and materially intense processes. Something that brought me in contact with what had atracked me to Flavin's light fixtures - how to make something that was at once banal and extraordinary. A tool simple enough to explore what puzzled me most about abstract art - I wanted to understand and believe what was being expressed. I started making art about abstract art. The natural place to begin was to believe that I had discovered some sort of of "pure" form or an ideal shape, a golden proportion of some sort. Turns out it was almost impossible for me to believe for long.

Luckily the Froebel blocks that I was thinking of were a proportion of 1x2x4. That is some sort of pure section of a cube, pretty God damn Platonic (Froebel started life as a crystallographer), but I mis-remember  the proportions. The ones I made, and still work with are 1x2x3 (I started life as a slacker). My proportions were simple, but not much else. Its not a golden rectangle or any other ideal form, its just an error. It was an easy mistake to make especially since, the day I made that error was almost twenty years after I had taken my last field trip to Write's studio. It made it hard for me to justify myself in Modernist terms, but I was able to embrace the mistake. I began to think less about purity and a lot more about errors: "Truth emerges more readily from error than from confusion." In terms of crystallography, that is known as displacement.

In those early moments of working with blocks I toyed with all sorts of ways of thinking about what I was doing. I knew Kandinsky and Mondrian and others of their generation imagined they were working out some sort of nonverbal universal communication, but nothing I saw in what I was doing jibed with that. Nor could I sustain the illusion that my block formations occupied some sort of pure literalist space, as I was told the minimalist work of the 1960s was imagined at the time it was produced. Fantasy is such a rich part of our experience of the world and never once have I felt able to set it aside. Not even during weeks of meditation in a Buddhist monastery, where the goal was not transcendence, but instead presence - instead of the unfiltered reality I was striving for, I found the struggle to prevent the mind from wandering was one of the most intense creative spaces I have ever experienced. When I looked at Flavin's work I understood that I was looking at real things in real space, but I never for a second understood how anyone could imagine they were moving through a neutral phenomenological space free of hierarchy or authority. My visceral experience was that Minimalist objects radiated authority. 
Knocking down blocks in my studio in1998. 

A year or so after I started playing with blocks I asked a friend who was doing his graduate work in art history to visit my studio. In the friendliest way possible he described the work I was doing as "fascist." By that time I had thousands of blocks and was construction large turning symmetries, and was experimenting with other ways to order the blocks as broken grids. He thought there was something authoritarian in the ways I was ordering the blocks. He and I began a discussion about what is and isn't authoritarian that would end up lasting years. I argued that playing with blocks on the floor was anti-authoritarian. He pointed out that ranks of block formations looked like soldiers. I spoke of symmetry in terms of beauty and seduction - he pointed to the symmetry of Albert Speere's Cathedral of lights for a rally at Nuremberg. Our discussions lead to a friendship based on disagreement. He ended up a fan of my work and I ended up thinking of, and discussing art as authority; and have done so ever since.

My art history coarse work became research. It was easy to recognized expressions of authority in the HA 115 survey. The brutalism of the first kings of the Fertile Crescent are blatantly violent and domineering. The Egyptian Pharaohs stylized the violence, conventionalized its appearance with plinths, carefully stacked hierarchies, and other visual devices, but martial force was still clearly on display. The Roman emperors built on the achievements of the Pharaohs and added to it the nuance of the Classical Greeks, and while the romans were not shy about displays of brutality, they formalized authority into tropes that were still in regular use well into the twentieth century. It was only in the post war years that the Modernists began to displace equestrian statuary and triumphal arches with the plop art of abstract plaza turds. And only at the very end of the century, as I was starting art school, that Maya Lin and others made memorials in the minimalist viens the preferred aesthetic for memorials.
Knocking down blocks at Exit Art in 1999.

The medieval era had plenty of violence to go around, but there is a reason that the erliest modern Art historians separated out the coarse, rough hewn art as a Dark ages - the period does seems at odds with the Roman emperors and the absolute monarchies that bracket it. The icons and such seem equally out of place next to the Classicism of the 18th century democratic revolutions and their 19th century progeny. Even now the period is glossed over by undergraduate art history surveys Like HA 115 - the medieval was mashed in at the end of a semester in which I was tasked with absorbing over 5000 years of art history. Meanwhile HA 116 focused an entire semester on the Renaissance alone.

While still working on my BFA I managed to begged and bully my way into Dr. Frima Hofrichter's graduate level HA 506 Medieval Art seminar. For my final paper I wrote about the medieval innovation of having envisioned in great detail the geography of Hell in painting, theater, literature and the grotesque portal sculpture of European Cathedrals. I argued that the titillating and scatological imagery of the period were too lovingly executed to be visual sermons illustrating the dangers of damnation to the illiterate masses by their feudal masters. I believed (and still believe) that  what we are looking at are fantasies of revenge: "the medieval peasant would have burst but for his hope in the Devil."  The most extraordinary thing about the Medieval vision of Hell is that everyone is mixed up in a great jumble, the naked flesh of Ladies and Lords burned and skewered right next to sinful peasants and bondsmen. Hell may be the earliest vision of a democratic life.
The crumbling edge of a not0at-all scattered arrangement.

In 1962 Flavin wrote in his notebook about recognizing the "magical presiding presence" he was working to achieve in his own work in a 14th century icon: 
But my icons differ from a Byzantine Christ held in majesty; they are dumb - anonymous and inglorious. They're as mute and undistinguished as the run of our architecture. My icons do not raise up the blesses savior in elaborate cathedrals, they are constructed concentrations celebrating barren rooms. They bring limited light.
The "magical presiding presence" I sensed in the barren rooms of the SoHo Guggenheim was something at odds with the visual inheritance of the Roman Emperors and their aristocratic and even democratic imitators.  It was more akin to the flatulent demons that decorate the entrences to Europe's great cathedral. Minimalism has sometimes been framed as a cycle of classicism, but this has never sat well with me. Minimalism is too absurd, too ridiculous, it feels more like a "hope for the Devil."

The RD for the technology of authority probably lasted tens of thousands of years as small tribes of humans honed informal hierarchies into enduring chiefdoms. The kings of the the Fertile Crescent were early-adopters of a totally different technology; authority as domination spread and was honed for almost 5000 years. The authority I recognized in Flavin's work is a technology as different from the sovereign authority of kings as their authority was from the loose hierarchies of kinship that was developed by prehistoric tribes. I have been thinking of art as authority since my friend first wondered aloud if all order wasn't somehow fascist. I have always believed that not all authority is authoritarian. Thinking of authority as technology has made me see this split in a new light - that there is a natural instinct to use the new thing to do the old job. To try and make modern authority exclusive, pure, honor bound, regal and mature. But the truth is it is none of those things. Modern authority wants to be ubiquitous. There is no essential aspect because at its core it is bastardized. We can guild it with the trappings of honor but at its best it is the rule of law at its most procedural and bureaucratic. Very much like modern art it is vulgar, ignoble and childish. (Continue to Part 7)
Children working hard to arrange a one ton Quoin of my blocks on the steps of PS1.

1 comment:

  1. "THE great Turbine Hall at London’s Tate Modern, a former power station, is a notoriously difficult space for an artist to fill with authority." Salman Rushdie: