Christina Schmid, Out of the Box
Start. The touch screen beckons. Fingers brush the smooth surface. Then: Where do you get your news? Six logos appear. Choose and continue. Which shoes do you like to wear? Flip-flops? Heels? Cowboy boots? Which shoes would you like to wear more often?
The questions on the in-take form, as Christopher Houltberg calls it, track an individual’s decisions the way twenty-first-century data-mining software would: “people who liked this, also liked that.” No longer defined by gender, age, and race, a demographic today is made up of shared decision-making tendencies. Mediated by technology, the very question of who we are and how we understand ourselves and each other in relation to the world is being redefined. This year’s Art(ists) On the Verge points to the ubiquitous tendrils of technology that weave through and indeed may soon entirely structure contemporary culture and experience in the United States.
Originally trained as a designer, Houltberg investigates the realm of personalized recommendations and conveniently customized information. Just how eager are we to trust in the software’s quasi-psychic powers to predict what else we might like? Asia Ward’s sculptures allude to the oft-forgotten physical presence of digital information, while Sarah Julson investigates glitches in material infrastructure that occur when mundane architectural codes malfunction. Mad King Thomas offers telephone dances, refiguring where and how bodily performance manifests in a social sphere dominated by screens, smartphones, and long-distance communication. Anthony Warnick’s library applies an open-source-meets-Dada model of information sharing to a traditional public library. Rather than join contemporary culture’s enthralled absorption in the promises of digital culture, the artists take us out of the box of current conventional wisdom and carefully negotiate the promises and risks presented by the digital age.
After completion of the in-take form’s simple set of questions, the computer produces a code for step two of Houltberg’s Profile Cube. Code in hand, participants are ready to unlock and enter, one by one, a cube of 8 by 8 feet, constructed from white acrylic. Its walls are perforated with words, hundreds of adjectives and brief phrases, grouped alphabetically: “disproportionally curious,” “disdain for shopping,” and “domestic.” Based on the code’s information, the descriptors are selectively illuminated one at a time to create an individual profile. No match is perfect, of course, but, given the limited options made available in the global language of consumerism, the projection is all there is. The body in the box is inscribed with illuminated words, reduced to a surface waiting to be etched with commercially viable information. In a world where corporations legally count as people, the individual is translated into a dataset, the sum total of preferences and antipathies gleaned from interactions with screens. Exiting the cube through a designated door, participants return to the familiar territory of coupons: “based on your purchases, you may also be interested in these products.”
Similar to tactical media interventions, Profile Cube is designed to use data-harvesting technology in ways incongruent with its twin goals, predicting and catering to consumer behavior.¹ Steeped in the latest research in behavioral psychology, Profile Cube makes personal the experience of being translated into code: fascination gives way to discomfort, convenience to suspicion. The sense of disturbance only grows once the full extent of the consequences of data mining and harvesting is fully appreciated. The flipside of marketing prowess points to the erosion of the Internet’s early dream of democratic access to information. Based on past consumer behavior, programs no longer just predict what you may like but filter and thus restrict the results of online searches for products, news, and entertainment. In Profile Cube, Houltberg asks us to pay attention to the structures designed to skew our sense of reality and perception of who we are: provided with a limited number of options, we fit ourselves into prefabricated categories and are manipulated to become what we are told we already are.
In 2005, W. J. T. Mitchell observed that in the digital age “the modernist anxiety over the collapse of structure is replaced by the uncontrolled growth of structures that have lives of their own—cancers, viruses, worms that can afflict electronic networks and power grids as well as physical bodies.”² Houltberg’s Profile Cube questions whether we are indeed wary enough of the rising data-mining industry, an as of now largely unregulated field whose sophistication may soon exceed our wildest flights of fancy.³
Asia Ward’s Subterranean pursues a different route to imagining the growth of structures with a life of their own. Her past work moved from small, fantastic animals sculpted from used electronics, fabric, and worn leather gloves, to aluminum dioramas, surrealist landscapes whose planes and dramatic swoops met in curious angles. In Subterranean, her most recent sculptural environment, the creatures have effectively become the landscape. Reminiscent of the pale, eyeless life forms found deep underground, strange fungal growths, stalagmites, coral, or even crystal, they share a certain somnambulist quality. Their bent-metal skeletons are covered in white plastic, the kind used for shrink-wrapping boats in Minnesota winters. Rather than shelter a precious, inanimate object, Subterranean’s plastic surfaces move: Ward’s creatures seem to breathe in wheezing rhythms as they deflate and inhale, glow and dim, fading back into their strange hibernation.
Housed in the cavernous basement of the Soap Factory, the creature-sculptures seem reclusive. Are they seeking refuge or simply inclined to secrecy? When approached, they light up as if alarmed before slowly receding into the protective darkness that surrounds them. They suggest the hum of web servers and high-security databases, tucked away in unlikely places meant to hide and guard the machines that process and store countless gigabytes of data. They allude to the powers of artificial intelligence that, for now, still slumber.
Ward has created an eerie, evocative environment. Her installation suggests a path through the families of sculptures but leaves viewers to wander amid the peaceful creaturely shapes, to get a little lost in the darkness around the edges. Without a doubt, the darkness is seductive. Stand still and listen to the breathing. What exactly happens when visual perception starts to give, when we suspend our sense of the here and now, and let our imaginations loose?
How we imagine our relationship to our material surroundings, where we draw the line between animate and inanimate matter, and why we insist on drawing that line where we do have been of central interest in recent studies in new materialisms. Given “the curious ability of inanimate things to animate, to act, to produce effects dramatic and subtle,”⁴ does it make sense to reduce them to inane things and ignore the curious recalcitrance of matter? Sometimes, all it takes is a simple shift in perspective to reconsider an ossified issue. Manuel De Landa suggests that mineralization, the evolutionary emergence of bone, “made new forms of movement control possible among animals, freeing them from many constraints and literally setting them in motion to conquer every available niche in the air, in water, and on land.”⁵ Following his line of thinking, Jane Bennett avers that “in the long and slow time of evolution . . . mineral material appears as the mover and shaker, the active power, and the human beings, with their much-lauded capacity for self-directed action, appear as its product. . . . We are walking, talking minerals.”⁶
White as bone, Ward’s Subterranean, rather than give in to anxiety over new life forms, invites us to shift points of view, to speculate while crouching at the edges of what we can see and know, equipped with only our limited sensory and intellectual capacities; to ask, irrepressibly, what if . . .? and pause before surrendering to the alluring strangeness of her sculptural environment.
Making strange also plays a prominent role in Sarah Julson’s most recent work. Instead of constructing environments, she examines the oddity of everyday infrastructures that fail to serve their ostensible purpose: stairs that ascend to a ceiling; fence posts sans fencing; concrete sidewalks that dead-end in the middle of a lawn. Her current project This Way delights in absurdity and the glitches that happen when objects do not quite live up to their intended function in structuring the spaces where we live.
In the gallery, Julson presents projections of ten-second video clips and an array of rather nonsensical objects. On one screen, her videos document infrastructural slippages and desire lines, i.e., pathways built by people’s shared desire to follow a not yet existent trail through urban and suburban spaces. Desire lines thus point to a different infrastructural failure: here is where we need a passage. On a second screen, Julson shows the results of her examination of the Soap Factory’s labyrinthine structure. In front of the screen, a grid of strange objects begs for further examination: casts of the holes, cracks, and other oddities Julson discovered in the building’s walls, floors, and ceilings.
While the negative imprints literally trace the outlines of the architectural structure, the objects Julson constructed for This Way carve out partitions of space. Entering the gallery, a sign alerts viewers that they are now leaving Gallery 1. A few steps later, another matching sign welcomes them to Gallery 2. Modeled after highway signage posted at state borders, Julson’s signs draw attention to the nameless space in between, neither here nor quite there. But once in Gallery 2, viewers have to navigate a veritable obstacle course. A fence encircles a no longer accessible part of the gallery floor, a door refuses to allow passage, and stairs lead pointlessly up to a wall. Stripped of their purpose, each piece of infrastructure transforms into a different type of object, steeped in uncanny familiarity but undeniably different.
Put simply, the objects refuse to make sense. They casually defeat demands for pragmatism and seem to poke fun at any insistence on functionality. Their playfulness and blatant absurdity are reminiscent of Martin Kippenberger’s fake subway entrances and Rachel Whiteread’s sculptures of inverted stairways, bookcases, and entire facades.⁷ Yet the way Julson activates the Soap Factory’s space is less invested in imaginary leaps and aesthetic abstractions. This Way embraces a resolutely ordinary aesthetic and eagerly draws attention to what happens when infrastructures fail and gleefully defy expectations. Like Gordon Matta-Clark’s Fake Estates (1973), a project that had the artist purchasing fifteen small and oddly shaped strips of land deemed “unusable” by the city of New York,⁸ Julson prefers objects and spaces that challenge the pragmatic imperative as if on their own. In their obstinacy, they open up possibilities to reconsider how we travel through and act in familiar spaces. Rather than fade into polite utility, Julson’s objects buck expectations, shirk what we may take for granted, interrupt smooth passages, and, slyly, question the subtle but pervasive discipline of convenience and habit.
Mad King Thomas, an artist collective made up of Theresa Madaus, Tara King, and Monica Thomas, shares Julson’s taste for absurdity. Phone Dances (colon) Dances for the Telephone examines a different kind of mundane interaction: cell phone conversations. Long gone are the days when tele¬phones were considered an intrusion into the intimacy of the domestic sphere.⁹ Today, public phone conversations, some surprisingly personal, present a nuisance of such proportions that businesses have started posting signs to limit cell phone use on their property. Phone Dances turns these conversations into collaborative performances.
Infused with a queer aesthetic, Mad King Thomas thrives in the space between theater and dance, actively coveting moments of slippage between the two. Categories of cultural production—“theater” v. “dance”—become porous when genres are artfully compromised, queered. Irreverent, campy, and affectionately over the top, Mad King Thomas pursues a kind of pirate practice: a potent mixture of disdain for the commonsensical, affinity for the antidisciplinary, and flirtation with illegibility—all for the sake of resisting “certain ways of seeing the world [that] are established as normal or natural, as obvious and necessary.”¹⁰
In traditional dance, bodies travel through space, while viewers consume the performance visually and viscerally. But what, asks Mad King Thomas, would make dance interesting when no one is looking? How could dance be communicated if visual information were removed? Phone Dances, a series of projects resulting from this line of inquiry, draws on what Tara King describes as the “oral history” of dance: the many metaphors harnessed to communicate a mood, a mode, a movement.
Disrupting dance-as-usual, Phone Dances plays on distance and intimacy. Plumbing both public and private spheres, Mad King Thomas presents the two latest iterations of its project: “A Dance for Them” is designed to happen inside the gallery, “A Dance for You” outside. Inside, a raised pedestal looms, enticing and ominous. Individuals ascend the stage, both highly visible and physically singled out. After following a set of instructions, the participant begins a cell phone conversation. The dance unfolds as an exchange between on-site audience performer and off-site conversation partner. While collaborative and deliberately open-ended, “A Dance for Them” is deeply double-edged, conjuring both the comfort of a soothing voice in your ear and the potential of embarrassment and exposure.
Equally ambiguous, “A Dance for You,” designed to take place outside the gallery, starts with a sign: a phone number, followed by instructions to think about what you need before leaving a message that identifies said need. Mad King Thomas will offer a diagnosis and prescribe a salutary dance, to be delivered by telephone before the end of the exhibition at the Soap Factory. Intended as a gift, the dance nonetheless harbors the potential to disrupt an ordinary day, a glitch aimed to provide a playful service.
Dance, then, is redefined as a collaborative endeavor that can take place in physical locations or inside someone’s mind. Phone Dances suggests that the essence of dance may be found in the verbal exchanges that communicate the poetry of bodies in motion, in the therapeutic and salubrious, and in imaginary scenes that materialize only in the mind’s eye.
Like Mad King Thomas, Anthony Warnick riffs on the idea of service—in particular, on the library as a system of storage and exchange of knowledge in the form of books. The Library draws on the ideas of Indian mathematician and librarian S. R. Ranganathan, nicknamed the “father of library science.” Instead of the Dewey Decimal System or the classification of the Library of Congress, he proposed a facetted system of organization based on the relationships of ideas. Each short yellow pencil in Warnick’s library is imprinted with one of Ranganathan’s laws of library science. The fifth law simply states: “The library is a growing organism.” Each new addition to the whole has the potential to affect already existing relationships, to insert new inflections and pathways into the overall system that Ranganathan conceived as alive.
The Library is literally in a state of constant evolution: visitors can request additional books, which are then mostly produced on site with the help of a computer and a copier. Once patrons have filled out a library card, the books are available for checkout. The glitch in the system: the texts, all classics of Anglo American culture in some way, have been altered. While typically enough of the original remains to allow for uneasy identification, the new books estrange the content.
Warnick designed five types of digital alterations. One program turns the text into a poem, another into a dialogue. Reducing the text to a single sentence, a kind of Dada pars pro toto, renders the original as unrecognizable as counting the numbers of individual words and listing them in order of declining frequency. Finally, running the original text through several translation programs before returning it to English results in a language intelligible but quaint, legible but slightly off. Shelved on humble plywood bookcases, the books are displayed by type of alteration and in the order of production.
Attired in what he describes as his “nineteenth-century laborer’s costume” (work boots, a sturdy leather apron, a beard), Warnick serves as the library’s facilitator and guardian. The masquerade is not coincidental. Jacques Rancière details the transformation of what it meant to be a worker in the middle of the nineteenth century (“it meant a determinate body, a determinate coordination between the gaze and the arms”) into “new passions,” triggered by literature. “The body of a worker” thus entered “into a new configuration of the sensible.” Reading, as an aesthetic experience, harbors the potential, then and now, “to disrupt the way in which bodies fit their functions and destinations.”¹¹ Ideas, set free from purpose, may in turn liberate readers from destinations, expectations, and disciplinary lenses. Warnick’s character references the revolutionary shift in consciousness made possible by ideas, circulated through libraries.
What The Library does, then, is dislocate knowledge, disrupt its “destination,” and liberate it from the constraints of the legible: “legibility is a condition of manipulation,”¹² writes James C. Scott, always already imbued with disciplinary mechanisms, inevitably ideological. The Library resonates with Judith Halberstam’s call for unruly, unbound knowledge: “we may want new rationales for knowl¬edge production, different aesthetic standards for ordering and disordering space, other modes of political engagement than those conjured by the liberal imagination. We may, ultimately, want more undisciplined knowledge, more questions and fewer answers.”¹³ Her call for an unruly knowledge echoes through the work of all of this year’s Art(ists) On the Verge.
At times sincere, then tongue-in-cheek, invariably smart and often irreverent, these seven artists are fascinated with the nameless spaces in between disciplines, highway signs, and genres of cultural production. Courting instances of failure—the limited options for creating a user profile, infrastructures gone awry, a library-as-organism that refuses to cater to conventions—the artists point out systems whose ubiquity has resulted in an invisibility that masquerades as “natural,” “normal,” and even “commonsensical.” Yet by taking us to the verge of what makes sense and registers as legible, the artists invite us to think outside the box—to exit the cube—and become aware of the extent we let ourselves be shaped by categories not of our making. Immersive and interactive, the environments in the exhibition remind us that putatively inevitable destinations can come undone, new passions can be ignited. All it takes is a little spark.
1. When the artist collective Ubermorgen pirated Amazon’s “look inside” function (a book preview typically limited to a few short pages), entire books appeared online, for free. Amazon Noir, a.k.a. “The Big Book Crime,” was eventually neutralized by Amazon’s purchase of the software. For an in-depth discussion of both Ubermorgen and Valdis Krebs’s data visualization projects, see Rita Raley, Tactical Media (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009) or visit http://www.orgnet.com and http://www.amazon-noir.com.
2. W. J. T. Mitchell, What Do Pictures Want? (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 172.
3. For recent discussion on the data-mining industry, see Natasha Singer, “The Data-Mining Industry Kicks Off a Public Relations Campaign,” on the Bits Blog of the New York Times (published October 15, 2012).
4. Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), 6.
5. Manuel De Landa, A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History (New York: Zone Books, 1997), 26–27.
6. Bennett, Vibrant Matter, 11.
7. For a discussion of Kippenberger’s Metro Net, see http://www.newmediastudies.com/art/mk.htm. For an overview of Rachel Whiteread’s sculptural work, visit her artist page at Luhring Augustine, http://www.luhringaugustine.com/artists/rachel-whiteread.
8. For a discussion, see Odd Lots: Revisiting Gordon Matta-Clark’s Fake Estates, edited by Sina Najafi and Jeffrey Kastner. (New York: Cabinet Books, 2005).
9. See Avital Ronell, The Telephone Book: Technology, Schizophrenia, Electric Speech (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989), 103.
10. Judith Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 9.
11. Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator, trans. Gregory Elliott (New York and London: Verso, 2009), 71–72.
12. James C. Scott, Seeing like a State (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 183.
13. Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure, 10.
Christina Schmid is visiting assistant professor at the Art Department at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. She holds degrees in literature and philosophy from the Karl Franzens University in Graz, Austria, and the University of Minnesota. Her arts writing was recognized by the Warhol Foundation in 2011.