Methodologies on the Verge
Kirsten Valentine Cadieux
Guildenstern: We’re just not getting anywhere! Not even England! And I don’t believe in it anyway.
Rosencrantz: In what?
Rosencrantz: England? Just a conspiracy of cartographers, you mean?
In the final scene of Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern consider the existence of England. It might be just virtual, like the Internet, but even if the destination is fictitious, or otherwise fraught with the risky possibilities of mistaken identity, not getting there is still compulsively anxiety-producing. Coming of age in the age of hypermechanical reproduction, the artists in this show all grapple with the anxieties of a digitally mediated social milieu, where the solutions offered by the ubiquity of media are themselves part of the dilemma they investigate.
Watching these five artists craft this show over the past year, I have often been reminded of the narrative trajectory of John Baldessari’s 1967 painting Solving Each Problem As It Arises: “Whatever the subject, the professional artist makes exhaustive studies of it. When he feels that he has interpreted the subject to the extent of his capabilities he may have a one-man exhibition whose theme is the solution of the problem.” The structure of Art(ists) On the Verge obviously enhances this systematic trajectory, but the artists’ foregrounding of their methodology is particularly stark this year given the virtual nature of what each has been exhaustively studying.
“Virtual” does not do justice to the exploratory domain charted by these five projects, so I will step through the mechanics of each installation in turn to reflect a glimpse of the rich mappings these artists have made of the relational spaces they each investigate. I invoke Guildenstern’s suspension of the future in part because the five artists found five wildly differing methods to explore unrelated topics—yet they have managed a common gesture, sending the gallery visitor into the compelling methodological space of probable connection, the variable-reward promise of the online environment, the tantalizing if dangerous possibility of big data, social media, and the potential hackability of constant surveillance.
Launching exhibition visitors into the space behind our obvious relationships with devices, Claire Barber sits down on the toilet on one of the three screens uneasily bounding her installation. There she consumes an entire pop culture magazine, archetypally digesting, transforming, and presenting the excreta of the compulsion to turn toward available cultural repositories for advice about what to feel and believe. Barber probes our desire for culture to tell us things about ourselves, capturing the crippling uncertainty, violently confused desire, and stolid persistence of Internet advice-seeking (the successor to pop culture magazine advice-seeking) with similarly persistent multichannel video documentation. Through this digestive process, she develops methods to productively engage with the horror unleashed in that search: the compulsive grasping at wisdom while recognizing the random, algorithmic, or predatory nature of the sibyls untethered in the act of looking into the bowels of the World Wide Web.
Presenting the detritus of spastic searching and discarded layers of meaning-making within the disorienting field of a triad of documented investigations, when you know you know lures viewers into acknowledging our own weaknesses for authority-checking and for giving in to persuasions to wonder whether someone else’s advice might upstage our own. Methodical indefatigability in all the components that make up this installation underlines the irresistible hegemony of authority vested in the culture industries of media—and the embodied way this authority is experienced. Relentlessly requesting your attention to the steady turning of magazine pages, rifling through clothing piles, search after Internet search, and mouthful-by-mouthful accompaniment of junk food, this assemblage evokes the vicious cycle by which anxiety is both manufactured and reproduced with promises that it can be allayed.
As you move into the second gallery, snow blows across West Fargo, MN on the far wall, and you face another aspect of the Internet’s capriciousness. After discovering the mislocation glitch that created the (accidentally fictitious) Facebook location of West Fargo, MN, Meredith Lynn has populated the fortuitous placelessness with a deliberate, playful, and participatory placemaking process. Providing smartphones to volunteers interested in constructing an identity for the (already existing North Dakota) neighborhoods now remapped (for an unknown duration) as the nonexistent town of West Fargo, Lynn methodically built up a process for demarcating, claiming, and inhabiting this virtual community.
Connecting a geographically widespread network to reflect back into place ideas about the virtual topography of a new layer of the Bakken-era boomtown, Lynn’s project mines the familiar mechanics of social media geolocating and place boosterism to develop a critical process for “owning” the troubled dynamics of extractive economies. The beauty and solidity of the actual place are represented by a three-legged table built of wood from a reclaimed North Dakota building, on which participants can play the interactive game that stakes their claim and structures their involvement in actively imagining West Fargo, MN into being. Placement of geodetic survey marks establishes the act of bounding and calls out that act as a noticeable practice, one that might be changeable, hackable, or reimaginable in ways less than obvious in the straightline grid of a place where geologists are so powerful. Enrolled in fantastical geomancy through the literal concrete marks and the erroneous place, we must navigate our place biases as well as our distantiated relationships with the stuff places are made from—and the places stuff comes from.
Daniel Dean’s adjacent Center for Advanced Applications carries on the temporal hybrid: if Lynn’s West Fargo deed game evokes nineteenth-century boomtowns represented through twenty-first-century Facebook activity and online games, Dean’s hyperconsumer e-surface store rests on the social fabric of a nineteenth-century salon and scientific community. Assembling a cohort of extraverted social critics willing to confer on questions of commodity consumerism and motivated by media capitalism, the Center presents a meditation on the existential responses possible under the pressure of commodification. Starting with the existential dread of commodified information, Dean and his collaborators summoned a wide pantheon of material and immaterial laborers. Arriving at a series of slick advertisements and surfaces that repel our clutching habit to attempt to connect through them, the Center for Advanced Applications appropriates our habitual desire for connection to turn commodity fetishism back on itself.
Smoothly welcoming you into the ether of commercialized wellness language via an audio guide to productive stress management, the Center’s voice foregrounds the performative authority of late capitalism. Leaving you as if in the midst of a hypnotism experiment, the Center asks you to experience, over and over, the mechanics of connectedness, demechanizing it, declawing both the anxiety and reward mechanisms of connection technology and requiring us to confront our aspirations for social association and meaning. Deviling the mechanics of authority in the surfaces that command our attention, this installation calls for methods to find in the object of suspended connection, if not solace, an extended view into the detailed abscesses of consumer desire making.
Molly Balcom Raleigh
Across the second gallery, Molly Balcom Raleigh’s Personal Appeal invites you into conversation. Take a seat at the table amidst mailbags worth of letters sent between Balcom Raleigh and thousands of households in a painstakingly choreographed direct mail campaign. Tapping into sophisticated mechanisms of consumer surveillance to grasp the exquisite nugget of being known, this piece asks you, personally, to extend yourself into the sea of big data to reflect on what it feels like to be known—or to feel known. You are asked to share details about yourself, and your replies are subject to the kind of linguistic analysis that drives millisecond trades to invest in whatever is trending on the Internet now. But your data provide the waymarkers that lead to the possibility of your being known. Drawing you along an algorithmic path on which your guiding stars have been identified by others, the dialogue you supplied the data to shape creates a scaffold that lets you relax into the strangeness of recognizing how much is constantly known about you and how much the choices you think you are making are already shaped by your credit history, your tracked phone, the words you use in emails.
Using the raw materials of direct marketing, Personal Appeal has built a curious network of people willing to write back to automailed junk mail. Laboriously reproducing the folds, typography, tone, and timing of personal appeals, Balcom Raleigh dares us to face the magic in the feeling of being known, even in such a mechanized way. Hybridizing the arts of playwrights and marketers, a core method of this epistolary project was the discovery and systematization of a vocabulary meaningful to the participants as they write letters and converse through Personal Appeal’s tablets and their automated dialogue script generator. Signposting the way from marketing mail to human contact, Balcom Raleigh traces a thread of voice that suggests we might flex our capacity to feel known in ways that push us to risk personal exposure. Step onto the dais. Read the mail. You might experience a conversation that tells you something about yourself.
Ryan Aasen holds down the end of the show with his double play on “NSA” in the third gallery. Combining a fascination with complicating identities via the cultural and data practices of the National Security Agency and No Strings Attached hookups, Aasen’s exhibition NSA lays out most exaggeratedly the methodical triangulation used by this cohort of artists to explore their subjects and arrive at their exhibited work. Mapping a countertopography of human contact in a data-driven domain marked by secretive politics, Aasen’s process entwines the brazen and clandestine in a bid to find the space for the personal and the political in worlds largely identified with violent disjuncture. Organized around a simple but profound hack of locational data in the geospatial positioning of hookup software, the building blocks of this installation are wrapped in unsolicited photographs sent by those who responded to his hacked profile as it appeared near recent U.S. drone strikes.
Providing subtle roadmap clues in the repeated motif of the grid of electromagnetic field shielding fabric (constructing the tent shielding the wirelessly broadcast server of supportive documentation, in the interstices of the hookup dialogues, and in the reflective patterning of the gay bar dance floor), this piece, too, shows methodical response to the compulsion of connection and disconnection. An early experimental stage of this project demonstrated its exquisite balance between unintegrated emotion (disappointment with having missed iconic political eras, unease with cyberwarfare, fascination with the intensity of contact in surveilled and violated places) and the steadiness of practice and familiar ease with the underlying technologies. Lusting after the opportunity to have been part of something big, politically, Aasen used the image-wrapped bricks—with images blown up so large as to be unrecognizable, bits of data materialized around the building blocks of the Soap Factory—to throw through windows. But these windows were set up in his studio, a measured method for testing the intensity of experience, a constrained violence used to assimilate the discomfort of hacking hookups and geopolitics.
Much discussion of social practice art has revolved around the challenges involved in not making things. This show makes good use of its social location in the Twin Cities and at the Soap Factory by channeling many of the skills of social practice. Allowing what they made to serve the engine of their ideas throughout the process, what this year’s Art(ists) On the Verge have made, and what this social space provides, is largely methods: figuring out how to figure out, making things to find ideas, and finding ways to invite others into making experience.
Over the course of the year, I have come to think of these artists more and more as methodologists, like alchemists of process, withholding the thing except as an engine of process, as long as possible, providing props to show the method behind the process, but only enough so that the viewer must become involved to make sense. To become enrolled in the method is one of the requirements of the sensemaking of this show.
This seems an eminently suitable practice in the era of the turn toward practice, where practice is the talisman that grants entry into the exploratory realms on offer. Given the rise of popular interest in curation, and the concurrent existential examination of what curation is and does (and how and by whom), these artists have used well their mentored time as Art(ists) On the Verge to construct lexicons you must page through, explore, and practice with to make their meaning emerge with adequate fidelity.
It would be possible to say that the five artists on this year’s verge are investigating digital connection and the anxieties of surveillance, disconnection, annihilation, and the possibility of reorientation—and it would be right to see them as part of an extended generation’s attempt to grapple with the coming of age of the age of mechanical reproduction. But although I end with an evocation of the voice I have heard emerging from the co-genesis of these explorations, you should not leave the show having heard only their voices. Instead, we hope you accept the invitation of their compulsions to launch into the heady yet careful exhilaration beyond what we know, on the way to constructing syntax in the device-mediated meaning we make.
Methodologists on the Verge
We are about questions.
We are compelled to answer in as many ways possible,
because we know our starting place is not quite right
and we have not assembled the authority to make what we feel
We are pushing beyond the end of history. Another world may be possible,
but we have to find where it is already made
and figure out how to fit our hands and voices in
because if we are successful, we risk being louder than the silence we heard
when we knew
no one was listening.
We know we must practice, and we make our ideas
for others, so they can know the world they make too.
We place people:
in our violence,
in our neuroses
and our lusts,
in wanting to be known,
and to have the authority to place ourselves on the maps of what we see matters.
We hope methodology may bring us new access
to experiences and elders,
as we plumb beyond narcissism how broken things are, and hack the systems we live within
using the healing alchemy of process to find delight sharing methods.
We are our own critics,
not because we have authority
but because the whole point of methodology
is that we put the practice into the circle of those we want to care,
and see what we can do with it.
Kirsten Valentine Cadieux
Cadieux explores social and spatial relationships in the governance of land use and food and the politics of sustainability. Using art and social science approaches to society–environment relations (specifically, the political ecology and moral economy of agrifood systems), she builds publicly engaged participatory research processes to support differing ways of understanding environments and performing and justifying environmental and food system interventions. Her writing focuses on the influence of social and environmental identities, performances, and anxieties on group negotiations and aspirations for equitable and healthy food systems and residential landscapes.