Notes For An Undelivered Lecture on Matthew Whitenack’s “Distressing A Manufactured Hope”
by Joe Milazzo
If we know nothing else about the future of the early 21st Century, we do know that we can no longer ignore the necessity of our developing a whole new… better, different… set of relationships to “the objective.” But what, after all, is the contemporary status of the object, the mere thing? Commonplace, atomic, finite. Precious as well as loathsome, as much the product of an ethic that requires collective, species-wide guilt suffered on behalf of the destruction carried out in the name of making and owning as it is the outcome of artisanal or industrial processes. Passé if not utterly disposable, the slag of that metaphysical program which informatics carries out but to which it would never admit, information being experience both abstracted—say, in the manner of an AP report on “world events”—and transformed into pure potential—via its being accessed, appropriated, entered into matrices of analysis, calculation, “mining.” The argument could be made that our world, here and now, natural as well as artificial, is predominantly informational. This is true whether one is discussing toys laced with toxic compound, message board profile avatars, eggs laid by grain-fed, free-roaming nesting hens, or a “Takashi Murakami” “Louis Vuitton.” It is the dictates of information science that are primarily responsible for my not knowing exactly which creator to enclose in quotation marks. Within the context of object “classes,” then, the art object has always presented a paradox. As Walter Benjamin pointed out, the art object is the ideal object, one whose nature has little or nothing to do with the demands of the present moment. The work of art, as Benjamin defined it, could not be taken in at a glance or with a grasp, had no utility whatsoever, and was itself irrefutable if not simply perceptible proof that innovation, as in even the most open lacework, is concentrated in the knots that underpin tradition’s grand design—and, if examined closely, constitute their own design. Simultaneously, the work of art is no object at all, inasmuch as its true significance is not a question of matter, but representation, even in the case of strictly non-representational art. (And perhaps most so in that latter case. One recalls Rosenberg’s description of the Abstract Expressionist canvas as “an event”, or this instruction from Sol Lewitt: “Ideas alone can be works of art; they are in a chain of development that may eventually find some form. All ideas need not be made physical.”) Benjamin has his favorite examples, of course, and they are luxuriantly sensual: the image built up from the meticulous application of layer after thin layer of lacquer, the tale that emerges from the repetitiveness of physically taxing labor and finds its form, in one sense, in new combinations of fragments struck from a broken monotony. Individual examples notwithstanding, Benjamin’s aesthetic phenomena always exceed form as that phenomenon is ordinarily experienced. That is to say, unless one is a phenomenologist or has taken up permanent residence in a David Cronenberg film, one’s customary experience of objects is not that of “bodies” that perpetually leak, bleed or otherwise transgress upon their own material boundaries. We expect objects to be discrete, independent of our attention but readily identifiable, functional, capacious and / or serendipitous: we expect to be able to rely upon them. This is true even of objects that are not devices. By way of contrast, we often except art to offer us salvation, or an experience that admits us to the belief that there might be some profound causal connection between our own cleverness in the service of representation and to our exaltation, our deliverance. In short, we don’t expect objects to become subjects, except when their subjectivization supports our own subjectivity. (This reinforcement is usually experienced as an encounter with the paranormal… objects possessed by either benevolent or restless or malevolent “spirits”: whatever the case, they wish to establish contact with us.) Rob Fitterman and Vanessa Place has associated the breakdown of such distinctions with a the act of witnessing, and the name they have assigned this position this gaze occupies is the “sobject.” “Sobject” is something of a joke, except in those instances when it is not.
One of the articles of this faith is that those objects which achieve the condition of “art” are instantiations of the possible. I myself subscribe, publicly and privately, to this very notion, and take solace in it. As I do an idea related to this provision: that “the concrete” and “the local” alone can rescue art, and us, from perilous abstraction. Nevertheless, I myself acknowledge the urgency with which this ad hoc catechism should be viewed in the harsh light of piety; that is, interrogated. Or, as Matthew Whitenack has said about the “hope” articulated in most activist art, de-kitschified.
What I take to be Whitenack’s meaning here is that hope is not, as we would like to tell ourselves, itself an achievement, but rather the most rudimentary exertions in the dogged absence of realization. Hope: our easy conflation of word and thing… or is it a lazy, inbred substitution of word for thing, of gesture for action, of reference—mere accomplishment via linkage—for making, suggestion for intention, commentary for intervention? That this pseudo-pleonasm could qualify itself into syntactical infinity is part of the problem. Work is both realization and deferral of what aesthetic discourse has named “the work.”
In conversation with the artist, the word “endurance” kept returning with some frequency. Certainly, the physical stamina required by this meticulously documented but unwitnessed performance is deserving of the name “endurance.” And there is the fact that, despite being slowly abraded by rocks and dirt and brambles, burned by the sun, drenched, pounded, rent etc., the prime material of Whitenack’s project did endure. Or, if you will, outlasted the artist’s own efforts, and, in doing so, transformed their intent into achievement. As with artistic practice, so with our mundane interactions with objects: we instigate our own passiveness. But is the face of hope really as grim and featureless as Whitenack’s standard stripped bare?
Maybe hopelessness does not always precede hope. But hope does thrive in desperate circumstances. Of course Whitenack’s path skirted and crossed over into the arid regions of Southern California: the desert, traditional home of the eremite and the visionary. the desolation of the landscape is often recast in terms of purgation and purification. One goes to the desert in order to measure oneself against an extreme. Whitenack’s project does not necessarily exclude these mythic connotations, but he does not exactly invite them in either. We must remember tat this is a specific desert, and a region to which a narrative of socio-political futility (a human rather than natural wilderness) has attached itself. To quote the artist again, and at greater length: “I like the fact that I was approaching the Mexican border, but that happened to be a coincidence.” Granted, hope is its own bounty, the force that drives the overflowing of the cornucopia. But plenty also diminishes hope, sours its grapes. And artists often speak of the necessities of privation, of paring down, of winnowing and winnowing until one gathers just enough clarity to fill one’s apron. In its relationship to objects, art can be characterized as “hopeful” in multiple respects: that nothing can become something; that too much may resolve itself as just enough; that these curious and contradictory labors will justify themselves (Duchamp may have sneered at such moralizing, but his own hands rarely played host to the demon my grandmother like to remind me was named Idleness); that life is more than manipulating the ordinary functions that surround us; that making is the fashioning of some positive difference; that it is neither insane nor revolting to define human-“object” interactions in terms of love. But these hopes are all so burdened with metaphysical purport, a purport that ultimately instrumentalizes what it would praise. As Whitenack told me regarding the trails he shadowed, they only “came alive” when being walked. Unless interfered with by the sound and pressure of footsteps, those trails are not static. They lack those qualities of perceptibility and “spirit” (typically, a detectible chronological dimensionality) we paraphrase in the term “existence.” Is Whitenack’s project partly an attempt to reconceptualize such consumption, by tangentializing the artist’s traditional responsibilities for altering and to altered materials? Can art be a rehearsal for a relationship to things that is no longer enabled by transcendence? That is, in a word, plain?
This is my hope. My hope is that this installation is not multi-media, and not in excess of any one medium (essentially uncontainable) but truly media-less. An outstanding quality of this hope is that no, I don’t yet know what “media-less” might mean.
I warn you now: I will be going back and forth. And the going might be turgid.
What is it? What is it made of? Some poly-cotton blend, spun out of a factory, “on demand” and “to order.” A Pop sculpture, from one perspective, a vacated Oldenburg, the curdled cream of its foam rubber filling long since dessicated. From another point-of-view, the major constituent of this work is perfunctoriness. Yet what this banner is absolutely not is dematerialized, destroyed though it may be. This is not an anxious exercise in spiritual loss. Nor is it a sarcastic guerilla action in which the hostages are commodities and no demands are ever given. Rather, this is an art object emerging from the mortification of disposable flesh. Did Whitenack intend this allegory? From the fibers or fabric, strained, bled, rubbed, shaken, loosened, torn, frayed, punctured, this other thing, this realized art object, looms itself through the new spaces opened up in its movement along the narrow, irregular floor of Whitenack’s trajectory. Motion, particularly agitated motion, is where chemistry and physics converge. That is, I suppose I am trying to describe the actual physical transformation, and that is exactly it, it is a physical transformation, almost at the molecular level,to which “the work” adheres. “The work” being not just the art object before us, as Benjamin noted, but in the material essence of the art object, those minute, tedious, skilled but “ignorant”—exploratory—actions which, chaining themselves together, provide the primary structure up which meaning’s helices climb.
What is it? How was it used, and how might it be employed again? The work is defiantly analog, and yet, in one respect, not all that different from much artwork that is born digital. The banner is a frozen accident, much as the glitch is. In both cases, the warp and weft, the 1s and 0s, have pulled apart slightly. Their order has shifted, but it has not been obliterated. Moreover, there is a kind of nothingness, a void or voiding that is operative here: the erasure, figurative as well as literal, of common hope. Whitenack’s journey was one that moved simultaneously forward—advancing from point to point, some marked, others consensually undocumented—backwards—the effacement and wearing of this banner doubly worn (i.e., donned)—and utterly recursive, with each step forward an imitation of the previous, and each day much like the first in its salient features: rising, breaking camp, eating, defecating, making camp… no wonder the artist mounted cameras both fore and aft, as it were, to take all these events into account. From a cartographic, even god-like point-of-view, the tiny variations, which are everything on the ground, are canceled out by the exigencies of demarcation and coherent linearity. Those switchbacks and turns and scenic overlooks along the shoulders don’t matter. If there is any embrace of the accidental here, it is cold. Whitenack uses the term “meditative” to describe the psychological space he inhabited in his long walk, but that seems too tranquil a descriptor. “Ruminative” introduces connotations of chewing, even of brooding. It evokes the obdurateness of the matter to be taken apart in the process of pondering, or to be dissolved in the weak acidic solution that is scrutiny. After all, Whitenack’s aim was as much to undo as to do. That he tried to sew the letters “H,” “O,” “P,” and “E” back on to the banner once they began to rip loose from the banner is either a testament to some misgiving or guilt on his part, or an indication that this project could have veered into overkill. That is, it is not enough that this word, “HOPE,” be scattered across the remoter reaches of the high desert, where it might biodegrade and “return to the land.” Instead, this word must be utterly laid to waste, to be reduced from a spectacle to a mere speck. But I’m not certain that I can say, in this context, which was the intervention. Was the disruption of “the work” this tenacity re: the object’s singular integrity, or the was it the artist’s ultimately accepting that dislocation and disarticulation are natural phases in the life-cycle of any made thing? If accident is the intrusion of some agent foreign to a set of pre-existing conditions, for this project especially, any attitude developed by the artist himself qualifies as an accident. For Whitenack’s original constraint was to to be unself-consciously aesthetic, and only to trod, to haul this thing, to observe its distress. The generation that survived the Great Depression held that to use something up was to show it—and ourselves, and each other—the deepest respect. But I want to steer away from the idea that anything other than this banner was changed in the collapse of its functions. Whitenack is only asking us to do as he did, and perhaps more purely, or “better”: traverse and pass through the literal, not try and leap over it.
But there it is, in the way. And what is it? Of what does this exhibit actually consist? Not even the artist claims to be certain. Whitenack’s undertakings may not even have come to an end, as the event itself has been so thoroughly, even exhaustively “seen” that it serves as its own commentary. Whitenack admits that impulse and research factored into this undertaking in equal measure, and, while the data records the many improvisations that shaped this thing hanging in front of me, the actual result feels like a library. That is, this “show” is systematized—the photos, video, maps and elevation schematics like graphite cobwebs flattened against the gallery walls, the banner itself: all have been carefully plotted—but open to anyone’s ignoring the system of organization. The library isn’t the building, or the books (or, as some librarians might call them, “containers of information”); the library are those reconfigurable surrogates, representations of individual elements (isotopes?) in the vast universe of knowledge, each with own valence-like “headings” or unique identifiers. Whitenack’s banner is an art object: why else would it be hanging in an art gallery? Yet it may also be an early model “spime,” what futurist Bruce Sterling has described as a class of objects that are “precisely located in space and time. They have histories. They are recorded, tracked, inventoried, and always associated with a story… [They] have identities, they are protagonists of a documented process.” By the same token, Sterling further claims that a spime is “an imaginary object that is still speculative.” All of which is consistent with an aesthetic with an ethic submerged in it, a notion entirely relevant to Whitenack’s excursions.
At another extreme, of course, there is no progression here, only regression. The banner resembles paper, or parchment. Perhaps it is the sham constitution of some deposed regime dragged to its symbolic death, as if the bodies of the government officials who perpetuated horrible crimes in the shadow it is imprimaturs had already fled the country, adopted new identities, were beyond extradition. Only one word has been erased here, but, over the entire expanse of the thing, in its wrinkles and folds and bleached lines, there is a sense of words lost for all time. Or the sense of written overwritten, with both meanings of that word simultaneously applicable. It is entirely appropriate to describe Whitenack’s activities in the months-long duration of this thing’s making as a kind of inscribing, the banner simultaneously a writing surface and a writing implement. A slogan scratching a chronicle of the anti-pristine across an arbitrary margin on a delicate but rugged ecology. This banner is the point that has survived the line. But it has survived or endured (again) in spectral form. Look closely, and you can see where the letters “H,” “O,” “P,” and “E” were once stitched to the fabric, in a typeface oddly or expressly—I cannot decide—reminiscent of the one Robert Indiana used to cast his lopsided “LOVE” (itself revived in 2008 by the Obama campaign.) What collective history has been and, in fact, must be scraped away in HOPE’s redefinition? What culture abandoned, and only after attempts at salvage (the re-sewing of those letters at the end of each day’s hiking) have been given up on? This is what futurity looks like: neutral, blank, its topographical features essentially mutable, at war with its own bifurcation. Unpunctuated, but a form of punctuation.
Near the end of our conversation, Whitenack tells me that “Good art should make you want to do things, to act.” I take this to mean that good art should both cast and break a spell of boredom. Things-as-they-are become unendurably drab once such art makes itself known to us, and yet the such art itself does not endlessly fascinate. Instead, “good art” thus defined lends us whatever force it radiates, and it inspires following.
Putting the problem of things aside for the moment, perhaps Whitenack’s great accomplishment here is to demonstrate that the most the art of the 21st century might do for us is to help us rediscover boredom. There is both too little (minimal) and too much (maximal) content in “Distressing A Manufactured Hope.” The banner, by itself, is available to unmediated perception, but it is incapable of sustaining the sensations that provide the foundation of an experience we would acknowledge to be aesthetic. (It could be anti-aesthetic, of course.) But the material “supplemental” to the banner can only transmit and offer access to itself. It is a presence only virtual; its sensual qualities are purely indexical. There is no context that could possibly encompass… better, cover… these extremes. What might fill the gap exposed by a failed integrations of context and phenomenon? Boredom often does. Yet boredom here should not be conflated with “dull.” Overstimulation is itself a form of boredom; in fact, that boredom that frazzles at the end of every live nerve connected to the Internet might be the defining boredom of our era. This is a boredom in which the passage of time is retarded even as we are painfully aware of time’s urgent wastage. It is an anxious boredom haunted by notions of productivity, of keeping up, of our competitive regard for ourselves and others. But traditional boredom is scarce in our world. I mean here a boredom whose rhythms are more regular, even lulling. I mean here a Benjaminian boredom, one whose senselessness arises from the necessary deliberateness of some other activity, one typically associated with ordinary bodily functions, or even our basic subsistence. I mean here a boredom, however intensely, crushingly, obstinately felt, that is still bound. I mean a boredom not vast and impenetrable in its fatigability., but, however concentrated, is porous, that can be burrowed into. Imagine this boredom not as an infinite, monochrome field but as a hidden cave, haunted by the sounds of falling water and the temporary blindness of deep gloom. A field sprawls, a cave reaches, and the contrast between these two verbs has much to tell us about the increments of a human scale. I mean here a boredom that sharpens the attention’s appetite, but does not afflict the fingers, or any other organ. Benjamin writes that “boredom is the dream egg that hatches experience.” I would argue further from this, that it is boredom that thus reveals to us the generative potential in any given object. By which I don’t mean some information-age animus. I mean an extension of the object, spatial as well as temporal, irrespective (I have to be careful not to write “outside of” of “beyond”) of any utility, physical or metaphysical.
The work of art is just so irrespective. (Caveat: if we ignore the nagging economic realities of the art world [c.f., Hirst, Damien.]) But what of the art work, like Whitenack’s, that prefigures the spime? According to Sterling, the defining feature of any spime is its profound transparency. With each encounter with a human being, the spime is strangely aware of its position vis-a-vis its life-cycle, in part because it is constantly analyzing itself, in part because it has “learned” from the searchable, downloadable “experience” of every other spime. This is not to say that the spime is “smarter” than its creators (which, according to Sterling, will probably end up being other spimes.) Whether the spime is anterior to an intelligence, natural or artificial, or whether it exists on the other side of a consciousness that is not dependent on a unified mind are both hypotheses which cannot, as yet, be tested. Except, perhaps, under imaginary conditions. The crucial idea here is that the spime is always (to cross-pollinate a couple of discourses) processing its provenance. The spime is, in fact, equally mode and actuality, 100% elusive mutability and 100% graspable stability. And the spime has been designed so as to extract the greatest possible value from its fraught, over-determined temporality. In effect—this all being theoretical anyway—the spime has a healthier relationship to death than human being has ever had, or very likely ever will have. Consider boredom as a kind of “information death,” or a rehearsal, not unlike sleep, for the cessation towards which we all are trudging. Yet all a spime aspires to is to be what it is not, through unbecoming just to be… what? The multiplicity of other things from which it emerges and into which it passes, never to appear, but never to disappear. And we might dare call this longing hopeful.
Distressing A Manufactured Hope
A Project By Matthew Whitenack
The Reading Room
3715 Parry Avenue Dallas, TX 75226
January 9 – 30, 2011
Artist Matthew Whitenack used the southernmost section of the Pacific Coast trail, from Walker Pass to the Mexican border, as the stage for an endurance performance this past November. He distressed a 2′ X 5′ banner with the word “HOPE” by dragging it 650 miles across the high desert. Through the process of being dragged, the manufactured object increased in artistic value and, having lost its letter, signifies the unmooring of a broad and evolving concept from the context of a specific, static instance.
Join us for a talk with Whitenack about his experience on Sunday, January 9 at 4 pm and a reception on Saturday, January 15 from 7 pm to 9 pm at The Reading Room.
Matthew Whitenack received a BA from Austin College. His installation work has been shown at Conduit Gallery in Dallas and Texas State University in San Marcos.
Special thanks to Conduit Gallery, Quin Mathews Films and Mark Monroe / Austin College.
Benjamin, Walter. “The Storyteller: Reflections On The Works Of Nikolai Leskov.” In: Illuminations. Trans. Harry Zohn. Harcourt, Brace and World, 1968.
Fitterman, Rob & Place, Vanessa. Notes On Conceptualisms. Ugly Ducking Presse, 2009.
Sterling, Bruce. “When Blobjects Rule the Earth.” BoingBoing. August 2004. Available: http://www.boingboing.net/images/blobjects.htm.
Sterling, Bruce. Shaping Things. MIT Press, 2005.
Joe Milazzo is a writer, editor and designer who lives and works in Dallas, TX. His virtual location is: http://www.slowstudies.net/jmilazzo.
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