Sunday, July 21, 2013

Sight - Site - Zeit, part 2

As I’ve done with the three terms percept, concept, and precept, I’d like to see what can be wrung out of a braiding of three near-homynyms: sight, site, and Zeit (German for “time”). Right off the bat, one could argue that these three terms go a long way toward tracing the trajectory and fundamental concerns of contemporary art since the 1960s (when Turrell’s career began). We start from a Greenbergian formalism devoted to the exigencies and cultivation of the sense of sight. Next, site-specificity undermines such formalism. Artists like Robert Smithson and Michael Asher interact with spatial sites. In different ways, Mary Kelly, Chris Burden, Vito Acconci, and Carolee Schneemann, identify the body as a site. And artists as varied as Bruce Nauman, Marcel Broodthaers, Martha Rosler, and Cildo Meireles, respond to the conventions (the precepts) of art as a site. More recently, we’ve witnessed the move toward time-based media: video, performance, dance, sound, durational work, and social practice. It’s too simple. But, crudely, we could say art has travelled from sight to site to Zeit. 

[Note to self: Must read Lytle Shaw’s new book, Fieldworks: From Place to Site in Postwar Poetics.]

More importantly, I want to think about what it means to shift the emphasis of a work of art (or works of art in general) from sight to site to Zeit. Again, using Turrell as a kind of limit-case is instructive. Clearly, all three terms are in play in his work. But the framing of his work, via the creation myths I’ve itemized above and via both curators’ and Turrell’s characterization of the work, directs attention toward sight, at the expense of site and Zeit. Here (as promised in part one of this post) I’ll return to the first of two assertions included in Roberta Smith’s New York Times review of the Turrell exhibition. Smith writes, “The latest site-specific effort from Mr. Turrell, ‘Aten Reign’ is close to oxymoronic: a meditative spectacle.” I discussed the problem of “meditative spectacle” in part one. Here, I’d like to consider the claim that “Aten Reign” is site-specific. This immense installation doesn’t so much negotiate its site in the Guggenheim rotunda, as it accepts it as given and accommodates it, almost literally swallowing it. This is not site-specific in the meaningful sense of the phrase. “Aten Reign” doesn’t perform any kind of archeology (literal or figurative) on the site and its history. Nor does it enter into any kind of debate or create any productive friction with the site. When artworks do this kind of work, they might, more appropriately, be called “situation specific,” in that they take the site into account as both a product and a producer of a larger socio-historic situation. 

Likewise, “Aten Reign” is time-based in only the most literal, and least revealing, use of the term. Sure, its hues and intensities slowly shift. What one sees at any one moment is different in its specifics from what one sees in other moments. Most accounts of the work testify to an expansion and contraction of architectural volume, as if the spiraling levels of the rotunda are telescoping in and out upon themselves, flattening and deepening the perception of space. During my twenty or so minutes in the space, I did not see this. What I saw were concentric ovals of radiating color, fading from darker hues at the bottom to lighter hues at the top. Yes, the light changed. But the nature of the experience did not. I had no sense that more time would have yielded new responses. (In an effort to head off one avenue of criticism: I am a devotee of durational work, having made a lot of it - including a 24-hour solo performance - and sat through a great deal more.) 

Turrell’s color show strikes me as a cheap effect. Ironic, since it undoubtedly cost millions to design and install. I have the same response to this lauded artwork as I had, as a teenager, to the tawdriness of Pink Floyd laser light shows at the Hayden Planetarium in the ‘70s: both seem just plain goofy. And yet, perhaps there’s something more to the comparison. I would imagine that many of the patrons who now support Turrell’s work came of age in the psychedelic era from the mid-60s to the mid-70s. Now constrained by the market to display their wealth through the same choices as all their equally-endowed friends and neighbors: luxury cars, bespoke designers, architects, private islands, they distinguish themselves by realizing their avaricious, adolescent fantasies. Turrell provides the opportunity to realize one such fantasy, doodled on the inside cover of an 11th grade chemistry notebook, “I want to live inside a giant lava lamp!” Who am I to deny such fantasies? Who am I to harsh their mellow? I’m willing to sing along to the chorus of appreciators as they raise their voice in a heavenly, throaty, deeply-satisfied, “dude!” Yet, in my experience, what follows exclamations of “dude!” is usually either boredom or the munchies, or both. 

So, then, what to make of “ambient” (lower case a) at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery in Chelsea? The show features works by twelve artists, including well-known visual artists such as Sherrie Levine Haim Steinbach, and Olafur Eliasson, and a few, like Tristan Perich, Seth Price, and Alex Waterman, better known for work that involves sound and other time-based media. As mentioned previously, this show was organized by Tim Griffin, formerly editor-in-chief of Artforum, and now running the estimable New York venue, gallery, and media art archive, The Kitchen. In some ways, this exhibition makes a better case for what I’d been calling (before I was aware of this show), “ambient conceptualism,” than the work of Turrell and his light and space compatriot, Robert Irwin, whose “Scrim Veil – Black Rectangle – Natural Light,” has been reinstalled at the Whitney, where it first lived in 1977. At the very least, and counterintuitively, “ambient” makes a better case for the conceptualism of my phrase, while Turrell and Irwin rely more heavily on ambience. 

In sorting out the “ambient” from the “conceptualism,” both terms require some definition. I’ll return to “ambient” in a moment, the simpler term for being less complicated by overuse. To effectively define what I mean by “conceptualism,” would be a project: a book, a symposium, a series of classes. But I’ll spend a little time here beginning to identify some of what I mean (and don’t mean) when I use the term. First, and most importantly, I think that there are multiple "conceptualisms." Failing to acknowledging this and conflating the various practices that can wear the hat, confuses any argument that employs the term. In addition to the pluralization, I’ll insist on a lowercase-c, to distinguish what I’m talking about from the historical movement of capital-C Conceptual Art. Yet, some of the artists I’ll claim as conceptualists would undoubtedly also appear in any history of Conceptual Art. What I’ll try to do briefly here is to disentangle capital-C Conceptual Art from lowercase-c conceptualism. At the same time, I’ll work to distinguish various strands of the lowercase from each other in order to make some useful distinctions between, say, LeWitt and Graham, or Acconci and Rosler, or Haacke and Broodthaers. 

Conceptual Art is often said to refer to art practices, beginning in the late-1960s and early-1970s, that concerned themselves with language. The story goes that artists turned away from material concerns, including, paradigmatically, the mediality of Greenbergian abstract painting, and concerned themselves with the language that motivated, engaged, described, and resulted from works of art. To some, the “Conceptual Turn,” in the visual arts, echoed the “Linguistic Turn,” in philosophy. A favorite quote of mine about this transition, comes from Rosalind Krauss’s “Sculpture In The Expanded Field,” 

“It is obvious that the logic of the space of postmodernist practice is no longer organized around the definition of a given medium on the grounds of material, or, for that matter, the perception of material. It is organized instead though the universe of terms that are felt to be in opposition within a cultural situation.” (p. 289)

In the past, I’ve relied heavily on this quote and on the understandings it represents. But I’ve now come to think that the transition in question was more complicated. It’s not that I disagree with the assertion that the organization of the logic of art in the late-60s began to rely explicitly on terms in opposition. But Krauss’s statement contains a gaping chasm precisely the size and shape of the word “terms.” What, exactly, constitutes a term? Is it only a dictionary-accredited word? Or might the terms in opposition also include other units? For instance, might we see the steps of a conventional process as terms capable of productive opposition? Might the moves and countermoves of a given practice’s history also be ordered and disordered like terms? Other terminological nominees might include: the expectations of a given audience in a given space; or the historical, economic, and ideological components of a presentation situation; or the generally overlooked material substrate(s) of a medium. The specific differences in how particular practices engaged these terminological oppositions are crucially important. 

Still, I want to return to the ambient (the adjective) in “ambient” (the exhibition). I want to figure out what this exhibition is claiming, with and for the term, “ambient.” The press release for the show starts with the old saw about Brian Eno stuck in his sick bed. The music’s volume is too low. Eno struggles to make out the music amidst competing sounds - he mentions, specifically, “the sound of the rain” - but also other sensory stimuli, “the colour of the light.” This story has always struck me as the complement of Cage’s anechoic episode. Like Cage’s story, Eno’s is a creation myth, positioned chronologically prior to the work it licenses, but provided to its audience retroactively as a justification. The press release proposes the term ambient “speculatively,” wondering if Eno’s model of an artistic experience that bobs above and below the threshold of the audience’s attention, might supply a useful interpretation of “contemporary ways of looking” at art in a “postindustrial paradigm.” Again, it seems to me that the confluence of this show, Turrell at the Guggenheim, Irwin at the Whitney, and Soundings, opening at MoMA in August, points to a moment in the New York art world. I’m tempted to adopt Tim Griffin’s title and call it an ambient moment.

In the “ambient” press release, Tim Griffin further leverages Eno and his liner notes for Discreet Music (the source of the sick bed listening story), likening Eno’s signal path diagram to Olafur Eliasson’s principle of “seeing oneself seeing.” It’s worth noting that Turrell uses the identical formulation to describe one of the effects of his work. (In a conversation about the Turrell exhibition and the arrival of this “ambient moment,” James Hoff astutely noted that Eliasson is likely the artist most responsible for preparing the ground for a revival of interest in Turrell’s and Irwin’s original light and space investigations.) 

But it’s worth testing this analogy between Eno’s system and Eliasson’s/Turrell’s notion of seeing oneself seeing.” Seeing implies a seer in a passive or, at least, a receiving role. The phrase suggests that one is seeing as one normally would, with the additional, perceptual or, perhaps, intellectual, awareness of the activity of seeing. Eno’s system, however, begins not in passivity or receptivity, but with an active transmission, “in this case, two simple and mutually compatible melodic lines of different duration stored on a digital recall system.” Nor is the listener’s experience of the sonic product of Eno’s system made uniquely aware of the listening experience. Discreet Music is an album of music, not so different in terms of a species of experience from the Pachelbel it samples, nor, for that matter, from Pink Floyd or Public Enemy. Perhaps Griffin was thinking of tape loops at the end of Eno’s signal path. But if this is where the perception of perception suposedly occurs, in this looping of material back upon itself, we have a different sort of problem. This would conflate human perception with technological reproduction. The only entity in Eno’s diagram in a position to perceive itself perceiving would be the tape recorders. Yet, as Friedrich Kittler has argued, the radical innovation of recording technology is precisely its lack of awareness, its agnosticism regarding input. Data is neutral, Kittler would say. Being aware of its content is beyond technology’s remit. Presumably, being aware of its own processes would be, as Monty Python would say, “right out.” (Holy hand grenades.) 

The aspects of Eno’s ambient that seem more appropriately applied to the work in the “ambient” exhibition would be the idea of working at the threshold of perception, Eno’s claim in the Discreet Music liner notes: “I tend towards the roles of the planner and programmer, and then become an audience to the results,” and Eno’s definition of ambient as music that aims “to reward attention, but not (be) so strict as to demand it." Still, in all these claims, from “seeing oneself seeing” to minimal perceptual stimuli, to artist-as-audience, there is a common thread. Ambient, is an artistic mode of passivity. Its politics, meaning the kind of relation it fosters with the world in which it exists, is content to let other events and entities wash over it. Ambient offers no resistance. “Seeing oneself seeing” is vastly different from “interrogating the ways in which one sees.” 

The founding moment of ambient music and art is not Eno’s sick bed revelation, but John Cage’s aforementioned anechoic chamber epiphany. Here, Cage jettisons all intentional sound in favor of happenstantial, environmental phenomena. In the “ambient” press release, ambient music is said to revolve around “dislocations and relaxations of authorship--and quasi-reversals of figure and landscape, foreground and background.” This is Cage’s move. Not only does he reverse these valences, he completely eradicates figure and foreground, while abolishing authorial agency regarding the formal content of the work. Yet, the ambient attitude of 4’ 33” is not as simple as it sounds. In Noise Water Meat, Douglas Kahn points out that Cage’s perception of his own body at work was predicated on a “third internal sound.” This is the sound of his critical consciousness asking, “what are those sounds?” Kahn argues that this positions discursivity at the base of an aesthetic of mute perceptualism. 

Eno and Cage bring this discussion back to sound as a kind of metaphor for what is being sought, found, and championed in Turrell, Irwin, and the “ambient” exhibition. Sound, rather than importing the broad terminological conceptualism discussed above, is in the process of exporting its perceptualism to the visual arts. Sound likes to think it can contain itself within either its own formalism or its own materialism, as if there were no social (i.e., historical, economic, political) substrate for the motivations of producers’ and listeners’ choices. Composers, musicians, and sound artists often turn a deaf ear to the social relations of their work. At the same time, many listeners deny the social content that produces and is produced by sound and music, preferring to focus on formal issues. (For an infuriatingly blindered version of this, see Gary Gutting's piece in the July 15 New York Times.) So, without disputing the assertion that all sound is social (e.g., in Brian Kane’s “Musicophobia, or Sound Art and the Demands of ArtTheory”), I maintain that, as often as not, sociality is denied in both sonic production and reception. My critique of sound’s in-itselfism, is a pragmatic move, not a declaration of the actual ontology of sounds. “Seeing oneself seeing” invokes both halves of Roberta Smith’s notion of “meditative spectacle.” It describes a kind of inward turn characteristic of meditative practices, while also responding to perception, not with critical questions about what is being seen, but with a compounded perception that amounts to spectacle’s feedback loop. It is also Eno’s signal path. The ambient, in both its sonic and visual incarnations, is a closed system. The sites of transmission and reception are identical. Nothing changes, nothing moves. It is ascetic and abstinent. Its apparent (desired) purity is but an abnegation of participation in the social, communicative, and critical, realms.

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