5 Questions: Dominic Angerame
Five questions to SFMOMA artists, staff, or guests. Today we hear from Dominic Angerame, a filmmaker and the executive director of Canyon Cinema. Tonight Dominic is joined by filmmaker and Canyon Cinema cofounder Bruce Baillie for a screening of his film Quick Billy in the museum’s Wattis Theater.
Do you collect anything?
I am a collector of many things. Mostly books and music. When I like an author I have to purchase almost all their books. I have more than 400 Colin Wilson books and just about all of Patti Smith‘s work signed. I also collect stamps, and also quite a bit of dust.
If you could spend an afternoon with anyone, living or dead, who would it be and why?
I wish I could spend an afternoon with a woman I met in the cemetery in Buffalo, New York, in the late ’60s. I was walking around, since it is a beautiful place. I had taken LSD earlier and was enjoying the fresh air. A car stopped, and a woman walked out. She was with a group of people who drove away without her. We spent the entire afternoon until sunset walking and talking as if we had know each other forever. Just as suddenly as she appeared, she disappeared into the same car that had just driven up to take her home.
If you weren’t a filmmaker and the executive director of Canyon Cinema, what would your gig be?
I would probably be retired from the Chicago Transit Authority after conducting El Trains around the city all day for 25 years.
What’s your favorite tool?
My favorite tool is the movie camera because with it I am allowed to create new worlds of imagery that only can exist in that unique, unpredictable way, not like in the digital realm. I am always excited to see developed film and realize that many images captured come straight from the subconscious and not necessarily from the right side of my brain. The computer is a great tool for communication; however, it is not for me in the creative realm.
What should I ask you?
I guess you should be asking me about the future of celluloid cinema, and the acceleration of the destruction of many of our current viable technologies.
Canyon Cinema is one of the only major distributors for experimental and avant-garde films in the country; tonight’s screening celebrates its 50th anniversary. For more on the screening, please see Brecht Andersch’s Open Space article here, and for tickets, click here.
Third Hand Plays: Putting It All Together, the “Comedy of Separation”
I’m sure some of you have noticed that a fair portion of my examples illustrating these “comedies” can best be described as harmless doodles — one-offs by bored adolescents, digital “folk” art by people otherwise preoccupied with their day jobs as graphic designers or computer engineers, or forays into digital text by artists whose main concerns lie elsewhere. My reason for this is that I found that in the early days of the internet, what often seemed more interesting to my friends and me were not the big, virtuoso digital art pieces that desperately wanted to insert themselves into the grand traditions of (usually pictorial and cinematic) art, but the mystifying little things that toyed with a single concept really well. The theory of the comedies permits me to take into consideration the entire range of digital text work — serious, amateur, mischievous, even criminal — without bothering with distinctions of high and low, naïve and sophisticated, half-realized and achieved, and the other evaluative language that we rely on to help us determine the value of singular pieces of art.
My hope is that one can use the comedies as a way of discussing what I call “cumulative” works of digital text-art, in the way that one can focus on different elements of cinema — montage, mise-en-scene, camera frame, composite, acting, screenplay, etc. — and use them to describe the cumulative effect of a feature film. No one of these elements ever dominates in features; we turn to each as required to describe the value of any moment or sequence. David Clark refers to certain of his works as “features”; most of the work I’ve looked at during this series could not be described as such, but they do exist.
I also feel that each of these comedies seems to represent some axis that one encounters in philosophical discourse, which is to say, they can roughly be mapped on a very general outline of the major recurring themes, specifically as concerns metaphysics, consciousness, and politics. My breakdown looks roughly like this:
- Comedy of subjection = power
- Comedy of dysfunction = tool (being)
- Comedy of reduction = logic
- Comedy of exhaustion = mass/energy
- Comedy of recursion = sign (being)
- Comedy of simulation = belief/desire
- Comedy of duplication = time/space
- Comedy of association = memory
- Comedy of automation = will
- Comedy of encryption = language/code
By “tool,” I am thinking of Heidegger, but more specifically Graham Harman’s adoption of Heidegger’s tool theory as a way to describe all relations between objects (his version of “object-oriented ontology”) in which the category of objects extends to “a mailbox, electromagnetic radiation, curved spacetime, the Commonwealth of Nations, or a propositional attitude.” To put it reductively, it is only when a tool becomes broken that its tool-qualities become tangible to the intellect (thus, for example, it is only when a toxin is released into the air that one becomes aware of air’s “tool” nature). The comedy of recursion does something the opposite of the comedy of dysfunction: it turns the sign in on itself to such a degree that its indexical properties are entirely elided: the sign forfeits all potentiality as representative of objects. My favorite example in literature of this process is in Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night … in which such objects as the grapple hook seem to fade to abstraction, or become invisible, with each new layer of perception. The grander “comedy” that frames all of this I call the “comedy of separation,” the basic idea being that language usage has progressed through history from something that we closely associated with the body and “presence” to being largely transferred, even “understood,” by other language, namely code. The major milestones in the progression of speech and language can be roughly schematized like this:
- movable type
- executable code
If we add just another level of detail to his schema, we can see that language usage has progressed in a somewhat circular fashion, and with simple strikes (indentations on clay bullae, binary code in punch cards) and simulation (mimicry denoting objects not in the immediate surroundings, but also ironizing the emotions, block print reproducing hand script) as recurring features.
- (body) => crying/yawning/laughing, etc.
- mimicry => speech/language
- bullae marks/drawing => writing
- block print => movable type
- punch cards => executable code
Denise Schmandt-Besserat, Derek Bickerton, Walter J. Ong, Marshall MacLuhan, and Lev Manovich are among those who have described phases along this progression, but so have philosophers of language like Wittgenstein, who really troubled the relation of language to the body. However, for now, I see my schematization as mostly playful, and not one I hope to situate within the contexts of the arguments of these (and other) thinkers. The comedy of separation occurs when the machine is employed to exaggerate this very progression of language from being an “inarticulate” expression of an inner state of, say, pain, hunger, or psychic isolation — an expression which in tribal culture probably had many receivers — to being the plaything of algorithm itself, indifferent to the individual’s situation (of pain, of hunger, of isolation) in the physical world. This helps, if anything, to explain why truly “subjective” writing, such as lyric poetry and confessional autobiography, feels so strange on the internet — it’s not that the internet is “public,” since after all people read lyric poetry and confessional biography in public venues, but that it is upheld by, and subject to, the operations of algorithm. I hope to elaborate upon this argument after many more hours of research; for now, suffice it to say that we are now in a situation in which much of language is being stored, transported, refigured, and made visible by beings with some small but powerful degree of agency — namely, algorithms — but which have no truck with the ethical conventions of humankind. The algorithm is a major player in our social and psychic world.
As for the works of “cumulative” digital literature that these theories should describe — the big-budget features mentioned above — I’ll give you one last bullet list of more involved works that I think are well worth looking at:
- “88 Constellations for Wittgenstein” (etc.), David Clark
- “Inanimate Alice” (series), Kate Pullinger & Chris Joseph
- “New Digital Emblems,” William Poundstone
- “Public Secrets,” Sharon Daniels/Eric Loyer
- “Chroma” (etc.), Eric Loyer
- “Pax: An Instrument” (etc.), Stuart Moulthrop
- “The Jew’s Daughter,” Judd Morrissey
- “The Sweet Old Et Cetera,” Alison Clifford
These pieces generally eschew what I consider big no-no’s in digital text art — not elements to categorically dismiss, but to my highly conceptual mind, those that are stranded, largely ornamental, if the digital piece doesn’t exhibit some of the properties in these “comedies.” Such negatives include: illustrational and seductive sound; illustrational and seductive imagery; pseudo-indeterminacy; flat GUI (graphical user interface) metaphors; self-involved prose styles; lyrical subjectivity; sincerity; pointless or irrelevant collage; the fictional (or any genre-defined) frame; tedious factuality/ documentation; unconstrained creativity; involved narrative; ungoverned, pseudo-communal authorship; mysticism about mind/ computer relation; and finally, lack of humor. Basically, the artist must submit to the spirit of play inherent in anything having to do with algorithm, and engage the user in such play, as well, otherwise, the algorithm is merely an unpleasant despot. Digital literature often being premised on interaction, it is wise to adopt the stance Lewis Carroll took in his Alice stories, which is to lie a little, tease a little, subvert a little, to engage that childlike capacity in everyone to play, and by playing, do.
Images in Dialogue: Paul Klee and Andrew Schoultz
Please welcome curator John Zarobell on Images in Dialogue, currently on view.
Paul Klee has long been known as an artist’s artist. Though he was a seminal figure in modern art, he has never had the name recognition of a Picasso or Matisse. But he worked prodigiously (the catalogue raisonné of his work is nine volumes), inventing more worlds than you could possibly count. When he started teaching at the Bauhaus in 1921, he turned those worlds inside out, to share the lessons he had learned and to structure experiments for himself and for any artist who might dare to follow him. Like so many figures of his generation, he had been trying to invent a new language for abstract art. But it is one thing to do it and another to show others how to make it work.
Since that time, artists have been learning from Klee, and I don’t think the process is slowing down any despite the multifarious changes in the nature of art and artists over the years. When I thought to do a project pairing Klee with a local emerging artist in our Djerassi gallery (where visitors to SFMOMA can always find Klee’s works), the idea was admittedly not original. Six years ago, then-Curatorial Associate Tara McDowell worked with Simon Evans, who selected a show of Klee works from our holdings and added a piece of his own. In 2007 Apsara DiQuinzio paired drawings by Klee with those of Devendra Banhart, who had a long-standing fascination with the modern artist. This year I set out to combine Klee’s art with that of Andrew Schoultz, a fantastic draftsman in his own right who has worked in San Francisco for a dozen years and whose subjects — cities, horses, and trees — frequently appear in Klee’s works, as well.
It turned out that Andrew was very responsive to the exhibition idea, even though he had not taken any particular inspiration from Klee up to that point. He took on the project with great enthusiasm, and together we looked at every one of the hundred or so Klee works SFMOMA possesses, many more than once, and a bunch of books besides. After sifting carefully through the works and absorbing their methods and symbols, Andrew set to work responding to a group of about 20 of Klee’s drawings, paintings, and prints that had captured his attention. This resulted in about 15 drawings made in four weeks (Andrew is no slouch either), about half of which are featured in the current show.
For those who know Andrew’s work, it is clear that with this project he continued to elaborate a handful of subjects and themes for which he is well known, such as broken bridges, war horses, and telephone poles, but he boiled them down to their most essential elements. In some cases, he has made them more visually rich than ever before. The resulting installation is an unlikely encounter between an old friend and a fresh voice. The works of the modern and the contemporary artist dance a pas de deux, with glancing touches and an occasional embrace. Most importantly, they integrate to form an intimate and rich installation that seeks to remind us why we keep coming back to the museum. In the end, I wanted this exhibition to enliven questions at the core of a contemporary museum that collects and exhibits modern art — to encourage our visitors to ask what it means to look, to seek, and to engage with the art of the past, and to bring those experiences into the present.
John Zarobell was, until recently, assistant curator of collections, exhibitions, and commissions at SFMOMA; he is now an assistant professor and program chair of European studies at the University of San Francisco.
Images in Dialogue is on view now through January 8, 2012, in the Djerassi gallery on the second floor.
Bruce Baillie and Canyon Cinema present QUICK BILLY @ SFMOMA on Thursday, Sept. 29
In honor of the 50th anniversary of the founding of Canyon Cinema, and the recent release of Quick Billy on DVD, Bruce Baillie and Canyon Cinema present the restored version of QUICK BILLY in all its four-reel, 16mm glory at 7 p.m. this Thursday, Sept. 29, in SFMOMA’s Phyllis Wattis Theater, followed by a reception. For more information, including ticket purchase, click here.
Bruce Baillie’s odyssey in the 1960s is arguably the central legend of American film art of our nation’s most convulsive decade in living memory. After founding Canyon Cinema in the tiny Redwood-laden East Bay hamlet of Canyon, CA, in 1961 (the organization would eventually evolve into both the independent film distributor of the same name and the ever-vibrant San Francisco Cinematheque), Bruce began a series of Kerouac-ian treks crisscrossing the North American continent. Often living out of a Volkswagen bug, he produced an astonishing series of visionary film masterworks. Taken collectively, this body of work, including Mass for the Dakota Sioux, Quixote, Valentin de las Sierras, Castro Street, and All My Life, was nothing less than the dream odyssey of a film shaman on a mission to diagnose and heal the psychosis at the heart of the American soul. BB finally paused his travels for a period in the mid-’60s, when he joined one of the early experiments in ’60s communal living, Lou Gottlieb’s Morningstar Ranch, in Sebastopol. At Morningstar, Bruce lived rough but maintained an immaculate shed in which he edited several of his major works. It was the idyllic, hippie-period utopian living situation in the midst of being created, but it all came crashing down when hepatitis spread through the ranch, causing several deaths. Bruce’s own severe bout with the disease would soon lead to an unending battle with the then-unknown and unnamed Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. During his recovery, Bruce began shooting the hourlong, four-reel Quick Billy, an autobiographical rendering of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, in which a soul’s passage through the stages of death and the afterlife is explored in visionary form for the first three reels, then reworked and burlesqued as a silent movie Western in the last. Quick Billy evinces the ethos of a Mad Medicine Man, which characterizes all of Bruce’s work, but with an added dose of poignancy occasioned by its maker’s sojourn with death. As always with Bruce, impoverishment of means is melded with technical virtuosity. On a visit to Bruce’s Camano Island, WA, home last year, Bruce described for me, and our mutual friend Timoleon Wilkins, the genesis of Quick Billy:
BB: I caught hepatitis almost a year before I started working on Quick Billy. I got the hepatitis at the ranch, then I retired to Berkeley with my parents to lie on the floor next to the couch for the next nine months. It was a real knockout. It was kind of a question of whether I could live or not. Several of my friends had died of it. It wasn’t serum hepatitis, but it was a very serious case that some of us had. And after three or four months, I started to try to walk around a little, and then started to try to drive. That’s how I found myself up at Fort Bragg, where most of my friends lived … I started (shooting) about nine months after the onset of the disease, and a friend let me stay in his cabin on the beach. That was a lifesaver.
A LEAF, treeless
for Bertolt Brecht:
What times are these
when a conversation
is almost a crime
because it includes
so much made explicit?
(Paul Celan, quoted in ACTS, A Journal of New Writing, eds. David Levi Strauss & Benjamin Hollander, Issue 5, 1986. Thanks to John Sakkis for sending.)
Why Not Forgive All Student Loans to Artists to Stimulate the Economy?
If big banks, credit card companies, and Wall Street firms can get hundreds of billions of dollars in bailouts and loan forgiveness, why can’t the students of America? Or more precisely, the art students of America? The way I see it is that the most creative people in the country are waiting tables, slaving away as secretaries, and doing menial jobs because their art degrees haven’t translated into earning potential. As a consequence, possibly tens of thousands — or maybe hundreds of thousands — of creative people around the country have given up their art and switched to non-art activities in order to pay the rent. So in 2009 (most recent year for census data), out of the 89,140 BFAs, 14,918 MFAs, and 1,569 PhDs granted in fine arts, just how many of those people are really making a living in the arts? My guess is: not many.
Does that seem fair? When the housing bubble popped and the economic crisis began, politicians never expected the bankers and Wall Street traders to give up their careers. Just the opposite is true — they were rewarded for making it bad for everyone else. So what’s good for the goose is good for the gander, right? Forgive all student loans and let art students (current and former) start with a clean slate, too. It just might do more for the arts in America than even the WPA or the creation of the National Endowment for the Arts in 1965.
As more scrutiny is being given to the financial industry, people are beginning to see what a scam it really is. Even Nato Thompson (UC Berkeley grad and now the chief curator at New York’s Creative Time) recently launched an impassioned Facebook conversation debating the merits of having a nationwide simultaneous default on student loans. I think his idea was that it might somehow hurt the Wall Street holders of the debt. But I prefer a more rational approach — namely the one that Studentloanjustice.org favors — direct political action in the form of supporting legislation. On their site they explain just how shocking the situation really is:
“While credit card borrowers enjoy the fundamental consumer protections afforded all other borrowers with all other types of debt, federal student loan borrowers enjoy almost none of these protections. Not bankruptcy protections, not statutes of limitations, not truth in lending laws, not state usury laws … (in fact,) nonprofit guarantors are even exempt from fair debt collection statutes.”
So, basically, student loans are a huge growth industry, and big banks and Wall Street only stand to benefit from them just like they have with mortgage debt, derivatives, ATM fees, paycheck cashing stores (which, by the way, are allowed to charge interest up to 650% on a payday loan), and credit card debt. In fact, according to Consumerreports.org, student loan debt is set to hit one trillion dollars later this year. That’s more than all U.S. credit card debt combined! So when will that bubble pop? Will that bring another market crash? Will banks get bailed out again and students all go to debtor’s prison? Somebody should be asking these questions, but so far I haven’t heard a single politician, pundit, or talk show host — and certainly not a single Tea Partier — seriously address the issue.
So while politicians fret over America losing its edge as an innovator, they are, at the same time, tossing their most creative people to the loan sharks. In fact, loan sharking laws used to exist citing terms like “usury” because the loans were given with the purpose that they could never realistically get repaid. But the terms and interest rates that were once illegal are now commonplace, and people are hurting because of it.
So who exactly is going to stand up for students and all the artists, curatorial studies majors, industrial design majors, creative writing majors, art history majors — and even the art schools, which are also caught in the financial spider web? Well, so far it looks like hardly anybody. Here’s the best going on so far:
1) Over 50,000 people have signed a petition asking Congress to pass student loan forgiveness legislation. You can sign it here.
2) On September 2, Rep. Hansen Clarke from Michigan introduced House Resolution 365, which states: “Expressing the sense of the House of Representatives that Congress should cut the United States’ true debt burden by reducing home mortgage balances, forgiving student loans, and bringing down overall personal debt.”
4) Illegal practices by financial institutions are starting to be brought to light by journalists and class action suits. In 2007 when then-Attorney General of New York Andrew Cuomo investigated several major financial companies that profited from student loans, his investigators found:
- Lenders pay kickbacks to schools based on a percentage of the loans directed to the lenders.
- Lenders foot the bills for all-expense-paid trips for financial aid officers to posh resorts and exotic locations. They also provide schools with other benefits, like computer systems, and put representatives from schools on their advisory boards to curry favor.
- Loan companies set up funds and credit lines for schools to use in exchange for putting the lenders on their preferred lender lists and offer large payments to schools to drop out of the direct federal loan program so that the lenders get more business.
It’s a neat trick that the financial industry has performed, but the net effect is a huge creative brain drain (as Glen Helfand noted in an earlier post). Don’t get me wrong — we need banks, and financial companies have every right to make money, but their predatory behavior destroys careers and, in some cases, lives — and that is what I object to.
A general lack of support is bad enough, but then to have countless artists driven away from what they went to school for, it’s kind of tragic. Imagine if all the medical students did not become doctors but instead became waiters. Imagine if all the police academy graduates had to wash dishes or perform office work to pay off their student loans. We’d have no more doctors and no more cops. Likewise most artists end up in fields that pay the rent but that they feel no passion for. Fortunately for the student loan companies, by not making art, their borrowers can afford make their student loan payments. Even if it takes 30 years.
Accolades for smart, creative people are rarely as glamorous or lucrative as the MacArthurs. I always get a little thrill when the annual “genius awards” are announced, as the idea of an artist getting five hundred grand is a wonderful thing, something akin to winning Best Picture at the Oscars. There’s pleasure even in begrudging a winning artist whose work you take issue with — and believe me, there have been more than a few of those over the years. But more often, the fellowships have seemed to define a level of creative endeavor admirable for artists’ commitment, belief, and often level of political and cultural activism. Artists including David Hammons, Vija Celmins, Julie Mehretu, Cindy Sherman, James Turrell, Robert Adams, and Kara Walker are part of that John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation–vetted list.
And so on Tuesday, when I saw the headline, I eagerly clicked the New York Times link to the story on the 2011 winners. I scanned the text, looking for a name I recognized, only to find visual artists were not represented in the heterogeneous list of twenty-two. This year there were poets, musicians, neurologists, lawyers, historians, and psychologists in the mix, but no one you’d expect to find showing or performing at SFMOMA. No painters, sculptors, filmmakers, photographers, choreographers, or curators. No purveyors of relational art. The only winner who comes close is Jad Abumrad, the cohost and producer of Radiolab, the NPR series that a few of my MFA students cited as a program that inspires them in the studio with its strange but true narratives of the human brain.
Reading that list, I felt slighted and concerned for the creative class. Are the visual arts losing their cultural sway? The Times coverage quotes a foundation official stating that “fellows are selected for their creativity, originality, and potential to make important contributions in the future.” Does that mean that there aren’t visual artists today who are forward-thinking enough to fit that bill (or to be able to pay it with the regular award disbursements)? We could conjecture that the heated art market in recent years drained some of the meaning and cachet from the arena or figure the selection committee was contemporary art–challenged. Or perhaps the jurors were more convinced that other genres make more sense in these uneasy days when it’s hard to imagine having a meaningful impact on an increasingly uncertain future. This year’s MacArthur list seems to suggest that science, humanities, and poetry may just trump video installation in this regard. Is this a fluke, or do we need to be a little smarter?
Third Hand Plays: “Bodies of Water” by David Clark
David Clark’s major internet works — including “88 Constellations for Wittgenstein (to be played by left hand),” “Sign After the X,” and “A Is for Apple” — are dense, encyclopedic Flash pieces that are replete with imagery, sounds, graphics, voiceover narration. Clark’s visual sensibility is probably closest to that of a graphic designer — not the clean, Swiss style favored by many digital text artists, but that of the New Wave, inspired by the visual sensibilities of artists like Robert Rauschenberg, designers like David Carson, and the “postmodern” theories of the Cranbrook Academy of Art. Each image, even when in motion, seems perfectly balanced, even if on the edge of chaos; he often alludes to a range of graphic design styles, though usually returning to his favored dense overlays of imagery and text, with the addition, of course, of sound. He’s also a master of curious GUI metaphors — “88 Constellations” takes, as you can guess, the star system and its mythical overlays as its inspiration, while “Sign After the X” uses, at times, a Ouija board, the Monopoly board, a schematized X-ray of the human body, and Lady Justice holding her scales (a row of Band-Aids arrayed in xs before her to tape over any transgressions).
These pieces can best be described as documentaries, but without a central argument so much as a chain of associations. Each takes some central concept and expands outward via seemingly arbitrary occurrences to pull nuggets of information from all fields of inquiry toward it. The text introduction to “Sign After the X” states: “This work examines how the letter x became part of Western languages and how it has been used as a cipher for otherness and the unknown. As a survey of meanings and histories, it looks at how the letter x has influenced the realms of law, psychoanalysis, medicine, technology, geography, and linguistics. The letter x is one of the most simple of graphic gestures, and yet it has a complex history and mysterious presence in our language. The letter x censors, alludes to, stands in for, is a substitute for.” The piece is broken up into mini-essays on a variety of “x” topics, for example, “Generation X,” which traces the term from its coinage by Jane Deverson in the sixties to describe the swinging London scene, to its adoption by Billy Idol for the name of his band, and on to Douglas Coupland’s use of the phrase for his famous novel, ending on a rather negative assessment of this generation, most notably their fate in what Clark calls “McJobs” — characterized, of course, by the iconic letter m.
These works of Clark’s are, like William Poundstone’s “New Digital Emblems,” huge databases of free-floating information and ideas that depict the world as being suffused with the ludic spirit — the spirit of play — making all of us Alices in Wonderland, the seemingly familiar into the deeply subversive. Clark and Poundstone are attracted to esoteric concepts in physics, math, history, and philosophy that can be turned over infinitely as mental conundrums, as if the shape of thought and not the thought itself were what mattered. They contribute to a genre that I think is unique to digital literature, which is the ludic documentary; other works, like Sharon Daniel’s “Public Secrets” and many of the other essays at Vectors, can be considered an extension of this. Clark’s work has also extended into installation (his video sculpture “Waterfall” uses a vending machine as an interface), feature films (Maxwell’s Demon, which I haven’t seen), interactive film (Meanwhile), and his lovely Bloomsday portrait of his friend Mary Beth Canty — created 101 years after Joyce’s famous day, using text from page 101 of the novel — called “Ulysses 101.”
Clark’s new piece, “Bodies of Water,” a collaboration with Nick Rudnicki, is a beautiful mating of elements of video and text art, the dancers’ bodies being used at once as human forms (i.e., “representational”) and signs. Water droplets, abstract lineation, text (mostly lists), and distinctive female forms — indeed, one of the dancers is visibly present — in muted colors coalesce into a fluid, modestly interactive visual space, defining a new idiom of internet sound-video-text art that, to my knowledge, hasn’t yet been attempted.
David Clark writes: “I am an artist who works with many different mediums: the internet, film, installation. Since 2002 I have gravitated toward working on the internet since the internet allows me to explore my interest in nonlinear narrative and access an audience beyond the art world or the film world. Themes and ideas in my work have been part of the films and installations I have been making for 20 years. I continue to work on installation and film projects but have focused my work on complex ‘feature-length’ net.art works like ’88 Constellations for Wittgenstein.’
“My first work for the internet was a project called ‘A Is for Apple’ that I produced in 2002 in collaboration with Rob Whynot, Randy Knott, and Ron Gervais. Since that time I have made a number of internet works, including: ‘Riddled with the Stinx’ (2003) (collaboration with Pascale Malaterre and Rob Whynot), ‘Likewise’ (2004), and ‘Ulyssess 101’ (2006).
“I am also part of a collaborative media collective called ‘computer.says.no’ with Jeff Howard, Chris Mendis, Nick Rudnicki, and Shelley Simmons. We formed this group at the Canadian Film Centre in 2005 and produced a prototype nonlinear ‘Shuffle Film’ called Meanwhile (2006).
“I live in Halifax, Canada, and I teach in the Media Arts Department at NSCAD University.”
Third Hand Plays: The Comedy of Encryption
Encryption is the age-old practice of taking a message, commonly known as a “plaintext,” and enciphering it to make it illegible to the unpracticed eye — this new text is known as the “ciphertext.” Prior to the use of ciphers, messages could be conveyed secretly by simply hiding them — shaving a messenger’s head, for example, and letting the hair grow back before sending him on his way, only to have it be revealed after a drastic haircut on the other end. Invisible ink was another common practice. A very basic form of encryption is known as the Caesar shift cipher, since Julius Caesar is the first to have used ciphers to exchange messages during war. This involved simply replacing a letter of the alphabet with, say, the letter five spaces to its right. A basic form of enciphered literary production is the Oulipian practice called N+7, in which a text, usually well known, has its nouns replaced by the nouns seven nouns down in a dictionary.
As Simon Singh describes in his wonderful The Code Book, encryption has found itself in the center of countless historical occurrences, from the beheading of Mary Queen of Scots — whose knowledge of the plot to kill Queen Elizabeth was revealed when one of her messages from prison was deciphered in court — to the failed attempt of Arthur Zimmerman, Germany’s foreign minister in World War II, to convince the Mexican president to attack the United States (and to, in turn, convince the Japanese emperor to do the same!) should the U.S. declare war once the Germans reinstated the practice of attacking ships with fully submerged U-boats (which increased the likelihood of sinking civilian vessels). One of the heroes of computer culture, Alan Turing, who conceived of the universal Turing machine — essentially the modern computer — is more generally known to the British public as the cracker of the Enigma code, developed by the Germans and involving a highly complicated machine that sent letters through several rotating disks that essentially changed the system of encipherment with each key stroke so that no patterns relating to normative language would be visible. But certain features of the Enigma cipher — such as its inability to encipher a letter as itself — allowed Turing’s machines, called “bombes,” to eventually deduce the system behind a large portion of the Germans’ messages, thereby averting several possible invasions and helping to plan D-day. (Turing, by the way, by most accounts a cheerful man, committed suicide after being forced to take hormones to “cure” him of his homosexuality.)
Elements of encryption can be seen in a few works we’ve looked at, such as Paul Chan’s “Alternumerics,” where the plaintext — say, the word Freud — is represented by a series of words, squiggles, or other types of iconography. Peter Cho’s interesting “Takeluma” project replaces letters with the visualization of their sound (culled from audio analysis software), which is, ironically, an attempt to make the sounds have an even more concrete relationship to the glyphs that represent them, rather than the arbitrary marks that we use today. Another artist who is, not perhaps coincidentally, Asian, is Xu Bing, who has crafted an entire system, called “New English Calligraphy,” for writing English language words using Chinese strokes. The reader of Chinese is thereby confronted with countless meaningless ideograms that nonetheless might have some Chinese radicals embedded in them — the box (to Western eyes) that represents the sun could be found in the word outside, but outside of that they are looking at gibberish. The eye of the English-language reader will initially see a classic Chinese ideogram, but on closer looking, she will discern words, and they will be almost entirely legible, even if the letters are arranged both vertically and horizontally, and in different sizes. It’s as if Ezra Pound’s claim in his writing on the Chinese ideogram (recently republished in a beautiful edition) as a unit of vocabulary came true: stare at an ideogram long enough and you will see the meaning.
A relatively obscure Los Angeles artist named Guy de Cointet, who was born in France, made ciphers a central element of his texts and performances. His “drawings,” for example, usually included a piece of legible English text that framed what should have been the content of the piece, but which is often depicted as a mere jumble of letters. His self-published newspaper, ACRCIT, which MacLuhan praised, is a catalogue of encrypted texts — some in Morse code, Klingon (I think), etc. — with almost no legible text to ameliorate the experience. Reading it is like staring at a blank wall, but one that won’t let you rest easy with your thoughts. Cointet’s short plays (here is a YouTube clip) often hinged around the performers referring to the texts that were hanging on the wall — outside of some very ultra-modern, cubist furniture — and building narratives as if the messages they conveyed were frightfully transparent. Some of his works on paper can seem underwhelming at first, until you realize that, like with Alternumerics, embedded within them is some word, often the title itself, struggling to break through your ignorance and pass on … what? Cointet’s concerns for what we might call “content” were entirely overshadowed by his love of literary deadpan — getting you ready to have been stonewalled.
Works of electronic literature that play a part in this comedy include those works that involve algorithm to tweak the text without necessarily making it entirely illegible. For example, Talan Memmott’s “Self Portrait(s) [as Other(s)]” presents a number of classic biographies of early modernist heroes of painting, but they are chopped up, rearranged, and have noise introduced (in the form of anachronistic references to, say, Jeff Koons) such that we are provided with much relevant information, just not indexically attached to any known artist, living or dead. A plaintext hides behind this — there are, in fact, biographies where all of these details fit — but they become encrypted by the processes that mash them up into new wholes (a kind of programmatic detournement). The reader is put in the position of a game player, weighing this or that for its truth value, but also becomes increasingly aware of the very format of the hagiographic artist biography itself — its stages of early promise, initial discoveries, critical neglect, inevitable string of masterpieces, and ignominious, often early, death. Memmott’s first electronic literature productions were in “codework,” which is an invented creole mixing normative English text with elements from code (Alan Sondheim, coiner of the phrase, was another, and mez is probably the most well-known presently). Codework, too, can be seen as a form of “encrypted” text, as underneath the lively, noise-strewn surface is almost invariably something like a plaintext — the “message” — waiting to be consumed like a pot roast.
In fact, the comedy of encryption finds its greatest practitioner early on, in the figure of James Joyce. Though Finnegans Wake is often looked at as a terribly underdetermined text — where meanings are fluid, anything goes in terms of the underlying narrative content — in fact, upon further study (spending 15 weeks studying the first page, for example, which I did as a graduate student at CUNY), one finds that the text is terribly overdetermined, with meanings closed up and tidy once all of the multilingual allusions have been parsed. In the wake of Joyce have been a handful of writers who have “encrypted” their texts to a degree, most notably Anthony Burgess — who published his own Shorter Finnegans Wake and who for Clockwork Orange developed his own criminal argot, a mixture of Cockney and Russian slang with a few other things thrown in for good measure.
My favorite novel that employs an invented language, Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban, actually makes no real pretense to being representative of language thousands of years in the future; its puns, in the form of mystical crypto-scientific figures, are able to be decoded as much as understood. That is, the novel acts more as a puzzle pointing to some relatively static plaintext than some speculative, anthropological imagining of what language actually would look like millennia after the Apocalypse. Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style involves the rewriting of the same trivial short story with a hundred different methods (passive tense, extreme use of vulgarities, etc.) and puts the reader in the position of reading the encryption before the content. A final piece of literature, Kasey Mohammed’s ongoing Sonnagrams, for which he rewrites the sonnets of Shakespeare using only those letters that appear in the original poem, keeping them both legible, entertaining and, in the end, sonnets, could be seen as an example of the “comedy of recursion” I wrote about earlier. But in fact, they are part of the comedy of encryption, as they have a plaintext, but are written in a code that can’t be cracked without the help of those monkeys that, after an eternity, might just write the first five lines of Hamlet.
Collection Rotation: Gina Osterloh
Our regular feature, Collection Rotation. Each month I invite someone to organize a mini-“exhibition” from our collection works online. Today, please welcome artist Gina Osterloh.
(I was not able to see this installation — part of Project, Transform, Erase — but I imagine there are similarities to Line Describing a Cone, which I experienced in Frankfurt. As one enters the room there is uncertainty about what one sees, what one perceives. There is a collapse of two- and three-dimensionality, physicality, the ephemeral, and optics. Familiar boundaries that locate the self within a room are redrawn onto dust in air.)
(When I stepped out of the elevator, I second-guessed the ground upon which I stood, I questioned the distance and fixedness between myself and the other beside me. Via the yellow hue, familiar boundaries became illucid, and a slight queasy feeling unsettled my gut.)
Linda Besemer: “Abstraction: Politics and Possibilities,” X-TRA,
Spring 2005, Volume 7 Number 3
I am committed to creating work where the language in which we describe identity — who we are as an individual and as a group — is erased, obliterated, and reconsidered.
There isn’t one visual strategy that can do this alone, hence why I am attracted to these selected works. I find it productive to look at these works together!
In relationship to the body, these works create a hiccup, a misarticulation, in the normative process of hailing — in the process of looking, seeing, and becoming. With the Bruce Nauman video, we are brought to a type of ground zero.
Finally, I wanted to share Linda Besmer’s essay “Abstraction: Politics and Possibilities,” published in the Los Angeles–based critical arts magazine X-TRA. What is the role of abstraction today in relation to identity, gender, race, and politics?
Gina Osterloh is an artist and educator. Currently she is working on a short film that addresses issues of perception and identity through interviews with blind massage therapists in the Philippines. Her photographic practice combines elements of minimalist set construction, montage, and performance. These works investigate operations of mimicry and perception within the photographic plane — to form new ground between abstraction and identity.
Two upcoming projects are a solo exhibition at YBCA this January and fund-raising with Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions for the solo work Wide Group Dynamic.
From the Archive
Several times a year we reissue a suite of articles from the archive, which is rich, deep, and various.
Organized by Suzanne Stein + Dominic Willsdon
Remember the end of Manhattan, when Woody Allen asks himself what makes life worth living? (“Groucho Marx, Willie Mays… Swedish movies…those incredible apples and pears by Cézanne…”) In celebration of SFMOMA’s 75th anniversary in January 2010, Dominic Willsdon & Suzanne Stein invited 75 people from the Bay Area creative community to give extremely short talks—7.5 minutes or less—on a single collection work they cared about. The talks took place during the museum’s three-day celebratory weekend: two at a time, every half hour, 25 a day (a single to close out each day.)
Organized by grupa o.k.
In 2013, SFMOMA announced its ambitious expansion project. As a means of reflecting on its then-impending closure, grupa o.k. asked several friends and colleagues to imagine their own proposals for a museum in San Francisco.
Organized by Suzanne Stein + Tanya Zimbardo
In conjunction with Fifty Years of Bay Area Art: The SECA Awards, Open Space hosted a series of in-gallery talks given by SECA Art Award winners. Participating artists selected and spoke on a single work on view.
Organized by Samantha Giles + Small Press Traffic
Inspired by The Steins Collect and organized by Samantha Giles of Small Press Traffic and Suzanne Stein, this series of readings honored poet Gertrude Stein and her relationships with the visual artists of her day. Each Thursday evening, a contemporary poet presented a reading, performance, or talk on a single artist or artwork on view.