For our regular feature Collection Rotation, we invite a guest to organize a mini “exhibition” from our collection works online. Today, please welcome curator Lacey Haslam.
The search function is the pinnacle of any networked system, an access point that has evolved from an aspect of internal networks into being synonymous with the almighty search engine. In the ’80s, a time when our internal networks were flawed by unstructured information management, Thomas D. Wilson began studying behaviors related to seeking information. In the process between search to result, Wilson found that there was a consistent sense of uncertainty in any search. Since then, the way we search has mutated into platforms like the aforementioned search engines and entered others such as social media and intranets. All of these platforms at least acknowledge the uncertainty of the result: take Google’s “I’m Feeling Lucky” button, which takes you directly to the first website of your search results.
But what good is the search without being able to accurately identify or determine the information you seek? Language is a complex system, and search functionality hinges on the use of singular terms. At what point do we — as seekers of information — accept, allow, or even welcome an unexpected result? Better yet, when does the unexpected result change our initial intentions all together?
When asked to contribute to Open Space’s Collection Rotation series, I found myself confronted with the question of where to start. The SFMOMA collection boasts more than 30,000 works, which made selecting a mere three to ten a daunting task. So I turned to ArtScope, which hosts a visual database of about 7,000 works and offers a simple magnifying glass for viewing a grid of images anyone can lose themselves in, given enough time.
Being a visual person in the habit of testing my own intelligence, I ran the magnifier over various images until I found one I recognized. This gave way to zooming in and out, followed by searching for additional pieces from the same artist. It wasn’t until I rolled the magnifier over Nicholas Nixon’s The Brown Sisters series that I stopped. I stopped because just below his images, I saw shoes — not a painting or sculpture of shoes, but an image like you would see in an advertisement. Rolling over the other images, I noticed the different brands. A bit confused, I noticed the information box on the right hand side of the screen. Other works in ArtScope offer a “Learn More” tab for additional information which could have been the opportunity to satisfy my interest. Instead it incited this post.
For the past few years I have found myself wondering: can we actually find what it is we are searching for in the unexpected result? Is the true spirit of art found in a process which occurs beyond one’s control? At what point do we recognize let alone attribute value to this unexpected outcome?
Thinking more about this process of experimentation, Josef Albers and the Black Mountain College came to mind. Just twenty-five miles from where I completed my undergraduate degree and the site where I was married, Albers’ school encouraged experimentation and insisted on learning by doing. He was once quoted as saying, “art is not about the object, but about the experience.”
Albers’ theories about experimentation (with an emphasis on experience) provided a platform for John Cage’s “happenings”to develop. Cage’s works dealt specifically with indeterminacy and chance composition, which paved the way for a whole new genre.
These teachings also gave rise to contemporary ceramics, with Peter Voulkos breaking the barrier between craft and fine art by using clay as an abstract sculptural object.
Along with new methods of making, thinking, and performing, specific terms emerge and begin to provide definition and context. Today, on search engines and in social media, we find ourselves navigating the online world through the use of terms, now called keywords and tags. However, generalized semantics in some cases can only function with additional context. For example, pull up your search engine and type in the term “art”. The mass definition of what “art” is looks vastly different from one person to the next. How can a connected, global society define “art” when it has no pre-determined set of rules?
This brings me to Sol LeWitt, who not only preferred the term “structures” to “sculptures,” but who also re-imagined both the process and outcome of a work by using instructions. For example, his wall drawings are contingent on the person following these instructions as they install the work. In an interview at The Pasadena Art Museum in 1971, LeWitt said, “each person draws a line differently and each person understands words differently.”
Even though the work takes the probability of variation into account, the installer still must adhere to the system, which puts the kibosh on any real “interpretation” regarding the installation of the work. So what is an example of work that invites an interpretation of instructions and is based on individual participation? Learning to Love You More by Miranda July and Harrell Fletcher.
If we think about the potential inadequacies of the written language and the idea of building an organized system based on the individual interpretation of tasks, we can almost immediately ensure systematic uncertainty. Or can we? July and Fletcher use this problem to their full advantage. In 2002, a time when MySpace had just launched and Facebook was yet to exist, the artists embarked on a project which lasted seven years and received over 8000 online submissions. These submissions were the results of scripted tasks(or “assignments”), and included prompts like “take a picture of your parents kissing” or “braid someone’s hair”. These prompts not only invite the unexpected result, but attribute a sort of sentimental value to the various interpretations of each assignment. This project now lives as an archived collection of photo documentations; the sense of connection amongst the makers of the images, the participants and the viewers is still palpable.
The challenge of organizing a smaller collection from a larger one requires the use of and access to a hierarchical, rational or linear system. The process of creating content for Open Space’s Collection Rotation initially seemed to be a straight forward process — search, select, discuss, and conclude. While this proved to be true, the reality of the process unfolded as a spiraling series of findings that continually redirected any preconceptions I had while working to complete the post. As a process — one not unlike creating art — I wonder if the level of satisfaction is measured in part by amount of control one relinquishes when bringing a concept into reality. The search in this case was simply the starting point in pursuing what it means to be open to and even (dare I say it) satisfied with the unexpected result.
Speaking of making a selection from another collection, I turn to my husband’s systematized record collection. Consisting of over 2000 albums, fully labeled and organized both by genre and alphabetically by name (the Prince, Frank Zappa and Grateful Dead sections are organized by date), I leave you with “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” by the Rolling Stones; please enjoy this YouTube video of Mick Jagger and his half-shirt.
Lacey Haslam is an artist whose work is concerned with participation, collaboration, and public exchange. She is the founder of The Archive Project and the director of BLOCK Gallery, a site-specific exhibition program that takes place in alternative and public spaces. She holds an MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute and a BFA from University of North Carolina at Asheville. She currently lives and works in Oakland, California.