Tauba Auerbach, RGB Colorspace Atlas. (2011)
I once heard Leon Botstein, the President of Bard College, compare books to stairs. “They’ve invented the elevator,” he said, “but sometimes you still walk up.” There are countless discussions on the future of the book—they are picked up in magazine feature articles, in trade conferences, and in academic roundtables—and in all of these, the future of the printed word seems certain: in a generation or two, print will become obsolete. In this age of changing habits, if print is the stairs and screens the elevator, then what could the escalator be?
This moment in time, and the awareness of the possibilities electronic publishing grant, affect the manner in which we relate to texts in a way that is under constant scrutiny. But images prove to be a different problem. The separation between text and images has a long history. In fact, images have posed a challenge for publishers from the early days of print—be it the cost of printing them; the payments for illustrators, photographers, and designers; or simply contextualizing the images and their relation to the text—but they have become crucial to our understanding of texts. When the Illustrated London News, the world’s first illustrated weekly newspaper, began publishing in 1842, the relationship between the text and the engraved images in the paper was such a novelty that it took the weekly about a decade to stake a hold in that era’s news distribution channels. Once it did, it became one of the most widely circulated newspapers in Victorian Britain. The marriage of text and the engraved image marked a new level of fluency in communication via images, which does away with staples of early print day, even though the separation between image and text lasted for many decades later, and can still be traced today. (Think, for example, of the plate pages, where color images were glued onto the paper, so that the book or magazine would be printed in black and white, adding the color pages later in a way that saves money on printing, but also generates a wholly different relationship with images. These are often associated with encyclopedias, but a large number of artist’s monographs retained this design even after color printing became widely accessible, creating the odd text-image relationship where an artwork is described to the most minute detail, with a comment in parenthesis directing the reader to “color plate 3,” where the mentioned piece could be seen in glossy print.)
The generations to come of age in the days of digital publishing and reading on screens have a much more complicated relationship with images. The human eye-brain system is capable of reading a large number of high quality images in a matter of split seconds, and this, alongside the hand-eye coordination—think about the pleasure of a touch screen versus inky newspaper pages—is rapidly developing to mirror our changing habits of consuming information. So much so that the contemporary heightened sensitivity to the way we read images can lead to an ability to, at times, ignore the quality of the images when inserted into a text, the way our brain glides over a typo in the flow of reading. The way we read images online is only one thing these magazines deal with in the process of publishing, but it is surely an element that dictates a large portion of the reading experience of these publications.
Your works bring together many strands of visual culture. Your paintings, for example, interpose art history, design, the natural world, and gaming. What does your image research look like? In a recent piece for Rhizome, Karen Archey wrote that your sensitivity is emblematic of the internet age, where all images are created equal. Do you think your work is affected by this characteristic of the internet? Does it mirror it?
Yes, I think my work mirrors this characteristic of the internet age, which also is reflected in and conditions my research process.
This conditioning applies not only to images but to information in general, I treat the two as the same. This flattening of values allows me to make art historical and sociological connections that scholars wouldn't necessarily consider making. However, I don't view my research process as a new thing relevant only to the internet age.
I'm also interested in comparing the idea of wandering through images and informations on the web to Walter Benjamin's idea of the flâneur and his experience of modernity. The term describes the experience of leisurely walking through urban space while observing various aesthetic and sociological patterns in the XIXth century Paris.
Recently I came across an article by Evgeny Morozov called "The Death of the Cyberflâneur," adressing this same parallel with Benjamin's flâneur and explaining how the cyberflâneur would disappear for similar reasons as those of the XIXth century flâneur—the internet becoming more and more enclosed in the world of social media, shopping activities, or separated apps. Benjamin also explains how the flânerie got caught in being conditioned by the economy and the market when the recently born commercial strategies of that time started using the flâneur and his casual attitude as a marketing tool. Benjamin notices ...
Ernst Fischer, Collateral Resignation Agreement, 2011. (Print, Interventions's issue 2 unlimited edition).
On its "about" page, Interventions, the online journal of the Modern and Contemporary Art: Critical and Curatorial Studies MA program at Columbia University, is presented as an online curatorial platform featuring essays, web-based art projects, and experimental investigations into the space between these practices. The editors' letter for issue 2 reads,
In the first section of "Framing the Internet," we have gathered reflections on how the Internet and digital technologies have been mobilized as productive tools for curatorial, artistic and pedagogical inquiry, from round tables and critical texts to exhibition reviews and artist projects.
Which is exactly what this publication offers. It includes texts on subjects as varied as the Internet as a free tool for communication, production, and dissemination of artistic production in a way somewhat independent of capital (Anton Vidokle); RMB City, the Second Life city—or rather, community—planned and developed by Beijing-based artist Cao Fei (Ceren Erdem); and Indexhibit a tool for artists to build websites and online portfolios (Cat Kron, in a short survey whose subject seems fascinating but that could have been handled in a more complex way). These are accompanied by artist projects—mainly by Columbia MFA students, a fantastic way of tying this publication, whose ambitions seem more global than to solely appeal to the Columbia community, with its natural collaborators within that community—and includes the brilliant idea of the unlimited edition: each issue includes a one-page PDF available for download as a large-edition art project.
One of the highlights of the issue is the inclusion of a roundtable discussion that took place at Columbia on October 4, 2011. Titled "Framing the Internet," it invited artist Anton Vidokle, media theorist Alexander Galloway, and Bettina Funke, head of publications ...
Astoria Scum River Bridge, 2010.
You define yourself as a "dude who is just trying to make things a little better." Each one of your works tries to improve the world, one funny step at a time. But they also include observations into the way in which society—and especially media and advertising—affect the way we see things. How do your works try to tamper with those viewpoints or comment on them? And can you talk a little about some key terms like subversiveness, pranks, humor, and dialogue in relation to this?
I'm interested in creating provocations that disrupt systems for good and/or fun. In particular, I'm hyper aware of the consumption narratives that shape our daily lives. Advertising literally works by telling you that you're not good enough, and all of media is shaped—directly or indirectly—around selling you stories framed by this intentionally soul-crushing lie so you'll consume more.
So a lot of what I do is prototype critical "solutions" for systems like these, exploring new answers outside of the usual channels. I've rarely seen real, important change come from inside a system; the system exists, first and foremost, to perpetuate itself. And many of the best solutions threaten the status quo of the system, so they're never realized because they will change how the system itself works.
I have the luxury of being outside those systems, so I can propose crazy, radical, preposterous, silly ideas. And not just propose them, but execute them and see what happens. Of course sometimes these interventions will be interpreted as threats, but that's how you move a conversation forward.
And, well, solutions are better when they're funny or clever or playful. Most people like jokes, in my experience.
You reflect ...
A number of your works deal quite complexly with preexisting texts, from the Talmud to Jorge Luis Borges. What are your textual sources and how do they shape your sense of narrative and the "backstory" in your art?
I started reading talmud legends at quite a young age. There's a long tradition of working with mythology, namely Greek and Roman mythology and the public's command of these stories is quite amazing. I'm not a scholar and my knowledge of these stories is not organized; I am interested in the fact that these legends are rooted in a dialectic tradition. Almost all of these stories written at a certain time in history and arise from a tradition of "What if?". Two scholars would sit and discuss a subject, and then take an extreme case study, the answer to which will take the form of a story. So the structure of the discussion is polemical but the answer is always a narrative, which is something so beautiful and rare. These stories are short, ten or fifteen lines long, and like all good mythology they include a lot of happening as well as a dark side and a certain level of "the impossible" in their relationship to reality. Like Zeus falling in love with Leda, coming down from the Olympus as a swan, making love to her and her then giving birth to an egg—and it all makes sense.
The world is comprised in the kind of fashion that it all makes sense. And it works that way in what I call Jewish mythology, too. I really love this structure of taking one coded text and deconstructing it as a way of studying it. Even though I worked with mythology in the past, I never thought I'd work ...