This text is a living one. It is a composite and an aggregate, a way of arranging my thoughts and myself. This began as a project about art writing -- to speak about the uses and abuses of language in the art world. It became a project much more about stuff that goes into art, sculpture, screens, and the banal situations between them. But I don't mean a rational understanding, no; hopefully this approaches something more poetic.
It is tempting to start with a definition, but a definition is always something else. But the desire to begin with a definition is only that desire—to affix foot to boot, to plant yourself on well established ground. To not be alone, in other words, and to stand cheek to cheek and cheek against cheek.
For the third time in two weeks I found myself lost in the grocery—lost in the sense that although I knew where I was, I didn’t know where the thing I was looking for was, so my movements through the aisles resembled almost exactly those of someone lost. If plotted you would find the same idiot repetitions and confused turns in a place where exactly nobody should be lost. Nowhere is more deviously arranged or meticulously plotted than the American supermarket, which is engineered specifically to spur consumption, everything neatly divided and divvied up in neat parcels and brightly colored boxes stacked and arrayed and arranged and shouting their brand (not their contents!), showing each passing everyone what they could be if they had the etc, if they had the wherewithal to have the etc, a mise en abyme of aspirational purchasing literally in the eyes of the man in the grocery who is lost because he is looking for the honey and it is not with the syrup, or the agave, but inexplicably two aisles over, with the jams, marmalades, and preserves. Nowhere are things more atomized than in a supermarket. Nowhere is there as high a ratio of the envelope of a thing to the thing. And all of this unfolding under the pale, shadowless fluorescent light, on soft, quiet, laminated tile. As if flattened, as in a cartoon. And I love it because I’m a fucking consumer!
I did buy the honey, after all. Forest honey it’s called, I assume, because the bees that produce it make their honey from an undifferentiated mass of various forest flowers. It strikes me that this is something like the opposite of a supermarket. The honey—viscous, sweet, bee-ooze, basically. Ditto the forest--the visible world overhead and underfoot comes together in an ontological slurry of growth and rot. The honey smells faintly of pine pitch, and I eat it with Cheerios, which has the face of Ellen Degeneres on the front—just the top half, from the eyes up. Flesh and wet orbs rendered flat on a cardboard box and summarily glossed. The opposite of visceral experience: honey on a finger in a mouth; one thing slowly becoming another, all blurred edges and limn-tangled limbs.
The atomization brings with it a new mode of perception. About twenty percent of the light that electrically illuminates our lives is a nuclear light. Volatile, sure—but at a remove. It is only as real as a cartoon.
Square Peg Round Hole
I was speaking with a sculptor about wood and steel. Steel is predictable, it is regular, it is obviously mechanical in other words, where wood is unruly and unpredictable; mertrucial to tell the truth.
This is one of the reasons my sculptor friend preferred wood; wood, while liable to change on its own, can also be coaxed. That the old dream so many of us had as children could sometimes be accomplished, that the round peg could be made to go through the square hole of the peg-in-hole game. Tasks like squaring the circle might be possible if only we realize they are reserved for certain disciplines—sculpture, for instance, and not mathematics.
Medium Density Fiberboard
What a miserably pliant functionalism! Some particularly astute engineers found a way to treat wood waste like water, to pack it in tight partitions and gloss summarily. There’s nothing structurally admirable about MDF and its poetics are of the same family as the smoothee and tomato puree—a homogenized slurry designed to suspend the lest tolerable aspects of the thing and create a purely functional paste. And it’s in your cupboards! MDF is truly a substrate for the age of the surface—it is only a vehicle for that smooth and seductive finish that is hard-enamel paint. Seductive—glossed—like something wet, only without the disturbances caused by flesh, rocks, vegetable matter, the moon, etc. Excellent self-leveling and extended open time, as it says on the can of latex paint.
It is time to turn our attention to the banal, to the objects that inhabit our lives with the least disturbance, to cutlery, to chairs, to the biannual trip to the dentist, to white or brown eggs—the the objects that, through their invisibility and comfort, structure our lives by remaining a path of least possible resistance. Refuse these things their dumb passivity, endeavor them to march soldier-like, to become objects of contemplation, to become mysterious again.
Do you prefer white or brown eggs? I prefer brown. No particular reason.
Early writing was indelible in that way—painfully material. In order to write you needed to possess a literal strength comparable to what it would take to kill a man. And you could never take it back, only bury the thing after the fact. Today’s tablets are the same shape but work the other way ‘round, as wholly general vehicles suited for quick shuffling though tabs an images, replete with our new lexicon of flat gestures previously only understandable as affecting the air, or perhaps a body but only in the faintest of ways: flicks, swipes, and taps. The screen is always something else. I have two dedicated keys dedicated to revision or elision—forward or back, as is my preference.
Despite being the polar opposite of both material writing and bodily experience (I can think of nothing so distant from the poetics of food or fucking) the flat light of the screen still speaks of a body. Every machine is already something like an insufficient body, modeled after that which people could do for each-other. In its worst moments, the pale white of the screen can give the face a deathly pallor, seem to turn a body into a corpse.
Light on an apple doesn’t just simply go, it sits in the skin—it scatters not only on impact, but as it penetrates the skin in a completely literal demonstration of Cezanne’s ambient penetration of all things. The edge of an apple has a depth that reveals itself through simple optical inspection—the edge has its volume.
I don’t mind the conceit that plastics provide the painted surface, but I prefer oil because I like the smell. It’s an entirely visceral preference and has very little to do with the fact that the optical nature of oil when rendered as light-scattering skin produces a phenomenon so close to the real fucking thing. The body oozing in an aluminum tube, just like my commute.
The morbidity—the smell! Wax bubbling in vats—the horrific lengths we go to keep one thing from changing into its other, to preserve, the work of museums, Madame Tussaud at work next to a corpse, the taxidermist spreading the wing of a parrot, its colors. Museums get a pass, of course, as long as the plaque contains nothing about the violence necessary to render an object an image.
Nothing really less biomechanical as what malleable sub-thing forced through holes assward or pore-like variously formed hot or cold&lubricated with sheer pressure as analogue for enzymes, acids, metabolic etc, such that when I sit in this chair here and think sort of disconnectedly about polystyrene and the chair gives just a bit, being a bit flimsy in the end, it has the sorry fate of becoming just one more symbol-or-metaphor (your choice) heaped on the pile that rots less and less newer it gets. Imagine them all out there in the ocean, like an island, or something, with all of the little fish beneath.
I was never able to trust it. It is always something else; but I have always loved the sweet little kernings and other accessories.
The cartoon line is an uncertain character. As the original descriptor of impossibly volatile forms, it forms the envelope of a complex volume with only a few deft strokes. And it is this simplicity that allows it its plasticity—it is easily teased or tortured into new configurations. A clock might unspool itself like thread, or a phone metamorphize into a pair of wet lips, transporting the force of a statement into a more visceral delivery. And cartoons describe, in the most joyful and tortured ways, the most devious psychological experiences, the way in which objects are tied to concepts and images stuff affect and desire into the back of the cab and take off toward the lake with awful designs and a murderously large bottle of wine.
So life has come to resemble these cartoons. Animation as it was before the internet now seems as still as a landscape in acrylic, and the persistent shifting of images as we experience it now approximates these characters with uncertain boundaries by way of their velocity alone: not a series of sequential images which ape movement, but a series offering a smattering of brief impressions, a slurry, a salad, or a soup. The rapidity at which they occur can create a paranoiac effect in which the friction between two disparate images creates a frission otherwise the providence of other boundary violations. I’m not pessimistic. Things begin to cleave together in new and exciting ways. Semiotics is erotics. No man’s career negotiations are an electric burlesque! I don’t want to go to the farm last year! You’re a drunk, Harry!
A variable novel concept or infinitely delible idea—no longer is the digital line yoked by resolution, it’s much less finite now, a Netzhammer drawing is truly dimensions variable and Steyerl’s poor image goes the way of so many other low-rez tech bits. The line is steady at any scale—so it’s easy to imagine this being a circumstance where scale assumes a new, flexible property; no longer bound by the limits of approximated pixel it seems at last possible that something the size of a whale might finally come in contact with a dog or a microchip under the guise of the collaged or laminated image.
Collage has a bastard grammar. A collaged image is always veiled-erotic, a place of naked identity and difference just like a sentence or a diagram. Picture the face of Gertrude Stein, for example, who loved diagramming sentences, with her nose replaced by a tender pear, a sweet and sticky button. It will always be of uncertain parentage and the result of being able to compose-in-layers and it is almost certainly the result of someone having seen an image in one place—and then, shortly after, having seen the image in another place. Historically speaking, this is a recent phenomenon. Collage is at the other end; where industrialization has made the image a repetitive and diffuse presence through space, collage is the collapsing of images onto one-another.
But collage is maybe a more honest method than other methods of image production; its images already were, they’re only now made to rhyme, and because it is collage inasmuch as its images rub up against one another and compete for attention or announce their disparate styles, the distance from one to the next that remains is something like tripping over one’s words or the STET typo, a rejection or outright failure of the technocratic goal of seamlessness (which is aesthetic efficiency), of intelligent photo-healing brushes, of feathered ultrakeyed video or perspective matched aftereffects or post-production mocap renders; all of those media which make their making impossible to locate. Even painting can be more dishonest when it is easy to forget that we are looking at paint.
So too is collage as destructive as it is creative; the new image is the deliberate displacement of an old image, but each fragment of the collage is replete with the missing context of their make as it is seen as collage. It was not an art form that was possible before the notion of the beautiful was cleft from easy positive definitions.
Lamination on the other hand—while collage allows for incongruity between surfaces, between substances, volume or stuff, lamination is finally destructive, there is a leveling out in the end, a necessity for everything to come up to the same surface. Enamel paint on a cabinet is a particularly harsh form of lamination, and in this sense all digital images, all images native to the screen are laminated. No matter how it is accomplished, lamination requires a great deal of technology, while collage requires only the most blunt of instruments and approximations.
I am seized by a mania; I know it is a mania and some comfort lives within this thought. Everything, I am sure, has a place which all its own, a place where it is nothing else, where its boundaries are firmly established outside of itself. I catalogue: loose change, paper clips, incense, eyeglasses and water glasses, books of varying genres, a portfolio, several varieties of paper, paints, brushes, pencils, stencils, knives, scribes, inks, pens, paper clips, thumb tacks, electronic cables for power and transmission, journals, dishware, pots and pans, plates, forks, knives, spoons, varieties of large cooking utensils, shirts, pants, underwear, socks, shoes, coats (heavy or light), lightbulbs, lamps, chairs, tables, the refrigerator, the oven and its three of four burners, two cans of beer, pastas, sauces, eggs, lettuce, bread, honey, butter, all of this one on top of the other as I lay it out on the table or arrange it as I’m able and all I have is a well-organized mess; it is impossible for me to know where to place the computer and its screen.
The glyph is both the sign and the thing it represents—a semiotic tautology or flat-packed definition, and this is maybe why brands are so sticky. A brand is a fetish for the thing I want, it is allusive, the roots of its relation are within the fragile history of representation. But it’s just as important to consider how much more a brand is its package and its promise than the thing itself. Tide, for instance, is a fluorescent orange bottle that looks very nice occupying stretch of grocery market shelves, but what it does is incidental, it only rhymes. Proctor and Gamble is a mark of identity which could point anywhere.
Fortunately, brands inevitably have character—and characters can be made to be comic. Tide is a moron, that much is clear.
Ordinary is Almost All Right
No longer can the old or existing be chosen as an emblem for the new—we’ve done that one, several of us have already gotten the idea across, and the new is different now. It is a different, much more sleek and elegant animal which is also much larger than any of us and like all large animals it is dangerous, because it is unconcerned with us or predatory, it hardly matters which. The market is manipulative and this should be new information to absolutely nobody. Vernacular and capital are no longer distinguishable from one-another.
So the time has come again for violence enacted on the image, to treat art history like a gun. To account for vernacular and capital and to enact vernacular and capital—the pasta-glyph and distance between Tide and clean socks—while stripping the function of every last stitch. Three methods: Collage, lamination, and liquefaction. Accretion, flattening, and the dissolution of ground, respectively.
A fundamental problem with the digital image is that even simulated volumes are, in the end, a flat image, it cannot have a relationship with its surroundings that stretches beyond the plane. And in the world of digital image production even simple images are rendered, baked, or exported, the layers that might compose them are obliterated even though the final flat-pack might bear the trace of accretion and deletion.
I have, on a shelf, these three items: A pair of old worn shoes, (black), a dead Bonsai tree (Juniper) and three twelve-inch nails hanging from below the shelf on two feet of string. Scattered across the shelves are walnuts, the tips blackened with India ink which has bled up the runnels and clefts in the nut. Arranged just so, the envelopes stretch and distend, overflow their boundaries, become sign-soup.
Some of the walnuts are stained with walnut ink. It’s wonderfully perverse, in the same way that I imagine eating a pickled black walnut might be outside of the UK.
I have an awful habit—I pick at scabs, and not for lack of knowing better, but as soon as the scab is in any way to come free without reopening the wound I find a way to pry it free.
In the stairwell of my childhood home the old house’s shifting timbers had caused a magnificent crack in the wall paint that ran half the stairwell’s length, as far as the first landing, which bridged first floor and basement and led out into the yard. As a child I found it impossible to pass through the stairwell without picking at the paint, of peeling a little bit back so I could inspect the skin and the surface below, and over time the crack grew into a large void in the outer wall of the paint, about half a meter wide.
I still do this, in a way. Although much more obliquely. This would explain only partially the satisfaction I feel when two disparate materials share a contour but come together at a seam; when flat, this is termed inlay, but most interesting is its occurrence in objects. Coatings leave no gap by which to apprehend the disunity of things. The seam is a container for abject stuff, ugly matter, all things which might violate a unity could fall. Fingernails are repulsive. It is a seam we can see into.
Not the partial body but the whole body, replete with missing parts—nor the partial building, but the whole building, replete with missing parts—and no poor image here, but rather the whole image, replete with missing parts—dime store alchemy is still alchemy and successful alchemy can only be a rich man’s game.
The digital drawing is a drawing only approximated; where analogue is complete the digital line can only approximate, it operates as an approach, in strictly dividable units in even lines (the sort of divisions time would be subject under technocracy) but the general, even vague nature of the screen is such that no matter the brush pattern or pretended substrate the haptics are exactly the same; form and experience seem to correlate less than they once did. In the case of certain products the haptic feedback is negligible, in accordance with a love for a mollusk gloss in our interfaces. I leave the worst little hooks all over the edges of my lines and the image is, in every way, much more flat.