The Lost Grids project will present a new body of artwork comprising twenty-one “conceptual prints” accompanied by an exhibition catalog. Each print will be created by carrying out a digital process of “poetic hacking” that forms the conceptual core of the series of images, each of which will be printed on glass for presentation. The exhibition catalog will include reproductions of the artwork and appropriated materials, an artist statement as well as dialogues, essays, and experimental texts that contextualize, explicate, and extrapolate from this new body of work.
The creative process that distinguishes this project begins with appropriating select images and texts from the cultural archive. Each piece is based on a particular visual image – chosen principally for its iconic value – which is then paired with a set of citations from literary, critical, philosophical and other textual sources appropriated for their actual and potential associations with the image. Instead of organizing a visual juxtaposition of these materials in an illustrative or montage format, the project proceeds by accessing the digital (ASCII) code underlying each primary image and by then entering the correlated texts directly into the image’s coding structure. This intervention into the code level of the image inevitably produces digital distortions that take the form of pixelated glitches that stripe portions of the base image. I then isolate and collect these glitches into the visual palette from which each final image is then composited, enlarged, and prepared for printing. The final Lost Grids prints will all embody a grid image, each distinguished from the others in form by color composition, proportion, and scale and in content by the specific appropriated materials used for production.
The Lost Grids project intersects with my recent solo exhibition, IRAN|USA (Saint Mary’s College Museum of Art, February 25 – May 28, 2017). Included in this show of video installations, films, and prints was a piece entitled The House Is Black, for which I devised the conceptual digital strategy outlined here [Figure 1]. This print began with an iconic photograph of the Shah of Iran Mohammed Reza Pahlavi’s lavish, gold-laden bedroom [Figure 2]. The photograph was chosen based on its iconic value, its depiction of the intimate and aesthetic dream-space of a brutal dictator, and the oblique reference it makes to the long-standing policies and geopolitical interests of the United States, whose financial support helped to bankroll the “spendthrift and ceremonial life” of the Shah. Into this photograph’s underlying code I directly entered a set of cultural texts [Figure 3] – including brief passages from press clippings, critical theoretical tracts, memoirs, a will and testament, and literary works – all selected for their literal and metaphorical resonances with the image. Most prominent among these intervening texts was the translated poetic script of Forough Farrokhzad’s 1962 experimental documentary, The House Is Black, an important work in film history that celebrates the residents of the Bababaghi Hospice leper colony in the East Azerbaijan Province of Iran [Figure 4]. The print I made and named after Farrokhzad’s film presents the prototype for the Lost Grids project. My new body of work will be produced through the same aleatory design protocol while its thematic scope will go beyond the U.S./Iran focus of my previous work.
The central maneuver of the Lost Grids project positions this planned work within the field of conceptual art. Integral to the work’s meaning, the creative process by design will result in a set of images whose decorativism, while it alludes to the history of the grid in art production, simultaneously refrains from providing any representative image reflecting the scope of the work’s meaning. The Lost Grids project here deliberately departs from a traditional method of either figuration (analogic representation) or montage (picture-text layout, ekphrasis or ut pictura poesis) and in this way extends and transforms my long-standing interest in questions of illustration, theoretically conceived within an image-word problematic (a focus of my PhD dissertation and much of my art practice).
For me, the implications and stakes of this planned new work emerge at the level of object, production, and form. At the level of object, the project’s unrelenting reference to a central structuring absence within the artwork resonates with questions across several disciplines: the post-Kantian “object” within contemporary continental philosophy (speculative realism or object-oriented ontology), the structure of the Unconscious in psychoanalytic thought, and the theory of “commodity fetishism” in Marxian discourse. At the level of production, the Lost Grids respond to widespread assumptions about the expediency and corrective power of digital technology. The project’s ostensibly counter-productive use of technology aims to foreground a question of work, implicitly and explicitly creating associations with positivist or functionalist notions of working systems, the political-economic sense of labor, the psychoanalytic concept of dream-work, and the artistic sense of the work of art. At the level of form, the project endeavors to reflect on the Western tradition of the visual grid. This art-historical trajectory spans the two dominant functions of the grid in Western art, ranging from the utility of the Renaissance “perspective machine” – a grid-shaped apparatus deployed as an aid for the proper geometrical rendering of three-dimensional space – to the emergence of the grid as visual subject matter in the flat, abstract gridded canvases of modern and contemporary art [Figure 5]. In contrast to art theorist Rosalind Krauss, who has famously argued for an oppositional politics between these two uses of the grid, I am interested in conceptualizing the continuity of the two aesthetics in relation to the additional status of the pixel grid that undergirds all digital imagery.
Lost Grids Starting Points
I am currently in the research phase of the project, which includes reviewing relevant art historical and theoretical literature as well as selecting the materials for producing the grid images. To offer a sense of the early work in progress, here are two pieces under development:
John Mayall’s widely published photographic portrait of Karl Marx [Figure 6] will provide the base image for producing this grid print through the process of poetic hacking. If the public – at least the general U.S. public – knows anything about Marx beyond the fact that he was one of the authors of The Communist Manifesto it is (thanks to the Mayall portrait) that the man had a beard. My interest in this iconic photograph is the cultural status of Marx’s beard as an inverted form of the commodity fetish. In the extensively cited section of Capital, “The Fetishism of Commodities,” Marx articulates a two-fold insight into the character of the commodity: the commodity’s form elicits fascination from its beholder while at the same time materially repressing the conditions of labor that produce the object. The spectacle of this iconic facial hair might be said to symbolize the very separation between Marx’s writings and the contemporary moment; crudely put, the iconicity of the photograph signals a preference for seeing the recognizable, impenetrable beard of a by-gone radical over grappling with the labor (and potential contemporary relevance) of that radical’s intellectual work.
Marx’s argument makes its way into my project as an insight into the aesthetics of the object in capitalism. As the inaugural piece in the Lost Grids series, Marx’s Beard points recursively to a central inspiration for the project itself. The unmistakably superficial, decorative, almost bathroom-tile appearance of each Lost Grid presents a veritable wall behind which there lies an irretrievable image, an artistic process, and a call for the viewer to enter the conceptual universe of the work. Pointing a humorous finger at the spectacle of the beard, I will enter key passages from Marx as well as Guy Debord’s 1967 Situationist tract, Society of the Spectacle, where the latter text paradoxically explores the “spectacularization” of politically radical ideas in the service of capital. To put the beard in both semiotic and historical context, additional texts will make their way into the underlying code of the Mayall portrait of Marx: a short typology of beard and grooming styles; sentences extracted from biological, anthropological, and cultural studies on beards; a few details from the poignant biography of Julia Pastrana (a “bearded lady”); and an excerpt from a medical article on Congenital Hypertrichosis Lanuginosa.
L’Arrivée d’un Train en Garde [sic]
Auguste and Louis Lumière’s renowned 50-second film sequence, L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (1895), is known as one of the first works of cinema and also known, by urban legend, to have caused its first audience such fright that the group leapt from their seats [Figure 7]. Whether based in myth or fact, the common presumption of this reaction’s primitivism, from a contemporary standpoint, overlooks a relevant facet of – if not this landmark screening – then the illuminating possibility of such a reaction and what it could suggest about the disruptive nature of images as such. The works of both Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan account for the traumatic kernel of the imaginary, suggesting that trauma emerges not when the imaginary is disrupted by an intrusion of the real but rather that trauma is already a structural feature of the imaginary itself. I’ve explored this distinction previously in my art practice. My short film CAMP (2011) opens by citing the Lumière film and synthesizing the exactly aligned movements of the Lumière train and a train in Alain Resnais’ film, Night and Fog. Thematically, CAMP investigates in part the coincidences of cinematic and holocaust technologies of transport and here begins by marking a traumatic juncture within the cinematic image. By shifting my use of the Lumière material from a time-based medium to a static medium (in the Lost Grids), I want to stress that it is not so much the train’s movement that carries a startling potential for an audience but rather something already in the nature of images themselves.
My planned print, L’Arrivée d’un Train en Garde [sic], will be based on a frame extraction from the Lumière film where the train’s engine appears to move hors champ, out-of-frame – the presumed point of disturbance for the inaugural audience [Figure 6]. I will intervene into this image’s code with various texts that problematize the assumed relationship between trauma and image, real and imaginary, including an important excerpt from Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams (specifically the dream in which a father’s dead son haunts him: “Father, can’t you see I’m burning?”). The textual materials include also accounts that capture the instability of a set of controversial iconic photographs, including the video documentation of the police beating of Rodney King and the corpse of Che Guevara, both of which ended up contributing to the exact opposite effect anticipated by their producers.
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