The joys of UBUWEB when you’re up a mountain can’t be over-estimated. Last night, unable to sleep, I watched a video by Alex Bag, Untitled Fall ’95 (1995), a sly, funny take on the stereotypes surrounding artists and consumer culture where she “plays” herself going through art school. The video includes surreal interludes involving Hello Kitty and Ronald McDonald puppets and other consumer culture detritus which (as UBU puts it) “teeter on the divide between parody and complicity” and points to the difficulty of critique in a totally co-opted landscape.
This surreal aspect made me think about the ‘dry’ nature of some of my projects, deriving from a kind of canonical conceptualism, the bland literalness of what Benjamin Buchloh called an “aesthetic of indifference” of “random sampling and aleatory choice from an infinity of possible objects”. While being drawn to the task-like, boring and deadpan, I’m occasionally repelled by the lack of visual pleasure or surprise that results from this aesthetic. It would be interesting to see whether these can overlap as strategies- task-like literalness crossed with surreal associations.
Talking of associations, I’m still thinking about keywords as a route to new image-text relations; to find ways of using language that interrogates it, without simply reproducing, quoting, or collaging it. Sam Thorne, at a talk at this year’s Frieze Art Fair identified a kind of “intensified collage” (thoroughly explored 30 years ago by artists like Dara Birnbaum), as the dominant methodology, used by advertisers and teenagers on YouTube alike. Besides the cooption of once-radical strategies, his talk made me wonder what other methodologies artists can use to make sense of a socially constructed and mediated self. While the idea of trying to say something ‘new’ is as obsolete as the idea of an avant-garde, I still ask myself: could this have been made 10 years ago? Not from a technical point of view, but from the perspective of how technological and social shifts affect subjectivity and the functioning of language.
Cherry Smyth touched upon this desire for new approaches in her article about “Dead Fingers Talk” at IMT Gallery, an exhibition that had artists responding to Burroughs’s unpublished tape experiments. She observed that despite the embrace of intertexuality evident, the techniques used have been around since the early 70s, and its true that videos such as Jorg Priniger’s Sorted Speech, 2010, which recuts then reorders Obama speeches, utilise a very-well established method. Indeed patterns of collection and ordering of archives are a staple feature of found footage videos, from Matthias Müller’s Home Stories (1990), in which women from disparate Hollywood melodramas go through the same series of actions, to Volker Shreiner’s Counter, which counts down clips from Hollywood films showing numbers. Not to mention The Clock, Christian Marclay’s 24-hour installation, which orders found footage showing clock times and synchronises it with the viewer’s lived time. Impressive effort aside, the logic is the same- and, as numerical and alphabetical ordering are hardly new, it could have been made 20 years ago.
The review closes with a reminder of Burroughs instruction: “Smash the control images. Smash the control machine”. But how? I’m interested in ways of working that organise things in ways that allow you to glimpse a different order, or else opens up new ways of communicating.
Which is where my interest in text-image relations in the space of the internet comes in. Using the titles, subtitles and tags that others have inserted means harnessing the power of crowd-sourcing: the ‘associations of amateurs’, as Jeff Howe in Wired magazine put it, who create the internet . Sarah Browne, in her article ‘Crowd Theory Lite’ observes that corporations like Amazon and EBay have embraced crowd-sourcing for content creation, feedback, and even R & D. These volunteer labourers each contribute to the overall functioning of the site; likewise the multitude of images that appear for any search reflect the effort of thousands of users, uploading, naming and tagging their images. Using this layer of language is attempting to tap into that pool of man-hours, to discover the modes of naming and speech native to the internet, and to work with the text-image relation inherent to the web’s logic of keywords.