Toward a Subtler Linguistic Practice

There is far too much reliance – even in 2016 – in artistic practice and discourse (and this is something which is still being drilled in art schools) on an idea which can best be expressed as “Duchamp said so.” It stands as testament to Duchamp’s innovation that much of the reasoning of artists hinges on the Duchampian question, yet it nonetheless condemns us that a century after the event we must still retain him as a crutch. Like a speech impediment, the student stammers “Duchamp” and is rewarded with praise. It is as though to merely grasp the idea of proto-Conceptual Art is considered an artistic statement – a statement which expects no exponential discourse or elaboration, and on which the student can declare Terra Firma.
An “artist as conceptualist” (or, as I prefer to think of it, “as thinker”), is the artist who has learned to take responsibility for his or her own works. To have abstract thoughts is the predicate of sentience, and abstract thoughts which remain in abstraction are thoughts as they are normally experienced and expressed. Artists do not have the quotidian luxury of passing thoughts off as tangential experience to be communicated or kept private according to their whims, but must channel those thoughts into their works – indeed, this happens whether the artist chooses it or not. By extension, to keep that work to oneself is precisely the same thing as the everyday thought which is kept private because, as has been axiomatically repeated throughout art history and philosophical enquiry, art is only Art when it arts. It has to communicate an idea in order to function. When a work is kept hidden it is nothing more profound than an object containing no more meaning than its perfunctory intention. We must modify, by degrees, the world around us; question the linguistic framework of all of our social apparatus. To do this the artist has to analyse the first-person understanding of the individual and compare it to the third-person meaning of the object, and by this I mean pick apart the meaning-value in signs themselves. I can think of a train station – not a major train station, which is staffed constantly by an army of individual first-persons, but a small train station which may or may not have one individual sat behind a glass screen. The station is teeming with signs which have been manufactured somewhere else and whose meaning has been placed in them – more often than not – decades previously. Think of the “High Voltage” and “Trespass” signs. These signs are not of that particular station at that precise moment, but are third-person signs generated to remind the subject of dangers which have remained constant throughout a larger period of time. The sign has the same value to the person abiding by their meaning and the person who transgresses the explicit threat. What differs is the first-person reception of meaning, and this meaning is entirely malleable: the abiding person sees the sign as representing authority (the greater organism) threatening legal action (by the organism) and death (by the technology used by the organism) if the station’s signs are not obeyed. The transgressor might see the sign as representing a solution (an easy-way-out for the depressed or suicidal), and in this instance the sign does not represent authority or any greater organism. In each case the signified belongs to vastly different third-person meanings. The sign itself belongs to a greater expansion of time, meant as ideological imperative (the vast majority do not wish to endanger their lives or risk punishment from the courts), which runs throughout the station’s time. At an earlier point in history the sign would have carried the same imperative, even though the peculiarities may have differed (in the early Twentieth Century, there would have been no risk of electrocution, for instance, although the dangers of trespassing on the tracks would have been the same), though this does not mean that the sign has intrinsically changed for the greater organism still compels itself to demand obedience. The sign in the station is merely a microcosm of the larger Capitalist sign which exists as psycho-geographical marker, deterritorialised from the larger Capitalist organism to localise the wider imperative of non-transgression.

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When we take this idea of the sign and apply to them Duchampian method, we inevitably invoke the notion of option: the option to take a sign at face value or to manipulate its potential for duality of meaning. This is arguably how Contemporary Art still functions: as a concentration of deterritorialisation. What we have ceased to do, however, is question the dualities or their exponential expansion, to focus on what forces (linguistic or otherwise) create these dualities. One can argue that the Duchampian method was last used to real effect by Joseph Beuys, and there would be a degree of truth in that argument. More precisely, Beuys should be seen as a Postmodern Duchamp in that the ideas begun by Duchamp were applied to both industrial and post-industrial landscapes. Duchamp would have taken a section of track and displayed it in the gallery, whereas Beuys would have uprooted the track and created a deviation outside of the given track’s route – he may well have even retained its functionality by returning the train to the re-routed track. Who is a contemporary Beuys? There are few artists today who have expanded on this linguistic deterritorialisation, which is surprising given the weight given to both Duchamp and Beuys. What we have are re-iterations of the same, or a broadening of the vocabulary to accommodate accelerating technology, but the process is the same: re-route the linguistic origins of a sign from the greater organism to propose a potential for difference. John Armleder plays a much subtler game by exposing the materiality of the dominant linguistic frameworks of culture. An orange and black sunburst pattern is used coterminously on the canvas and an electric guitar (Zakk Wylde II, 2008), while the same Albers-like colour schematic is explored in black and red by a simple translation in form, using the same two opposing objects (Guitar Multiple (FS 164, 1987). Throughout his lengthy career, Armleder has perpetually been investigating this material dialogue, while others exploring the same thing have abandoned the simplicity of this dialogue in favour of the spectacle, in the assumption that the same idea on a grander scale will intensify the meaning. It is not the scale or audacity of the work that expands meaning, but a reassessment of the linguistic principles themselves

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Regarding the Ceremony of Art Presentation

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The Ceremony of Art Presentation

 

Being the fourth dimension of meaning somewhere between Sign, Signified and Signifier.

 

If the sign is the art piece, the signified is the referent and the signified the meaning, there is an extra layer of meaning between Sign and Signified which takes place during artistic presentation.  To wit, the meaning in Ad Reinhardt’s Abstract Painting is not on the canvas itself, nor was it during the painting’s creation, but rather lies in its presentation as an absence.  This absence is seen often throughout the Twentieth-Century in response to Wittgensteinian silence, which in itself is demonstrated in Ludwig Uhland’s Count Eberhard’s Hawthorn whereby the referent in the poem is the cutting, or sprig.  The fact that the meaning of the sprig is never revealed is where Wittgenstein find’s the essence of philosophical truth.  Rather than some mystical, ineffable essence, absence is, linguistically, that which has the most power in being shown rather than said.

 

Count Eberhard Rustle-Beard,

From Württemberg’s fair land,

On holy errand steer’d

To Palestina’s strand.

 

The while he slowly rode

Along a woodland way;

He cut from the hawthorn bush

A little fresh green spray.

 

Then in his iron helm

The little sprig he plac’d;

And bore it in the wars,

And over the ocean waste.

 

And when he reach’d his home;

He plac’d it in the earth;

Where little leaves and buds

The gentle Spring call’d forth.

 

He went each year to it,

The Count so brave and true;

And overjoy’d was he

To witness how it grew.

 

The Count was worn with age

The sprig became a tree;

‘Neath which the old man oft

Would sit in reverie.

 

The branching arch so high,

Whose whisper is so bland,

Reminds him of the past

And Palestina’s strand.

 

In Abstract Expressionism this thinking is key to an understanding of the Modernist urge to achieve the inexpressible, and we also see it in Conceptual Art as it directs our attention away from formal qualities and focuses instead on that which is absent from the work.

 

The question is not lost on me why I do not practice more of what I preach, and the answers range from the self-deprecating to the absurd.  In the first instance, it must be said that absence is perhaps the single most fragile artistic material, and must be used only by skilled hands.  My hands are not as skilled as I would prefer.  Secondly, absence is also absolute faith in the unspoken, and here matters become slightly unstuck.  Absolute faith and truth are in no way the same thing, although both are subject to interpretation – particularly in an age which distorts the fundamentals of both physical and abstract fact.  That which remains unsaid naturally resists Propositional Logic, and as such is often misunderstood for a negation whereas the thing (again abstract or actual) in actuality stands for something which must be preserved from contemporaneity.  The grief of a fallen soldier’s mother during the First World War cannot be equated with the grief of a teenage heartbreak.  I resist utilisation of the absence because my work is not subjective, nor does it focus on my (or anyone else’s) inner feelings.

No Job for a Grown Man (part seven) – The Compatibility of Simple and Complex Machines

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…when one writes, the only question is which other machine the literary machine can be plugged into, must be plugged into in order to work.” These words, written by Deleuze and Guattari in the introduction to A Thousand Plateaus, are key to an understanding of how many contemporary artists – myself included – manipulate the abstract fabric of their works into a cohesion. Artists are haecceities (again using the term as described in A Thousand Plateaus), just as every human being is a haecceity, or a sum of all the events and forces involved in an organism, object or event. Certainly, artists tend to be focal haecceities, but individual haeccaeities all the same, and therefore subject to every singular element and event which led to the individual making x or y decision concerning z art piece. How have I incorporated influences such as The Fall, Alfred Jarry, Louis Althusser or European cinema into my work in the past?  I negotiated a method of plugging these separate machines into the art machine, to varying degrees of success (which in itself was subject to the laws of the haecceity). The side of the machine that faces the strata is where all of the external machines are plugged into, and its obverse side – the side which is observed by the audience – is smooth (or as smooth as the artist is able to make the machine). Deleuze and Guattari discuss Kafka and his incredible bureaucratic machine. Kafka himself was a haecceity governed by the strict laws of bureaucracy, now inexorably and miserably linked to its dehumanising values and de-humanised social necessity. The bleak world of Kafka has ever been – and continues to be – a rich source of inspiration for the artist. Fitting, that in a contemporary age subject to fears not only of our employability and stability, but of our very survival, that we still see the relevance in that bureaucratic machine of a century ago begin to erode away at the humanity of its subjects. As such, Kafka has remained relevant throughout the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries, because that bureaucratic coding has never altered: on the contrary, it has mutated and made itself more sophisticated; it has mimicked our human behaviour; it has presented itself to us in our own image. It can be argued that some species of symbiosis has taken place, whereby we have become bureaucratic beings (linguistically, at least) and bureaucracy has become more humanised (obviously, this latter is far from the case, yet the maintainers of the bureaucratic machine have understood that, for the machine to survive, it was necessary to make the machine more human-like). Certain machines – like Kafka’s bureaucratic machine – have long-lasting compatibility with the art machine, as has been illustrated. There are however an infinity of machines, varying in size and form, which are ever-present in orbit around our plane of existence. Some of these machines are more difficult to plug into the art machine, and have only a limited time in which they are compatible. Political art tends to suffer from this limitation of compatibility because not all political matters persist longer than a decade-or-two. The trick is always in ratiocinating what larger machine governs the smaller machines, or what greater social factors must be in place for the smaller political machines to function. It has long been an ambition of mine to find a way of re-formatting (particularly resistant to re-formatting) literature and presenting it as art. I have had my eye of Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman for a number of years now, and I think that this initially came about because of the parallels one can draw between the protagonist struggling financially to complete his critical work on the fictional scholar de Selby. Any art student can certainly appreciate the protagonist’s frustration at being unable to complete a work of subjective importance due to a factor as fleeting and arbitrary as money. It is not just for this reason, though, that The Third Policeman is ripe for re-presentation: the book is full of that rich absurdist humour which also draws me to Alfred Jarry, Steve Aylett and Sergio Caballero. This absurdist literary machine, to work in this context, must be compatible with the particulars of my current art machine, and that is where the real work lies.

Assembling a Rhizome

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It is often the case that what one initially thinks of as a heterogeneous collection of works in fact, when assembled, turns out to be anything but. There are three distinct lines of thought at play here: the linguistic, the machinic and the Body without Organs. If my original plan was to take the spirit of A Thousand Plateaus as my starting point for this work, then said work is turning out to be quite literal in its influences.

No Job for a Grown Man (part six) – in Explication of the Schizophrenic Age

The Twenty-First Century has, since 2001, been bereft of landmark political or social moments.  The key word here is “landmark,” indicating a fixed point in time after which the ideological apparatus in place before the event can no longer function, such is the impact it has on society, economics and culture.  This is hardly surprising, since 9/11 shattered what was quite possibly the West’s last frontier in its ability to be shocked, and was the last “where were you when…?” moment in living memory.  As the Twenty-First Century has unfolded, global events have occurred in what feels like a steady trickle, owing not only to the First World’s new-found numbness to devastation and outrage, but also to the way in which events have been relayed to us.  In the fifteen years since the towers collapsed, the ingestion of current affairs has gradually slipped away from the static television screen and become something experienced singularly (one-on-one) through portable, streamlined devices.  Before the internet, the news was fed to us daily at precise quarters of a clock, with the 6 and 9 PM installments reserved for in-depth investigations into the ramifications of the day’s events.  This may well still be the case, but it is now by no means how we initially learn of these events, which are continuously fed to us via the offices of internet newsfeeds which have no beginning or end, and wholesale information dumps such as Twitter.  News is no longer dropped on us four times a day around a centralised information hub (i.e. television or radio), but is now with us all day, and can be accessed from any location via mobile phones, tablet and laptops.  Wi-Fi has freed us from the necessity of the specific location, and thus the “where were you?” moment can no longer really exist, since such an occasion is marked by more quotidian, tangential social interactions (since social media, we are no longer social beings) – history has always been made in conjunction with analogue discourse to provide context and understanding; the pause for reflection has been superseded by the knee-jerk re-tweet.  Is it any wonder, then, that cultural eruptions comparable to that of 1976 have been scarce-to-non-existent during the last decade-and-a-half, and that the cultural satellites of the punk movement can now be bought in Primark on t-shirt racks which also contain images of Miles Davis and Captain America?

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In this sense we can quite easily relate the lack of modern social information exchanges and their replacement by personalised feeds of information to a Twenty-First Century flatness, or to put it simply, an age when globally-relevant events are still unfolding on a daily basis but are no longer felt as shockwaves.  Without shockwaves there can be no fissures, which is where Twentieth-Century culture once thrived: jazz, pop, punk, Abstract Expressionism, Conceptual Art and the Postmodern break in general all happened as a consequence of events which were felt as they occurred, and carried real consequences, unlike the political pantomimes of today.  The ages in which these events happened had their own zeitgeist modelled from the social mood, and are remembered – perhaps rightly or wrongly – for their cultural and social values.  In an age which has had no real shockwaves or fissures a void has inevitably been created which has no atmosphere, zeitgeist or – crucially – human analogue.  Since domestic concerns are primarily centred around economy, the average Western citizen concerns him or herself with financial survival and the waning scope for prosperity.  Occupy, it can be argued, is itself a modified sit-in, grafted from the late-1960s onto the present day and given an Economics degree.  Where it has prospered – as opposed to the disenfranchised, disconnected youth of fifty years ago – is in its organisation and the clarity of its voice, both of which can be attributed to technological agencies unimaginable in the last century.  We have lost our sense of the epoch-making event, the galvanising force to attempt something different: the rule book is no longer torn up, so much as it is re-told through post-millennial perspectives.

Baudrillard postulated that the Gulf War never took place, and using the same rationale, one can also argue that few have also been the events since the conflict which have been entirely authentic (an aside must be made here to comment on the word “authentic,” since semantic slippage has seen the word move from meaning “original” or “created with absolute faith to an original model to signify that a synthetic product has been made with an eye to the superficial adjuncts [packaging, branding, logo, etc.] which once accompanied similar products and are subject to mass-nostalgia.).  Politicians are merely synthetic gestalts of corporate ideologies; crises are either overstated or played-down according to a news agency’s affiliations.  None of this is new, of course.

The schizophrenic is subject to fragmented thinking and delusions, synthesises words which make only subjective sense to the patient; repeats words and phrases over and over, each time as if for the first.  The schizophrenic displays a lack of emotional expressions, shows little to no enthusiasm and exhibits repetitive, jarring speech abnormalities.  Studies have shown that a key environmental factor in the onset of schizophrenia is childhood separation or loss – dislocation from a previous generation.  The post-millennial condition is schizophrenic in all of these factors and more.  Perhaps the most critical similarity, though, is in the delusional impersonation of established personalities of import without prejudice to the historical or mythological frameworks in which they belong.

 

 

 

 

 

No Job for a Grown Man (part five) – “Oh Yes, I Forgot – Other People Make Art, Too.”

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Because the internet no longer accepts that I am capable of making my own decisions, I am constantly susceptible to what are called “helpful suggestions,” which even the more liberal websites are guilty or inflicting upon one.  These suggestions are not always limited to advertisers – art websites suggest artists and galleries to follow (synonymous with that most loathsome of terms, “like”).  The internet sculpts the browser (in both senses of the word) as it shapes itself into an interface which fits the user, moulding itself into what is now an approximation of an extension of the user.  The keyboard is now the second point of separation between the user’s consciousness and the tactile world.  Twitter feeds are unique to each individual, giving the illusion of a thing which is beheld by one person only at any given time, or an information feed meant only for one pair of eyes.

Why have I allowed my cynicism to stop just short of deactivating my account?  We are each of us in the thrall of this convenience: who wouldn’t want that amount of information at the touch of a button?

In truth, we are now incapable of returning to that world of a mere two decades ago, when information was still mainly analogue.  Newspapers, books, magazines and terrestrial television could never offer the smoothness of informational exchange which we get from the online world, and we have had (for some, just under and for others, just over) twenty years of this Information Superpower.  Once a power is taken for granted, as the internet now is, it is impossible to go back.

All of which is a round-about way of saying that my browser (or, more specifically, my bookmarks bar) is at any given time playing catch-up to a massive backlog of things which I fully intend to digest properly, but which dromology will not allow for – the best I can ever hope to do is to speed-read what I consider important and demote the rest to some kind of cache, to be caught up with in the event of a major catastrophe preventing me from doing anything other than catching up with such a thing.  Although I shied away from the art world this Summer, this did not prevent me from keeping one eye out for something to catch it, and inevitably some things did – I have a bookmarks folder entirely devoted to artists, and as I write this I can count more than fifty of these in an oblong box which drops down to far beyond the lower limits of my screen.  Easily half of these artists can be dismissed with a “why the Hell did I bookmark that?,” however some things are worth a second look (and the are even a few which merit a third and fourth look).

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An artist duo who fall into the second category are Tokyo collaborators Ken + Julia Yonetani, whose Close Encounters, Sweet Barrier Reef and Crystal Palace tick most of my aesthetic boxes, even though their themes and motivations, laudable as they are, cannot help but come across (to me) a little too much like that pompous Yoga-Geordie, Sting.  Granted, I am cynical, but The Police killed punk.  This antithetical niggle notwithstanding, there is much to be enjoyed visually from such works as the aforementioned Sweet Barrier Reef, with its Jean Painlevé-esque subaquatic mimicry, or the gorgeous Crystal Palace, which manages to turn a motif of nuclear power into something enchantingly ethereal.

Mix Claes Oldenburg, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Allen Ruppersberg and Robert Raushenberg together and one might come up with the organised visual chaos of French artist Nicolas Pol, who again falls into the second category precisely because I can pick out those four influences without even trying.  Art Povera, Art Brut and Pop with Egyptian and Caribbean overtones – naturally, some of it works, some of it doesn’t.

In the second (for his collages) and third category (for his neon assemblages), I can easily place Evren Tekinoktay, a Danish artist who is clearly himself not averse to the same species of “colour-POP!” which always suckers me in.  2015’s Ulalume at London’s The Approach Gallery has the look and feel of an 80’s after-hours jazz bar punching a temporal hole through to the present day.  I’m thinking Gallon Drunk with Yello on the bill; I’m thinking high voltage Kandinsky; I’m thinking “I’m in”.

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Again, teetering between the second and third categories is Calgary-born Christian Eckart who, while presenting nothing earth-shatteringly original (even when one bears in mind the virtual impossibility of such a prospect today), does nothing earth-shatteringly original with a boldness and confidence I feel terribly endearing. Once more, the colours have claimed me.

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Martí Cormand does something with old bits of cardboard that is both simple and effective, peeling away its strata to reveal its inner geometric components and exposing its stark abstract qualities. More traditionally beautiful are his graphite and watercolour drawings of leaves, icebergs and glacial fissures held together by multi-coloured steel poles and wires, and what’s more, the Spanish-born New Yorker has also rendered in graphite and oil such pioneering works as Duchamp’s Fountain, Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs and Weiner’s To See and Be Seen, thus bringing Conceptual Art’s refusal of pictorial representation full-circle. Oh, yes, he’s got my vote.

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Speaking of Lawrence Weiner (which I have been for an irritatingly long time now, to anyone who sticks around long enough to listen), I have often strived to bridge the distance between my love for his work – with its simple, Zen-like poetry – and the work of Peter Halley (who, along with Weiner, comprises the joint first-place in my personal Artist of Choice poll). Somehow, Airan Kang has beaten me to the challenge by resembling neither of those venerable artists yet recalling them both. Her Luminous Words at Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery in New York last year astonishingly electrified the printed page. Words are my thing, but those bright colours always get me in the end.

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No Job for a Grown Man (part four) – The Archetype and the Simulacra

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One very interesting development this year has been Alfie’s increased enthusiasm (or obsession with) Star Wars.  This is no great revelation in and of itself, given that the boy is rapidly approaching six years old and the perfect age to engage with it, but what interests me is the way in which this has affected me, and to some extent takes my work and thought full-circle to four years ago when I combined painting and printing to create a piece which illustrated how “the son becomes father to the man” (or, read another way, how the child inevitably outwits the adult).  At the time I considered this work to be somewhat jejune artistic fodder, relying on an archetypal parent-child dyad, but as this co-relation grows in age and maturity, I cannot ignore how inescapable this has always – to some extent – been for myself and my output.  Of particular piquancy is the way in which Alfie is now, to all intents and purposes and as a textbook Lacanian model, an exact mirror image of myself at his age:  I was Alfie’s age in 1983, and therefore Star Wars is (without wishing myself at the mercy of this cretinous contemporary bombast, yet somehow compelled to align myself with it) “encoded into my DNA.”  The same is now becoming true with my Son, as Freud, Lacan, Berne and countless other critical theorists have postulated.  It is all too easy to dismiss popular culture such as Star Wars as “for children” or a Greenbergian “low,” however the strength of its staying power lies in its universalising all of those psychoanalytic concepts and ideological counter-points which critical theorists have debated and argued over for centuries.  Does it simplify said concepts?  Naturally.  Does it trivialise them?  Not at all.  Rather it, contextualises them in much the same way as Greek Myth and literature have done since we first started telling one another stories.  Particularly revealing is its emphasis on Father-Son relations and its repetitive looping-back on its own themes, which has in no small way found its real-world counterpart in the way in which it now spans multiple generations.  There is a strong correlation between Alfie, who still sees the world through innocence, and myself as I come to understand that the child is still very much active in me and recognise the power of the archetype in Star Wars.  For all that I love the cinematic beauty found in the works of Tarkovsky, Tarr, Jodorowsky and Kurosawa, it is without doubt Star Wars which still unifies the 38-year-old me of today with the five-year-old me of 1983.

It would be strange for a child to love Star Wars and not want a part of its own galaxy of merchandise.  Alfie’s passion for action figures has grown with his passion for the franchise, and here I find my own banal pun on the term “Plastic Arts.”  There is something in the way that these toys have become more sculpturally sophisticated over the years – the figures I played with a small boy were never as detailed or articulated as the figures of today.  There is a demand for accuracy and perfect replication in today’s action figures which runs parallel to the “more real than real” contrivances of the cinematic screen.  The connection between this modern phenomenon and the writings of Baudrillard are so obvious as to make that connection here seem somewhat obtuse, however that connection cannot be ignored.  The simulacrum now precedes the original just as the map precedes the territory, making the sophisticated model almost indistinguishable from the person, object or form it replicates.  In this way, big-budget films (particularly of a fantastical theme) are created in conjunction with the merchandising market, and presented to the public as a bifurcated tree: two branches of the same organism.  This phenomenon is widespread and is by no means exclusive to the film or toy industries, as clothing now strives to emulate “authenticity,” music is deliberately made to emulate production values of the past, and even food is branded to appear as though a return to arcane values.  Nostalgia has a significant price value in a schizophrenic age.