Fresh Fruit from Rotting Vegetables (part one)

There comes a point in any artist’s trajectory (be it an established artist, or an unknown student who can’t even visualise a time when someone would respect them enough to give them the time of day), when they must take stock of everything they have done before.  It is necessary if one wishes to go forward, rather than backwards, sideways or plot a drunken, stumbling line of periphrastic aspect around the things one has already said and done.  The phrase “one step back,” loathsome and clichéd as it is, summarises the creative impasse which every artist faces – and there are times when the only way to go without falling flat on one’s face is to cherry-pick from the back-catalogue of works and find those things which succeeded, and even begin to contemplate those works which fell short.  Because at some point, even the things that fell short have to be re-considered as having potential (why did they fall short?  Is there anything that could have been done differently?  Were they made for the wrong reasons then, and can the right reasons be found now?).  Every artist revisits old themes: like a musical refrain, these themes and methodologies keep cropping up time and again in the careers of any artist who remains in the game.  The frequency of these motifs helps to create the tempo of an artist’s output: if John Baldessari repeats such-and-such an idea once every ten years, then that is ten years he has spent exploring other ideas, but this nonetheless means that he had an idea which was worth repeating.

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Given my present circumstances, I have had little choice – due to time restraints and the urgency to present new work of substance – but to revisit old ideas, and these ideas happen to be in the form of an idea I had a few years ago of juxtaposing high-brow literature with low-brow ephemera.  The first time I went in this direction, it was a hackneyed commentary on Greenbergian themes, but when I began to explore this again I found that other “tensions” were there to be uncovered.  For instance, Maurice Blanchot’s Thomas the Obscure (being a short fiction noted for its impenetrable nature), begins to assume a dark humour when placed within the context of an old comic book.  Similarly, the “Body without Organs” piece used in conjunction with a Popeye comic strip begins to open up notions of diological tension – questions are continually raised (much like the questions one would imagine Deleuze and Guattari firing at one another when preparing to write).

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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.

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 two) – The Rhizome Meets the Assemblage

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Three-or-four years ago I had a conversation about a certain artist who, for a goodly percentage of the year, entirely shut himself (for I am fairly sure it was a “he”) off from art practice and instead did nothing other than absorb other culture.  When said artist (who, although I still can’t recall his identity, is by no means hypothetical) returned to art creation, his perspective had altered slightly, thus his output remained fresh.  I have gone from Ruscha to Turrell and back again trying to remember who this artist was, but this is ultimately of little importance here: I know first-hand that this method works (to some extent), because I myself employ it.  To churn out artworks continuously implies the Deleuzean Body without Organs in its empty, non-productive state, whereby influences pass freely through the body without assimilation or re-direction.  Thus cultural influences enter the body without being processed, fully understood or given new form in an artist’s work, rendering the artist less of an Artist and more of a casual consumer.

I could have used the Summer months to commit to serious study and develop my practice, but I honestly cannot imagine this having as positive an effect on my outlook towards my work as my considered abnegation thereof has afforded.  I would eventually have become that Body without Organs.  Which, although is sound and remains a method which has (so far and touch wood) never failed me before, brings to the artistic its own problems – or rather problem – in that it can be frustratingly difficult to find a way back into art creation.  When everything one has created in the past is passed (and the artist has been so in name only for several months), the artist must then find a way back into a daily routine of the practicing artist.  There is usually (and perhaps necessarily) a period of re-adjustment to endure before the artist has fully returned to working at his or her full tempo – a matter of weeks during which any and all new elements and perspectives recently absorbed find their “voice” and those which remain adapt and assimilate these new factors.  While this happens on the most sublime level, its results are quite often remarkable.

As an artist, one of my main concerns is how I coherently string my work together, given that there is little in the way of commonality running through it.  As previously mentioned, many of the things that interest, concern or catch my attention in any way are sometimes superficial and fleeting, two words which I use advisedly.  “Superficial” here does not necessarily mean shallow or vapid, but rather refers to the way that elements of a thing have the power to interest me, while other elements do not.  I do not consider this a vacuous habit.  Nor do I say “fleeting” in a way to imply that my attention span is limited: I believe that it is now nigh-on universal for an individual to scan rather than contemplate, to briefly consider an object and how it connects to known objects as opposed to deep ratiocination.  This is only natural in a world that is literally overflowing with (what I shall for the sake of brevity call) “stuff,” and it is not so much that we don’t have the attention spans anymore as it is that we do not have the time to consider it all.  I sift through stuff retaining those elements that not only have distinct form, but which also – in some manner or small way – relate to other elements of other forms.  This is how I liken my output lately to A Thousand Plateaus, in that the various chapters of said book (on the surface) bear little relation to one another, but are ultimately joined by a consensual (between Deleuze and Guattari) linguistic thread.  This is precisely the way in which I work, akin to Walter Benjamin’s ragman, picking through the clutter and debris of culture and society for that which shines (another advisedly-used word).  Much like Jason Rhoades and many like him, this is how an artist feels compelled to work in the Twenty-First Century being walled-in on all sides by ephemera and consumables.  What the artist then chooses to make of the “things that shine” is by and large an approximation of what said artist would do with traditional materials.  Here then we see nothing more than a material shift in artistic practice, while I strive to maintain traditionalist media, for whatever reason makes sense to me to do so at any given time.

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No Job for a Grown Man (part one) – I like Philosophy, but I Couldn’t Eat a Whole One

gilles-deleuze-est-mort-il-y-a-20-ans-il-n-est-toujours-pas-post-il-est-neom272036The most fun one can have with philosophy is to cherry-pick from its massive historical inventory of themes and ideas – and there is absolutely nothing wrong with this. One need not absorb every text by Foucault, or attend two-hour lectures on Althusser to gain a healthy reserve of critical resources with which to formulate one’s own theories. For years now I have found endless creative uses for Plato’s cave and Wittgenstein’s stonemasons, for the very reason that philosophical models function in much the same way as art: intense critical thought and complex abstractions simplified to the nth degree as signs, giving flesh to otherwise untranslatable concepts: art builds real architecture in Utopia and peoples it accordingly, whilst artistic movements provides its zeitgeist and, much to Plato’s imagined chagrin, art is in many ways inseparable from critical thinking. On any given day, the human mind is subject to incalculable heterogonous abstractions which superficially bear no relation to one another other than their chronological linearity – or the oft-cited stream of consciousness, that convenient one-size-fits-all coat with which lazy commentators have dressed such diverse literary figures as Beckett, Burroughs, Thompson, Joyce and Proust. Terms such as stream of consciousness exist to categorise that which has no formal category (other than, in this instance, that of literature), and visual artists are no more immune to such taxonomies. It is far too convenient to brand Thomas Hirschhorn a “Relational Aesthetician,” or Rauschenberg a “Pop Artist” when those are two synthetic terms created critically and applied arbitrarily. Rauschenberg could be equally as conceptual as any of his contemporaries in the ‘sixties, and in many ways Hirschhorn would have flourished during Fluxus or the Situationists. The only “real” reason why Pop Art was Pop Art is that there were critics present to record it. There is always more going on than critical terminology allows for – indeed, one of the primary questions an artist must ask of his or herself is whether or not their output should “nutshell” the world when the world, subject to the fundamental laws of universal entropy, will never do the same. It is not an artist’s job to present the world in its de facto state, but rather to recognise its many subliminal codifications, deconstruct said codifications and re-present all of this via strategies of different codifications peculiar to an artist’s peculiar specifications. Certainly, the strategies available to an artist differ all the time, and often in tiny, incremental ways. Lack of available funds has compelled me, on occasion, to buy flowery canvases from charity shops and paint over them, which in itself opens itself up for the artist’s methodological re-interpretation. Strict budgeting need not be a disadvantage if the artist chooses to emphasise his or her situation – one of my favourite paintings of mine concerns itself explicitly with this very
thing – although there is also the implicit institutional critique of the pristine canvas.

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Institutional critique is, for me, re-treading old ground and, if I am honest with myself (which artists really should be in the habit of being), a former easy alternative to hanging my coat on one peg. In over four years I have on no occasion felt that any one concern was vital or pressing enough to potentially base an entire career upon. At one time I attributed this to a lack of focus, at another it seemed due to an ennui of sorts with the kinds of thing other folk feel passionately about. The truth is neither one nor both of those options, and I now credit my unfocussed oeuvre to a species of critical distance which sits somewhere in the middle. Cursed with a mind that reflexively unpicks the threads of any given issue, and always wants to comprehend a thing from its most oblique angle, I tend to find the least obvious aspects the most interesting, and this I believe is the thread that unites everything I have ever created. It is not so much a case of “lack of style in fact being a style” as it is a huge visual representation of what makes me tick – perhaps too far beyond the grasp of anyone other than myself as a bracketed concept, the sheer volume of the ideas I tend to churn out means that there should always be something, taken in isolation, for somebody to pick up on. Lately I have likened my output to Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome, in that the taproot prevalent throughout my work is nothing more complex (nor more trivial) than myself. All other secondary roots consist of the things which concern or interest me, and at this stage in the game I feel a responsibility to examine how all of these secondary roots co-exist and cross over. For the better part of six months, art and artistic practice has been allowed to take a secondary role in my day-to-day existence. This owes much to the fact that, for four years, I had concentrated on little else and – without much breathing space in between – work had been produced in quick succession in an organic, linear order. During this time I constantly soaked up other culture (that is to say, culture as defined by the structural definitions of film, television, literature and theatre) in conjunction with a close eye on contemporary art. In hindsight, this high concentration of influence did not always produce optimum results, owing to the vast array of interests and obsessions I frequently indulged myself in. This year I have taken a break of sorts from the art world (lower case, in this instance), as much to give myself some much needed breathing space and allow myself the opportunity to take stock from a vantage point of removal as it has been to concentrate on other areas of my life (such as they are).