Mar 7, 2011

The Unbearable Density of Images in the Age of Free Economies

It’s important to move at a steady pace through Art, stopping only when something attracts your attention. I don’t believe in spending too much time contemplating abstractions or searching for meaning that isn’t handed to you explicitly. I don’t have time to do the artist’s work and explain their half-articulated ideas. It doesn’t have to compel you—it just has to stand out enough to make you wander toward it for a second and take a quick picture, maybe attracting the attention of gallerists if you’re wearing a press badge, who will quickly give you a few snippets of information as you try to keep your pace—have to keep moving.

I always find it amazing to walk around art fairs with other people, especially after I have already made a tour. Inevitably they walk too slowly and constantly stop and point out things that I don’t see. I went with a buddy a few years ago who noticed every cute animal and brightly colored object in the hall. It’s not that the color hadn’t attracted my attention. Whatever idea or image it contained did not register with things that were framing my experience, the categories that make things intelligible to me, available to my understanding, render things meaningful.

Every year the same complaint from sort-of-would-be insiders: not enough good work at the Armory Show, say, and wow, you must see the Independent, or some other novelty that the art elite has decreed will displace the official center that opens New York’s spring art market. Often this other thing is meant to be independent of the marketness of the art market, which is still, always, supposedly a bad thing, no matter how poor the artists and critics are becoming, and no matter how many times sociologists and historians and political scientists or self-conscious critics force the point that art is and always has been encompassed by and drenched in marketness, even when it’s not.

I’m struck by the backwardness of this ongoing preoccupation as a citizen of the contemporary free economy, in which much of the work you do, even when valuable and recognized by colleagues and peers, does not have a monetary value. On Thursday, the market went up nearly 200 points. I turned on Bloomberg to find out why. On Bloomberg they were betting on the price of commodities. Wheat, corn, soybeans, and oat had nearly doubled in a year, oil was above $100 a barrel, but rice had only gained five or six percent. Did that mean you should be betting on rice? Droughts were going to put pressure on future supply in the coming year, a hopeful sign for traders. It was only last year’s bumper rice crop that had kept the revolts against dictatorships in North Africa and the Arabia Peninsula from spreading throughout Africa and Asia, and prevented good money from being made by rice traders. Sugar and coffee are untouched by this inflation. Agricultural subsidies, I presume. Hogs and cattle anyone?

Meanwhile, here in New York, it seems that everyone is busy from predawn to the Jon Stewart show doing free, unpaid work. So busy they can barely find time to eat. They cook all their food themselves now. (The quality of restaurant cuisine too is astonishingly good and innovative. Who goes there apart from the critics? Someone must have money.) They put enormous care in the buying and making of food. There’s a concern for the relationship between the individual practice of making and eating and the broader impact of consumption on the global market. It’s probably just a preoccupation of the urban elite. But you can see it trying to colonize the heartland; Jamie Oliver proselytizes good food on network television, movies like Food Inc. expose the commodification of eating, the federal government begins to do its rightful job of creating market incentives that originate in the moral decision to preserve life rather than inducing better profit margins for agribusiness. It’s still lagging pretty far behind.

As a member of the press, I enter the Armory Show for free, rather than paying the $30 entrance fee. That’s worth noting to start. I presume the enterprise is paid for mostly by fees from vendors, so I’m not worried about it. For images I relied on the free Philips camera I got five years ago test-driving Lexus hybrid SUVs at a press event during the NY Auto Show.

More than the work, I stop to greet friends and acquaintances, talking business mostly; I have my own for-the-moment-free projects that I’m investing hundreds of hours producing for free, and working hard to induce others to contribute their own free work. I ask myself, how is it that value is created? How is it that it is sold? I am convinced that this work has an enormous value, that it’s an investment, but I don’t see clearly exactly how it will produce revenue on the back end for me. I have seen it do so forever—everywhere this activity takes place, it attracts consumption, it brings bodies, it creates agglomerations of development, real estate profits, tax revenue, business for corner stores and restaurants and boutiques. But is there any direct revenue for cultural producers? When and how? I think we all believe that this investment is going to be paid back in the future in the form of recognition that will translate into paid work and an increased value of that work. In any case, I don’t have a choice. I had an idea, I am compelled by it. I must do it.

The work that grabbed my attention were heavy images. None of it was particularly useful for my own free project; work that would activate a city, create public space, bring people into the streets, spur economic developments, define the identity of a place. There’s some fine line in social and political art between the cloyingly explicit and the suggestive and seductive, and I don’t want the work to be so explicit that it tells me what to think. I want it to please my sensibilities first, but also perform some conscious act of producing meaning alongside the pleasure of sensible experience. Despite that I couldn’t avoid dealing with one image. It was the most unbearable of the heavy images at the Armory show. It was a photo by Jodi Bieber of a woman disfigured by her husband in Afganistan. Her nose and ears had been cut off. It was a portrait of this disfigured woman, printed about 2 ½ feet in height, placed in a corridor and impossible not to notice. My first impulse was to run away, to walk fast past it. Then I had to turn back and confront it. What was this image representing? What had happened to this woman? There was a story next to it, and fortunately there was some redemption in it, at least for her; she was in the U.S. for reconstructive surgery. She would be made more whole again. Brutally heavy image. This is, in short, why we fight.

Nothing else in the show compares, but a few others registered in some way, they were complex but straightforward, I understood them immediately but they lasted a little longer. There were probably a dozen pieces that were pleasing or meaningful or registered in some technical way as innovative. At first I walked right past the paintings by Ronald Ophuis of Africans holding weapons. They’re rendered in thick textured paintings with muted colors that recall the expressionism of Egon Schiele combined with the dense surfaces of a late-20th century abstract painter like Anselm Kiefer. The tension between the two made me stop and turn back and look. It’s uncanny to see an African woman wielding a machine gun rendered in a media so identified with high European modernism, and it makes you question those relationships and categories. Strange intentional aestheticizations of violence.

A lot of the work that registered to me was of this nature, confusing categories in a simple pleasing gesture. Images of different types embedded in the same frame—an urban scene photographed from a hilltop by Gianfranco Faschino: from time to time a little movement appears within the otherwise still photograph. A woman appears in a corner of the frame and shakes out a tablecloth on a balcony. A plume of smoke from a chimney, a cow hops down a narrow street, a boy runs in the distance and then is hidden by flimsy hillside dwellings.

I walked past an image of men carrying bags up a hill. Agitprop I thought. Then the shimmering light stuck with me, displayed as a lightbox with chromogenic transparency. I turned back and looked at the gleaming gold on every part of the image: the burlap sacks, the shoes, the dirt, the bodies. Gold mining by Chilean photographer Alfredo Jaar. The content makes you think too about the material in the photograph itself, the silver emulsion in the color photograph. They might as well be carrying the photograph on their backs.

There’s a compelling photograph by Isaac Julien, at first just a sparkling image of modernity, the top of a glass tower and glimpses of a new city in the background, in the foreground there’s the calm rationalism of a modern hotel room with glass windows, and a woman standing in front of them, gazing out. She’s wearing a neat, modern printed dress, she’s pretty, Chinese, maybe. By a British photographer of African descent who established himself as an artist addressing questions of postcolonial black identity, it’s a strikingly cosmopolitan image that reflects the emergence of a new historical age. What does it mean? Where is all the money coming from, and where is it going?

There were also a series of technically interesting images: James Casabere’s photographs of models constructed to create imagined landscapes. They so closely resemble the real that my friend claims to have heard a couple trying to figure out if it was Ireland.

Leandro Erlich’s subway car installation presents a flat video image of a modern R160 car in New York framed by a door, as if you’re peering through the end of the car at passengers. Again, the stillness is interrupted by small movements.

Scott McFarland’s digital composite of a lake scene captures the capacity of the eye and the mind to take in a big scene and process it so that multiple depths of field and peripheral information are all thrown together in one immense sense of worldness that photography always has to crop and frame. Here it’s seamlessly merged in one uncanny image that could seemingly go on forever.

Gregory Scott plays with stillness and movement by embedding video screens within the frame of still photographs of a man looking at paintings in a museum. But the paintings gets picked up and carried away, in a funny technologically enhanced version of a trompe l’oeil painting.

Vitali Massimo’s image of a square filled with tens of thousands of people partying, presumably on New Year’s Eve, gets some of its density by contrast with recent images of similar masses in Cairo and Tunis participating in political revolutions. You have to take a moment to take in these masses of people congregating, awe-inspiring even if they’re merely participating in infamous acts of Western consumption. In consumer-democratic societies, we get our revolutionary moments by small acts of quasiresistance, by buying organic vegetables and doing work that we’re convinced has a value, rather than spending the enormous time it takes to press it into the narrow form that makes it pay.

A dollar used to be the going rate for words in some print magazines; now it’s less in most places. Tant pis--it was always worth more and the work often suffered for it. Why bother to sell it when you can easily give it away for free. I'm grateful to one colleague I ran into, the photographer Magda Biernat, who reminded me that part of the value of this kind of work, undervalued, free, or grossly overpaid, is being able to go to a place and gain access to experience, which is refreshing in a place where you can sometimes get an impression that, much more than the market or money, art is a competition for accumulation of status.

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