Monday, December 29, 2008

Crisis in the Credit System

As appeared in Art Monthly November 2008

Artangel Interaction, launched in 2006, commissions emerging artists to develop projects that can be realised outside of institutional spaces, and that can foster collaborative and participatory exchanges. Commissioned and produced by Rehana Zaman as part of this programme, Melanie Gilligan’s Crisis in the Credit System addresses these criteria in a number of ways. It is available to view online and, as a 40-minute video work, the video’s production is necessarily and ambitiously collaborative. Perhaps more significant is the fact it has developed complex ideas through discussions with experts in the field that it addresses, and evidences a substantial engagement with the economic tribulations that have dominated headlines in the past year or so. Crisis in the Credit System is structured in four parts to facilitate viewing online, also evoking both the idea of separate episodes, and the division of a single programme by advert breaks.
The first of these episodes opens in an ornate garden, introducing five employees of an investment bank taking part in a role-playing exercise. The tranquil setting and casual dress code implies that perhaps this is a residential workshop, the protagonists taken out of their workplace in a cynical attempt to further tweak creative efficiency. This at first seems to be similar territory to that occupied by Carey Young, who is known for her intersections of the world of corporate business with strategic recoveries of recognisable moments in the history of conceptual art. However, as the protagonists are assigned their roles, we are taken into their narrative reality, a heightened and stylised rendition of the world of bankers and hedge fund managers. The garden serves as a framing narrative for the story within a story, but the two realities slip into one another, emphasising a paranoiac dimension that ultimately brings the arrogant certainties of these players to a point of subjective crisis as Marxist critique enters into their thinking, and their realistic fantasies become more grotesque.
Like Mark Wallinger’s State Britain, this is a work that offers an extraordinary encounter that might be described, borrowing from Walter Benjamin, as a striking and exemplary act of the politicisation of aesthetics. It also shares with State Britain the ability to appear convincing. Just as State Britain was flawless in its obsessive attention to detail and meticulous rendering, Crisis demonstrates an impressively thoughtful and attentive process of construction. In particular, Gilligan’s script, the core of the work, is an extraordinary piece of writing. It is well researched, tight, funny, threatening, engaging and manages to fuse elements of fiction and theory, narrative and politics with the vertiginously arcane language of international finance.
The current financial situation has thrown into sharp relief another more general crisis of both politics and media representation. It seems that, no matter how the ongoing turmoil is depicted, there is within broadcast media and mainstream print no allowance for any questioning of our dependence on the precarious, irrational and destructive mechanisms that constitute global finance. This finds its ultimate manifestation in both the UK and US, where a choice of two variations of the same party continue to perpetuate and exacerbate these conditions. It has become anathema in mainstream politics to doubt the fundamental apparatus of capitalism, to see liberal democracy as something that may be flawed and that could benefit from some radical transformations. Instead, such ideas retreat into safe enclaves, such as academia and art. As Fredric Jameson puts it: ‘It seems easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism; and perhaps that is due to some weakness in our imagination.’ With this in mind, Gilligan’s Crisis in the Credit System may not offer much hope for imagining the breakdown of late capitalism, but does offer late capitalism as breakdown. This is a rare and astonishingly insightful reflection on current economic conditions. It is critical and engaging, and is able to re-introduce Marx stealthily into an accessible form for a potentially large, even perhaps mainstream, audience. However, this work also deserves to be seen properly. The free availability of Crisis in the Credit System is commendable, but tiny windows on small screens, interrupted by bandwidth problems, fail to do this work justice. Yet to rely upon the gallery to view the work adequately is perhaps just another retreat back into the protective enclave.

Monday, April 07, 2008


Final draft for print for April 2008 issue of Art Monthly.

The theme of horizontality as a spatial alignment might seem to be the terrain of practices that could be described as sculpture. Indeed, horizontality can be found as an overt presence in work that ranges from Robert Morris and Carl Andre to Tomoko Takahashi and Jim Lambie. However, engagements with horizontality as a specific form of opposition to verticality appear to have been manifesting in other forms lately under discussion here is work by Paul Chan, Rodney Graham and Gustav Metzger.
Firstly, though, I would like to address Anthony McCall’s recent show at the Serpentine Gallery. McCall has been exploring horizontality since the 1970s, but the bringing together of old and new work has proved to be particularly revealing. Horizontality is in part implicit in the nature of McCall’s projections in an artificially clouded atmosphere: as an apparatus they either intersect a space along a horizontal plane, or cut space vertically as towers of light to create moving drawings of light upon the floor, as seen in his two-part Between You and I at the Round Chapel in London in 2006. However, there was a significant difference between two of the projection works at the Serpentine that was partly a visualising of a difference between work of different periods, as well as a shift in medium from the analogue manipulation of film to the digital creation of animation and video projection. Yet it is around the idea of horizontal alignment that I would suggest the biggest shift takes place: Line Describing A Cone, 1973, focuses attention on the mesmerising progress of a dot of light and its trail as it slowly completes a circle. Despite the dramatic beauty of the cone as it is formed in the darkened room, that circle on the wall acts as the culmination of the entire apparatus of projector, film, light, space and the smoky haze. The cone formed is rooted in the upright axis, and while it traverses the actual space of the room, it is resolved into a flat image at one end. As suggested by its title, the emphasis of attention in You and I, Horizontal III, 2007, is qualitatively different. Here space is filled by luminous cuts which must be traversed by the audience. The lines drawn on the walls are almost incidental. Rather it is the tunnels of light, with their intersecting planes, and the physical immersion in that space, that demand attention. McCall creates a zone of total horizontality, into which observers are immersed into brief moments of disorientation and offered glimpses of something that resembles a visual sublime. The sense of a pure investigation of medium offered by Line Describing a Cone is gone, replaced by perceptual wonder. This is not necessarily a shift that is inherently problematic, but I would like to suggest that it raises the question of what might be at stake in such a dramatic realisation of horizontality.
Among the conventions that define the institutional parameters of art, there are some received assumptions that not only still persevere but appear essential beyond any terms of negotiation. The upright vertical axis, with particular reference to gallery walls and their relative position to a standing observer, is one of these. It seems strange then, that more has not been said on the issue of horizontality as a plane opposed to this ubiquitous verticality. For the past decade, the critical discussion of horizontality in relation to recent art practice has been dominated by Rosalind Krauss’s essay on the subject (titled simply ‘Horizontality’) published in Formless: A User’s Guide, 1997. Co-authored with Yve-Alain Bois, the book was a companion to the exhibition ‘L’Informe: Mode d’emploi’, held at the Centre Pompidou, Paris, in 1996 (see AM199). Krauss and Bois present themselves in the act of revealing the operation of Georges Bataille’s notion of l’informe – of the formless – through nebulous associations that connect different moments of the 20th Century, from Surrealism to Ed Ruscha, Cindy Sherman and Mike Kelly.
Having brought the issue so vividly to such wide attention, it is impossible to escape Krauss’s account of the term horizontality. Yet perhaps a re-reading is necessary. While I would suggest that the opposition of horizontality to a dominant and received understanding of verticality opens up questions that apply to all forms of artwork, Krauss’s argument seems to depend upon a mythic origin found within acts of painting, a kind of creation story for a form of subversive power in imagery. The central figure in this narrative is Jackson Pollock. He is described as a student making banners with Mexican revolutionary mural painter David Siqueiros: the floor is production site, as opposed to the vertical axis of the easel which is representative for Siqueiros of the walls of bourgeois apartments in need of decoration, or the institutional elitism of the museum. Yet the banners produced will be held aloft, thrust high into the air as messages and images. This tension is worked through in Pollock’s later paintings. What Krauss describes as the ‘baseness’ of a work like Full Fathom Five, 1947 – produced on the floor, its surface encrusted with coins, cigarette butts and other detritus – is retained beyond the lifting of the painting onto the wall from which it will be viewed.
Krauss’s reading of this is of Pollock staging an attack on the vertical axis, which is in itself an attack on the order of both the body and culture itself. The marks Pollock makes are material indexes of the horizontal’s resistance to the vertical. Krauss also makes use of Warhol’s Dance Diagrams, 1962, as a response to Pollock’s horizontality as choreography, as well as the ‘Oxidation’, 1978, series of paintings. Here, the surface of metallic paint is altered through the addition of urine applied in a direct manner. This is read as, among other things, a decoding of the machismo of action painting.
The vertical is also, she argues, the axis in which the image of woman is suspended, a phallic condition of the fetish. In Sherman’s images, Krauss sees a continuation of the presence of the formless, becoming a weapon of rotating the image out of the axis of the vertical and onto the horizontal of the formless.
As well as drawing on Bataille’s notion of baseness as something that undermines the civilized rituals of verticality, Krauss draws on some other ideas. One is Leo Steinberg’s opposition of pictorial representation, allied with the world around us, to flatbeds, or printers’ forms as the field of written signs. Here can be found an accidental affinity with McCall’s horizontality, as he spent much of the period between Line Describing a Cone and You and I Horizontal III working as a graphic designer, specifically in the area of book design and typesetting. Krauss also briefly refers to Walter Benjamin’s short essay ‘Painting in the Graphic Arts’ of 1917. Benjamin’s argument here is to distinguish between drawing and painting. This can be thought of as two cuts through the world’s substance: painting is a longitudinal cut, the graphic can be aligned with a transversal cut. The longitudinal seems to be to do with representation and its ability to enclose, whereas the transversal is symbolic, it encloses signs. Esther Leslie’s recent book, Walter Benjamin, makes these implications clearer. Leslie emphasises how for Benjamin, drawings were mistakenly viewed as paintings in the vertical. In some cases this is acceptable, but ultimately it violates the plane of children’s drawing, whose meaning relies on horizontality. If drawing, in its showing of the world’s cross section as a flat plane, was symbolic, then it was composed of signs much in the way that writing is. To orientate this field of writing in an upright position is to make it like a headstone.
Whereas Krauss falls short of making use of Benjamin’s distinction, with the horizontal cut and its potential as a symbolic plane, McCall’s use of light performs its own rendition of drawing as cut and cross section that goes beyond the limited terms of Krauss’s arguments. Similarly, Paul Chan’s use of downward projection reflects and reiterates Krauss’s version of how a conscious shift in orientation offers a form of resistance or challenge, but also move beyond Krauss’s terms. His animations of light and shadow projected onto the floor mimic the appearance of light cast from a window. Shoes interfere in the work, choices need to be made to walk around or through, alongside or on the images. There is a diverting of planes of attention, from a predominantly horizontal gaze to a diagonal or vertical one. In looking down, not across, there is a making conscious of the act of attention. Again, as in McCall’s offered experience of horizontality, the value or quality of the experience is not secure. In playing with horizontality so conspicuously, there is something questionable about the claims that seem to be presented in these situations, but such questions are valid in themselves.
Krauss’s take on horizontality is also questionable in the privileging of a few acts of painting as the fulcrum for a critical understanding of the term. However, the image of Pollock as source of a radical and subversive presence of horizontality in contemporary art could be replaced by the image provided by Rodney Graham’s three-part light box photograph The Gifted Amateur, Nov.10th, 1962, 2007. Graham stands in a pair of pyjamas, frozen in the act of painting, in a staged scene of modernist domesticity. He stands in what looks like the middle of the room, not at its periphery by a wall. Indeed, the wooden panelling of the wall echoes the blobs made on the canvas. The painting he is making looks backwards, towards postwar American abstraction. In particular, to the artists that Greenberg held up as heirs to Pollock: Helen Frankenthaler, Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis. Graham’s staged act of painting also brings to mind other depictions of artists at work, such as Sam Taylor-Wood’s photograph A Gesture Towards Action Painting, 1992, and the images of Ian Davenport recorded in the book Technique Anglaise, 1991, which themselves look back as re-readings of Hans Namuth’s photos of Pollock, 1950. Over six pages we see a paint-covered studio, bearing the traces of numerous drips and spills, from above. Davenport, dressed in overalls, pours out the measured contents of one can of paint to form a glistening blob on the prepared canvas. The action is repeated to create a twin; the fourth image is the elevation of the canvas; the fifth frame sees the completion of ascension to the vertical plane and in the final image, Davenport has disappeared behind the now vertical canvas. It appears to stand on its own, as if fixed to the wall, but rather is suspended in a visual field of paint-covered floor and wall.
As well as engaging in the photographic terrain that dramatises and parodies the floor as space of production, Graham’s photograph is contextualised by his series Wet on Wet – My Late Early Styles, a body of paintings that accompanies the persona of his fictional painter. Those produced by the method shown in the photograph are hung upside down, inverted along the vertical axis to look as if they are dripping upwards. The drip itself is something that is excluded from Krauss’s version of horizontality. It is the lack of run-off that defines the pure horizontality of Pollock, but here she misses the act of raising the canvas from one plane to another as an equally significant gesture of the painting process. Yet Graham’s canvas is neither horizontal nor vertical. Rather, it is the newspaper which covers the floor that adopts the position of horizontality. The canvas is angled, propped up as a sloping surface. It is excluded from the mythic space conjured by Krauss, of a formless realm that opposes the vertical. There is no pure horizontality to retain here, but rather an ad hoc propping of the canvas on a chair. Graham’s take on horizontality runs counter to Krauss privileged ontology. It is instead an irreverent, reflexive, humorous and critical engagement with history, notions of medium and his own presence as author.
While Graham’s take on horizontality relies on a sense of polite irony, Gustav Metzger’s series Historic Photographs (1995 – ongoing) offers a very different and more explicit consideration of horizontality as a site of spatial alignment, critical engagement and embodied participation. Horizontality and verticality find themselves opposed in a very particular pairing of images: a suspended photograph of armed Israeli police standing over the figures of Arabs lying on the ground. Alongside, lying flat on the floor, is an image of Jews in Vienna being forced to scrub pavement. Each image is covered with a sheet. To see the photographs necessitates a demanding encounter: it requires the viewer to move between sheet and print, in standing and crawling positions respectively. Horizontality is explored here as a direct relationship between body and image, in a manner that seems to owe little to Krauss’s trajectory. For Metzger the change in alignment is made poignant not through a mythic origin in painting, but through a bodily renegotiation of the sphere of the visual as political.