Can electronic media in general, and the web in particular, generate a sense of place, for example one that corresponds to the concept “Dallas”?
Historically speaking, it cannot have been so long ago that the concept of an “exhibition” was implicitly assumed to denote a certain set of physical objects gathered in a specific place, in order that those people who chose to physically present themselves at that venue would be able to define themselves as that exhibition’s “public” by their very act of visiting, viewing, and responding to those objects. But that all seems lost in the mists of time by now. I don’t know whether the gallery-based or the web-based component of DB12 will prove to be the more significant, or if the organizers themselves know, or if it even matters. But I do think that the context of the exhibition, partly but not wholly viewable by those who may never set foot here in Dallas, encourages us to imagine what its title would mean to a hypothetical viewer who would learn about it only via an in-box, a status update, a browser, a Tweet, a “plus-one,” a “like,” or any of their electronic equivalents. If we ask what it means to bring these works to Dallas, even an electronically mediated version of Dallas, many of them enter into a truly stimulating dialog with their context. Among the many outstanding works on view here, I choose only a few to place into a dialogue with the situational context of their venue.
A first category of work is that defined partly by an attachment to a specific place, as for example those by Guillaume Leblon and Sharon Ya’ari. Leblon’s 4pm, Frévent, an instinctively lovable work, records and plays the sound of the afternoon church bells ringing in the small village of Frévent in northern France, not far from Calais, the English Channel and Belgium. Church bells are a very particular kind of sound, redolent of the old world in general and Europe in particular. Like the Islamic muezzin’s call to prayer, Christian church bells stake the claims of the sacred and the church over public space and public time. In Frévent as in much of Europe, the bells also recall a specific time: the medieval period during which many churches were built and the church exercised the greatest hegemony over culture and society. They recall a pre-industrial way of life, before the factory bell and the school bell, the telephone and the radio, the car alarm and the cell phone successively crowded out the church bells from their central timekeeping role. Indeed, Dallas is a city of churches, but hardly in the same way. How many visitors to DB12 are also familiar with the Fellowship Church of Grapevine, the Potter’s House of Dallas, or Prestonwood Baptist in Plano, recently ranked 7th, 10th and 17th, respectively among the largest congregations in the U.S.? Post-automobile sprawl segregates such institutions far from the earshot of most residents, giving up the claim on public space held by the churches of venerable European towns such as Frévent. Most people in Dallas can’t hear church bells from their homes.
Much of Sharon Ya’ari’s work, in photography as well as video, engages directly with the combination of arid landscape and well-ordered International Style architecture that is characteristic of Tel Aviv. Ya’ari has a Ruscha-type interest in anonymous vernacular places, showing that there is often more there than might be initially noticed. The Frame Loops break down cinema into its fundamental unit—the sequence—showing simple actions repeated among two or three figures, such as men walking through gates or cars pulling in and out of parking spaces. I will not try to lay too much stress on any possible parallels between the state formation and legendary frontier sagas of Texas and Israel, concerning frontier deserts, heroic combat, David Ben-Gurion, Sam Houston, Comanches, Palestinians, Santa Anna, Nasser, and any respective happy or unhappy parallels among them, since I do not think that this is central to Ya’ari’s careful and poetic work. Nevertheless, it is thought-provoking to see the dusty sagebrush of Ya’ari’s home environment and ponder the parallels to West Texas.
A second category of work grants an unflinching attention to those times and places where humans reveal themselves to be capable of the most horrific and destructive acts, a phenomenon explored here in works by Artur Barrio, Irena Knezevic, and indirectly by Matthew Girson. In 1970, when Barrio created Situation T/T. 1, Brazil was governed by a military regime whose political enemies were at risk of being permanently “disappeared.” At this time, Barrio became known for creating “bloody bundles” or trouxas ensanguentadas (T.E.s) made of wrapped-up meat from the butcher shop. For the Situation T/T. 1, Barrio left fourteen of these T.E.s on a riverbank in downtown Belo Horizonte and burned them, suddenly attracting wide attention to what disturbingly resembled a burning of corpses. The public response, and the relationship of Barrio’s work to Brazil’s ruling dictatorship, make for a stunning contrast with works by those international contemporaries of Barrio, such as Carolee Schneemann, Wolf Vostell or the Vienna Actionists, who also used butchered meat as a radically anti-illusionistic medium. By comparison with Barrio, the latter artists were working within the basically tolerant context of liberal democratic Euro-American regimes in which art audiences did not live in physical fear of the state, and hence their work seems somewhat less existentially loaded than Barrio’s. What were the viewers of Barrio’s burning T.E.’s thinking, during the episode recorded in Situation T/T. 1? Did they fear that these were bodies of “disappeared” victims? Obviously, that moment has passed into history, and viewers today need to engage in imaginative projection to appreciate the work at the moment of its execution. All the same, I would not deny that the burning of a set of “bloody bundles” would cause a stir in almost any circumstance.
Irena Knezevic’s work describes contemporary reality with quasi-fictional, quasi-historical methods. The video HERE COMES THE DARKNESS (2011) is a montage structured around an absent center: the speech delivered by George Bush and Barack Obama on September 25th, 2008, after the stock market crash. Instead of the speech itself, we see shots of locations charged with significance from contemporary history, in places such as Iraq, Cairo, Serbia, Switzerland, Munich, and the U.S. The overtones are ominous and deadly, allowing the viewer’s imagination to run wild with the nightmare of destruction. THE VICTORY OF LITERARY SCHOOL X (2010) adopts a pseudo-journalistic format to tell a seemingly mythical fable about the life and death of minimal and conceptual art. Reading about the gory kidnapping, torture and decapitation of Donald Judd, one might imagine that a younger artist has created a grotesque Oedipal fantasy symbolizing the need to overthrow one’s elder masters and ascend the throne of artistic success. Unfortunately, the horrific details are not fictional, but lifted from press accounts of Serbian drug cartel killings. Viewing this work in Texas, one naturally thinks of the ongoing combat among Mexican drug cartels and between them and the Mexican armed forces, which has a significant economic and social impact across the border in Texas as well.
Matthew Girson has engaged in a long and profound exploration of the heights and depths to which human consciousness can rise and fall. As have such intellectuals as Paul de Man and Theodor Adorno, Girson has found key historical markers in nineteenth-century Romanticism, on the one hand, and the Holocaust, on the other. Girson’s paintings, such as the Scotoma series and the Concentration Camp series, distinctively explore the powers and limits of vision, in relation to the unrepresentable. As Sarah Giller Nelson argues, Girson’s work can be understood by means of the concept of the sublime, and its relation to terror, danger, and the unimaginable.
In this exhibition, Girson’s work explores this territory, not by means of painted images, but with sound. The Sleep (of Reason Produces Monsters, I Think) is an audio piece initiated in 2007 in response to Descartes’ declaration “I think, therefore I am,” which for Girson is “the turning point in continental philosophy that led to subject-centered Modern thought.” The piece consists of a two-minute recorded text excerpted from Maurice Blanchot, which includes the phrase “I think, therefore I am not,” and which will be repeated for thirty years until 2037 (the 400th anniversary of Descartes’s book), at which point it will be complete, and then broadcast into space for 100 years, repeating twenty-two million times, finishing in the year 2137 (500th anniversary of Descartes). The title of the piece, and the installation that includes a black speaker embedded in a black cushion, allude to Goya’s quintessentially Romantic attention to the dark, irrational side of the human soul, placing Goya within the tradition initiated by Descartes. As the text ceaselessly repeats, the speaker, text and sound become progressively disconnected from each other.
A third category of work explores technologies of mechanical production and reproduction. At a moment when all attention seems to be fixed on the digital and the virtual, works by artists such as Brad Tucker and Michael Vorfeld demonstrate the power of historical and obsolescent media. Tucker’s plastic records are a kind of bootleg homage to an eclectic and obscure range of musical legends, from Claude Debussy and Erik Satie to Liberace, Honey Cone, and Sly and the Family Stone. Tucker casts commercially produced records in plastic, then plays the casts on a record player, records this on video and uploads the video to YouTube. Just as the lo-fi ethos of bands such as Pavement exploited the anti-aesthetic of the homemade and the deskilled, Tucker’s casting process appropriates the mass-produced product of the entertainment industry for a paradoxically unique creation. And in a similar manner to Marcel Broodthaers’s Industrial Poems or Dieter Roth’s Literature Sausages, Tucker’s cast records exploit the confusing ambiguity of media. If a record is a mechanically produced thing, it should be possible to copy that thing and achieve the same result. The differences introduced in Tucker’s copying process (other colors, deterioration of sound quality) underscore the distinction between the artwork as immaterial expression, and the artwork as object.
Light is usually taken for granted as an optical phenomenon. But it can also have symbolic connotations, as in words such as enlightenment or illuminate. It is likewise a physical, material thing: the movement of energized photons from a filament, a gas or a combustion process. Michael Vorfeld’s work engages all three of these aspects of light. LIGHT BULB MUSIC is a mechanical symphony using light bulbs as instruments. Vorfeld controls the performance of the lights with a rig of electrical controls, and a set of audio devices that also captures and manipulates the hums and clicks produced by the light system. Just as the electric guitar and the keyboard synthesizer opened up new possibilities of sound, so do Vorfeld’s instruments of light. In LEUCHTSTOFF, a woman performs a kind of ballet with flashlight, light bulbs and neon lights, moving in and out of darkness. The light and shadow here can be read as metaphors of consciousness.
At a time and place when so many public figures lay stress on high technology as the foundation of future social security and prosperity, and emphasize the importance of producing STEM graduates (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), recruiting high-skilled “knowledge workers,” and producing increasing numbers of patents and start-up companies, following in the footsteps of companies such as Texas Instruments, that are foundational to the story of contemporary Dallas, work like that of Tucker and Vorfeld is a useful reminder that innovation, breakthroughs and novelty are not the only important aspects of technology. Instead, their attention to technology’s aesthetic and historical aspects is a necessary counterbalance. As a fast-growing and future-oriented, if not amnesiac city, Dallas sometimes seems to have more in common with boomtowns like Shanghai or Dubai than with the staid and venerable cradles of art history. The work in DB12, however, reminds us that such distinctions are never so simple. In both its web and its physical presence, DB12 is a complement and a challenge to the official identity of Dallas.