PRINT February 1974

Douglas Huebler’s Recent Work

THOMAS PYNCHON’S NOVEL, GRAVITY’S RAINBOW, declares an ambition to make physics become metaphysics; Douglas Huebler’s work relates to Pynchon’s in a vital respect, which is that Huebler seems to want to make the “sociological“ achieve an analogous transcendence. By this I mean that Huebler wants to make ways of documenting events stand for a larger paradigm, one that can contain enough of the conditions of experience in the real world to stand as a sort of model for ordinary language itself. In Huebler, sociology—events in the real world—becomes a sort of phenomenological linguistics—language in the real world. This happens via a procedure which in Huebler’s recent work, of which Duration Piece #7, 1973, is a useful example, employs a metonymical structure to present an event in the real world, and, by doing so, illustrates the incompleteness—reflexiveness—of ordinary perceptual experience in a way that is newly clear. Huebler’s work is about the “deconstruction” of the familiar.

Metonyms are alternates, in a relationship which is dialectic in that they imply one another, as black implies white. In James Boone’s elegant example, a fork stands in metonymical relationship to a knife—while a sword relates to a knife metaphorically. One is tempted to say that, in traditionalist terms, Huebler seems long on metonym but short on metaphor. But there are good reasons why this should be so, as I shall try to suggest here.

Like all of Huebler’s recent work, Duration Piece #7 is based on the metonym “constant/variable.” He gets an incredible range of conceptual diversity out of this continuum, and it is that range which, for me, confirms his importance. Duration Piece #7 involves photographs of the Trevi Fountain (which is in Rome) taken at 30-second intervals, “in order to document specific changes in the relationship between two aspects of the water falling from the rocks in one area at the base of the Fountain of Trevi.” In this piece, which is rigorously controlled temporally but is spatially—compositionally—mutable, it is—I think—important that each part of the equation implies the condition of the other to some extent. The water moves but the rocks are static. The camera clicks at regular intervals but is free to move about, as long as it retains the two cascades of water within its field of vision. We are aware that the Trevi Fountain is a fixture while the people in front of it move in and out of the frame, and are situated, too, by the positioning of the camera. A complex series of pairings occurs across the continuum of “constant/variable” oppositions proposed by both the camera and its subject. Besides the fact that water seems to be in a relationship to the rocks that’s similar to that of the camera’s movements to the regularity with which shots are made, the regulation of the camera—the immutable temporal order of the photographic documentation—is also paired with the immutability of the fountain as an object, while pictorial emphasis in each shot is seen to depend on the spontaneous and unpredictable behavior of the people caught in the camera’s space.

The water itself is the subject of this piece because it’s the water which provides the key to one’s experience of the document as a whole. From shot to shot, the changes between the two cascades are tiny, and physically determined in a way that’s characteristic of the whole work. In that, they represent a continuous process subject to specifiable—and constant—restraint, and remind one that the space available to the camera is both as fixed and as variable as the fountain’s supply of water. This pairing of—in effect—pictorial order with the water’s flow, responds to the pairing of the fountain’s permanence as an object with the temporal regulation of the camera. Together, I think, these two pairs describe what happens in this piece: “deconstruction“ achieved through the integration of documentary process with that which is documented.

Of his work, Huebler has said—in Ursula Meyer’s Conceptual Art (New York, 1972, p. 137)—that “Because [his] work is beyond direct perceptual experience, awareness of the work depends on a system of documentation. . . . This documentation takes the form of photographs, maps, drawings, and descriptive language.”

This interest in phenomena whose significance is latent but not fully apparent to direct perception is one that Huebler shares with artists as diverse as Mel Bochner and Joel Shapiro. If it isn’t possible not to misconstrue Bochner’s Axiom of Indifference without being aware of its terminological origins (it wasn’t for me, anyway), then it’s also clear that Huebler’s claim for the intrinsic necessity of documentation in his work is made very succinctly in the effect that the 30-second interval between the shots in Duration Piece #7 has on one’s experience of the piece. If we didn’t know that the interval was there the work would have a different meaning for us.

It seems worthwhile to ask why that should be so. I think it would mean that the scope of the reflexiveness—the interaction—between camera and subject would be eroded or reduced in the absence of a regular interval, because there would then be no temporal corollary in the process of documentation for the permanence of the fountain. Huebler seems to be interested in what I take to be a central formulation—almost a paradox—of ordinary language philosophy: that while we are bound to experience ourselves as constants in a world of variables, we’re at the same time aware that our own sensibility is itself materially conditioned by events outside ourselves. We bring meaning to things, but things bring to us the shape not only of their own meaning but of meaning itself. Huebler’s use of metonym is one that tries to achieve an equivalence between documentary procedure and that which is documented, in an attempt to locate both in the (linguistic) context whence their meaning—“reality”—is commonly derived. If you like, Huebler seeks to make his work internalize the conundrum posited by Lévi-Strauss, that man lives through myth, but myth also lives through man.

That Huebler’s use of metonym must take a different form in response to different situations—and should, therefore, be thought of as methodical rather than formulaic—can be seen if one compares Duration Piece #107 with the one I’ve just been talking about, Duration Piece #7. In Duration Piece #107 there is no physical constant comparable to that provided by the Trevi Fountain, and, consequently, the camera isn’t used in the same arbitrarily constant way.

To make Duration Piece #107 Huebler went to Regent Street (London) and made a series of pairs of photographs. First he’d photograph a mannequin in a store window, and then the first person he saw—on turning away from the window—who was of the same sex as that represented by the mannequin. Here, there is no temporal constant comparable to that provided by the 30-second interval, and I think it’s reasonable to say that that’s because no image recurs—as the Trevi Fountain does—from photograph to photograph. Instead, in Duration Piece #107, the idea of a constant is entirely tied to procedure, where procedure is opportunist—which is to say, a matter of tactics. I suppose one might say that from Duration Piece #7 to Duration Piece #107 Huebler moves from an a priori constant to one that’s a posteriori. And as one looks at the pairs that result, of harassed housewives and decaying men made contiguous with—literally—sex symbols, one begins to grasp some of the point of Huebler’s preoccupation with metonym to the exclusion of metaphor. The point would be that metaphor is suggestive of an imposed meaning, is an affair of interpretation, and, in effect, of prescriptive value. Huebler’s work relates to that philosophical enterprise which wants to talk about “value-neutral” propositions, to avoid associative meaning in pursuit of a descriptive mode that might not be—ideologically—compromised by inherited attitudes to language. Such a concern—represented in art criticism most ambitiously (and hence most problematically) by the writing of Bruce Boice—is ultimately a reformist one. This is because it aims less at unpacking the notion of intuited judgment than at heightening consciousness of the materialist context—the options—within which intuition operates. Since intuition is by definition not measurable, we’re obliged to stick with its manifestations in the physical world in the course of describing the implications of our own modes of response. The aim of Huebler’s best work (and I haven’t mentioned here that work of his which never seems to leave the plane of the sociological, like the book Duration Piece #8, which seems to me to consist entirely of the sort of in-groupy star fucking that characterizes the work of an artist like Arman) is to find a way of documenting in which the act of documentation preserves and accounts for the partial accessibility of that which is documented. That is to say, the—or one—aim of this work is to make the concept of an event register the shape of the event itself, while retaining the arbitrary connection between signifier and signified which makes the documentation function as a sign in the first place. Whether or not it’s conceivable that a concept can be as manipulable, as impartial, and as comprehensive as an event, is, of course, another matter. To try to make it so, however, stands as a very high ambition, one that offers a paradigmatic intent that would make it possible to describe the continuity from the private space of an individual psychology to the public space of the rest of the world—and, as from physics to metaphysics so, eventually, from sociology to ideology—in terms that can locate experience elsewhere than in dichotomy. Ultimately, Huebler’s work is about the subject matter of dialectical materialism itself: the equivalence, in history, of the perceiver and the perceived.

Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe