PRINT May 1994


To discover a conspiracy—
Is almost a creation.
It’s a novel whose dénouement I determine.
The Empire’s at my disposal.
One alternative: hesitation.
Why save the Empire?
Why destroy it?
Therefore, heads or tails.
—Charles Baudelaire

FUSING THE POLITICAL WIT of the Situationists with a conceptual acuity reminiscent of Hans Haacke, Cop Sculpture, 1993, an installation by Ted Byfield and Lincoln Tobier, investigated large themes: conspiracy, exchange value, and the political subject. At the center of the project were the police, or rather a genre of photographs—Cops with Contraband—familiar to us from the press. A barely audible, paranoid snicker echoed in the installation, and also a dark philosophical humor, much of it stemming from a shrewd fidelity to one principal device: a simple, Duchampian “pointing” to the object, an inspired attentiveness. But Byfield and Tobier also framed and rerouted their Cops with Contraband imagery—a mass-cultural icon that needed their installation to know it was one. The Situationists called this kind of derailment “détournement”; Byfield and Tobier name it “sculpture.”

Why “sculpture”? Affixed to pedestals in a low-walled, half-hearted maze that filled New York’s Pat Hearn Gallery, poorly reproduced photographs showed law-enforcement officials of different stripes presenting displays of contraband. As presented by Byfield and Tobier, these arrays suggested formal principles—an esthetics of seizure, an arrangement of the arraigned, some hitherto unnoticed poetics of Law. There was “good” cop sculpture: kilos of heroin in an L on the floor, as elegant as an early Carl Andre; melancholy gray cubes of plastic explosive, oozing as much mythic aura as any Joseph Beuys; an ominously stained length of rope, coiled tightly, à la Donald Lipski, in a triangular plastic bag. These achievements set the criteria for the “bad” cop sculpture—a dull rectangle of hardcore-porn booklets, for example, or row after tiresome row of silverware and samovars, sorted and tagged.

But there is no esthetic of contraband display—is there? To “help” us through their literal and figurative labyrinth (if only by insisting on its difficulty), Tobier and Byfield provided a map of the installation featuring two kinds of lines: one set indicating the open paths where one could go, like the tracks on a subway map, another charting the solid walls, as in a floor plan. At the most abstract level, this contradictory guide amounted, perhaps, to an allegory for the simultaneous limits and possibilities of subjectivity and its endless constructions. But it was also in the Situationist tradition of the map as schizophrenic chart of the “psychogeography” of cultural spaces. The Situationists would have had us use a map of Paris to explore Phoenix, in hopes that we would stumble through an unexpected chink in the armor of oppressively rational urban space. Byfield and Tobier gave us the Cop Sculpture map in much the same spirit.

Walking in on an arrangement, a plot, a conspiracy (a “joint effort toward a particular end,” according to Webster), we have to choose: either denounce it or play along. That choice may be based on our perception of the conspiracy’s extent, and of which course is most likely to benefit us, or allow us to survive. (Conspiracy theory could be applied to the membership of every art movement in history.) With Cop Sculpture, in the absence of any actual sculpture to deem good or had, we witnessed the construction of conspiracy, or of conspiracies—the initial conspiracy to estheticize evidence of crime, and the encompassing conspiracy between Tobier and Byfield, and between them and us. Ultimately, the sculptures on display here were the patterns of set and setting that defined our expectations, and in fact constituted the object of our attention.

Inevitably, all this had to do with the social space in which these objects—withdrawn by police from black-market circulation, then painstakingly arranged and photographed—were here rephotographed, rearranged, rearrested, briefly held in that paradoxical space, the art world—a space both above the rush of circulation and merely another part of it, both priceless and priced. Mediated by their deployment in the art gallery, the seized objects were retrieved from their juridical purgatory and restored, sea changed, to the world. Perhaps this cross-hatching of boundaries explains why the project required a second installation (in another gallery, American Fine Arts) comprising only unidentified quotations, printed on the milky translucent tops of pedestals hung upside-down from the ceiling. The texts were wildly disparate, yet—and this was the point—linkable in different ways. Of course, any set of quotations might be read for the connections between them, but these rode the wave made by Cop Sculpture’s conceptual field—an atmosphere in which a new web of relationships (between cops and contraband, art and the state, subjectivity and reality) took the material form of a labyrinth.

One quotation, for example, ran, “There is always a moment when, the science of certain facts not yet being reduced to concepts, the facts not yet being grouped together organically, these masses of facts receive that signpost of ignorance: ‘miscellaneous.’” This is the liminal moment just prior to the perception of conspiracy. In Cop Sculpture, Byfield and Tobier made that moment elegantly manifest.

Thad Ziolkowski is a poet and art critic who contributes frequently to Artforum.