PRINT May 2009



ONE DOESN’T HAVE TO LOOK VERY HARD to find a common thread running through the various texts in the current issue. Regardless of topic, it seems, nearly every contributor gravitates, sooner or later, to the same concern: that we are in the midst of an epochal shift the consequences of which are obviously powerful yet dauntingly unclear. “Something is falling apart right now, and not only in the art world,” says this summer’s Venice Biennale curator, Daniel Birnbaum, speaking to the ways in which our volatile social and economic context risks making any cultural endeavor seem out of tune, if not passé. “I think we’re at a moment in history where we’ve already begun a kind of apocalypse of thought,” director Jim Jarmusch adds, as if in direct reply. “All the models we have been led to believe in are crumbling.” (And so, he says, the structure of his newest film revolves around ideas of the unconscious: After all, if the terms for subjectivity are changing rapidly, we’d better make records of the latter before it becomes entirely unrecognizable to our own eyes.) These sentiments are only confirmed by critic Bruce Hainley in his survey of Larry Johnson’s artwork over the past twenty years. The author returns time and again to the artist’s lingering subtext of perishability, which extends from depictions of yesterday’s technologies to intimations about the arcane tasks of pedagogy and critical writing and, further, to the fashioning of identity itself, which such technologies would shape. The underlying question, and the stakes: As the cultural conditions of the postwar era seem finally on the wane, who is the producer of art today—and for whom is art made? “The ‘I’ is over, elided, deceased, absented,” Hainley surmises. “There’s no thinking ‘eye’ to see or read, no more subject to leave a trace, everything disappeared into nevermore, into névé.”

Larry Johnson, Copier (detail), 2007, color photograph, 55 1⁄2 x 65 1⁄2".

In truth, our sense of history has been markedly unstable for some years. Immediately before the financial crisis—which undoubtedly provided the spark for much of the consternation above—there was, for instance, the “war on terror,” whose borderless expanse scrambled the coordinates of time for no other reason than that its paradigm was designed never to end. Now, however, it is our relationship to an unsettled past that seems as much a source of disquiet as our increasingly ambiguous future, recent decades suddenly not what they once appeared to be. In fact, our sense of the present seems to hinge on our reconstruction of the previous few years: How else can we reconcile its image of prosperity with our current grasp of what was residing, more abstractly and systemically, everywhere under the surface? And how else might art chart its course without somehow taking stock of the ways in which its basic form—or even its very idea—was enmeshed in a flawed understanding of those earlier cultural conditions? Many lectures and panels have lately been devoted to precisely these questions, reevaluating the recent past, revisiting the precursors of postmodernism and modernism—even seeking out some approximation of an earlier hour’s public sphere—in order to regain some of art’s bearings. (One gets a distinct sense on these occasions of people awkwardly trying to summon some memory—not only of, say, how public discourse and theory are not separate from everyday life but also of how to engage an audience, or of how to be an audience, within such an engaged framework.) But here a note of caution sounded by artist Lorraine O’Grady seems worth considering. Looking back in these pages at an exhibition she organized in the East Village during the early 1980s, she wonders what might have become of certain artists had events unfolded differently—if critics or collectors had, for example, simply given a particular artist’s work more attention. As compelling in her ruminations, however, is a suspicion of the historical impulse, of the very desire to establish set narratives for the past when there will always be worthy alternatives: “There are so many coexisting tendencies in any given time,” she says. “What is lost when the present reduces the past, ties it up with a ribbon so it can move on to the future? Is that result necessary? Is it real?”

Perhaps the problem itself—the feeling of something being lost—is, then, what needs sustaining now. In other words, unlike so many satisfying proclamations of an “end” at previous moments of cultural turmoil—even if only as a rhetorical device where, as Birnbaum says, the end of something like the novel is merely offered as another way forward—an unstable relationship with the past might well be cultivated. Technology, as we have observed, often plays a role in the shaping of perception, and an apt metaphor for our current predicament may be found in the realm of digital imagery and compressed files. Whenever a given picture exceeds the capacity of a system’s data rate, whenever an algorithm inaccurately renders an image—that is, drops necessary information in its attempt to produce a seamless visual representation—pixilation arises and the image disintegrates before one’s eyes. And yet, strangely enough, these imperfections, newly created by an inadequate interpretive model, go by the term artifacts: So it is that we might create similar distortions through our thinking and mistakenly take them as evidence of some historical reality. Worse, perhaps, when we discover our misapprehensions, we quickly move to correct, even to expunge them—precisely when we should be doing our utmost to sustain such images before the mind’s eye, to submit the artifacts to scrutiny, for these mirages of the past will prove a vital part of the picture of our present.