PRINT Summer 2012


Roman Ondák, Observations (details), 1995/2011, 120 clippings, grouped in seventy-two frames, each clipping measuring between 1 7/8 x 2“ and 3 x 4”.

THE ENDURING EPHEMERAL: I borrow this term from Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, who introduced it in her 2011 book Programmed Visions in order to articulate the following paradox of digital memory culture. As our worldly goods become increasingly immaterial, we rely more and more on hardware and software that promise to safeguard our possessions, to imbue our documents, communications, images, books, music, and financial information with a measure of permanence. We rely, in short, on digital storage, but in so doing, we curiously conflate the concept of storage with the concept of memory itself. Whereas memory may once have been understood as an active faculty, a process of recollecting that serves the purposes of the present, it is now conceived as a realm of stasis, where information is securely and indefinitely stowed for future use. Yet storage is exactly what is not provided by the network of discs and servers that are the loci of digital memory. Whatever is made available through this memory, whatever the machine manages to recollect, is subject to a constant process of obsolescence, a dynamic of perpetual regeneration and updating that is, in turn, entirely dependent on the capacities of electromagnetic material. The upshot is that if something is to endure, it must become ephemeral. Only that which changes persists.

It may sound like a Zen koan or a new age slogan, but it is neither of those things: The enduring ephemeral denotes, with cold realism, a key aspect of the technomaterial foundation of postindustrial societies. In fact, it denotes a structuring principle so deeply ingrained in our multiple ways of doing and making that it is no surprise we have a hard time seeing its pervasive impact. Certainly, as I approached the majestic K21 Ständehaus in Düsseldorf—the former state parliament building that is now part of the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen—ephemerality was the last thing that came to mind. In the gray March mist that envelops all those old Northern European cities like an archivist’s folder, the impression was rather of redoubtable material endurance, dedicated resistance to change.

Inside the building, however, the situation was different. In a sizable and otherwise empty gallery, I encountered a tall, grass-covered heap of earth, on top of which perched a tiny bonsai tree. But this is just a technical description. What I actually saw was an iteration of a ubiquitous if not proverbial scene: a rounded, leafy tree on a green hilltop. From the far end of the room, I saw a tree on top of a hill, and as I moved up close, I still saw a tree on top of a hill. Whatever position I chose, I could not help but pro­ject into the situation a sense of geographic distance that made the heap of earth seem seen from afar. This—The Hill Seen from Afar—was in fact the work’s deadpan title, the punch line by which its creator, Roman Ondák, anchored its peculiar visuality. For the work (dated 2011) elicited a mode of vision that derived not from the wish to see something different, but from the impulse to suppress difference, to always see the same familiar thing, no matter what. It enforced a continuous visual recalibration, an automatic maintenance of its scalar illusion that made a solid three-dimensional object perform like an image—and more specifically like those screen images that appear the same regardless of changes in size, pixelation, format, background, context, and media type. A photo-based painting by Gerhard Richter may be snapped on your mobile phone during a museum visit, stored on your hard drive, compressed, Instagrammed, inserted into a PowerPoint presentation, transmitted to your laser printer, and so on, in a theoretically infinite number of trajectories that complicates the very notion of the discrete, stable copy. Every digital image is part of a seamless temporal unfolding, a series of continual changes that somehow produces the impression that we are still seeing the “same” image—the same Richter painting of a photograph. We accept these variations unquestioningly because they seem, today, to be the very precondition for image access. The transformations to which images are subjected, their material instability, are in fact what subtends their endurance, their continued visibility.

ENDURING EPHEMERAL, INDEED. The term kept resonating as I attempted to make sense of Ondák’s larger body of work, to synthesize the traces of a practice that operates on the level of subtle, at times almost indiscernible effects. To assess his twenty-year career is to contend with actions taking place just below the threshold of attention, visibilities blending into the background of the habitual, materialities caught up in the general flux and flow of things. It is a practice that, in its use of minimal procedures, basic materials, and simple situational displacements, would at first glance appear antithetical to the complexities of contemporary technoculture. And yet its persistent promotion of a certain logic—the logic of the ephemeral gesture—raises questions about its relation to the wider and more pervasive culture of ephemerality that encompasses not only the technomaterial foundation of social memory but also the amazingly enduring artistic fascination with the ephemeral, the precarious, and the barely perceptible. It reframes the repeated efforts, now extending over several generations, to produce the types of works that present themselves as sheer durations, traceless encounters, dissolving materials, pointless exercises, invisible procedures, secret operations, and willed forgetfulness.

Of course, speaking about such works in general terms is a contradiction in itself. Ephemerality and indiscernibility only make their effects felt in the context of concrete perceptual and institutional frameworks, specific horizons of expectation. They belong to the order of the contingent and echo the paradox of the contingent artwork, which is always situated or delineated by a context (whether that context is the siteless legitimacy bestowed by a certificate of authorship or the sited particularities of a given museum). Yet when one looks back at the history of the past sixty years or more of art production—from Fluxus events to Andrea Fraser’s museum tours, Gabriel Orozco’s display of yogurt caps, or Tino Sehgal’s situational choreographies—it becomes clear that the cumulative effect of ephemeral gestures (or what might possibly be called the taste for the contingent) is not merely a function of the quest for radical context-specificity. Ephemerality appears as a distinct mechanism that opens onto questions of memory and of memory’s shifting technologies and that must be accounted for as such. It is of course significant that the rise of ephemeral artworks in postwar culture coincides with the breakthrough era of expanded computer-memory storage. But if a nascent interest in computers and cybernetics is apparent in the art of the 1960s, that art’s “memory problems” may also be related to a longer history of technical media, ushered in with the era of photography, film, and magnetic tape, and to the venerable paradoxes of storing and accessing the fleeting present.

Anyone familiar with ephemeral artworks in their many forms will have experienced the reverent hush that tends to surround them, as if ephemerality were not just a device or strategy but a particularly valuable trait, appealing at once to a fascination with all that escapes our grasp and to a general inclination to preserve and take care of things. This double-sided feeling—a form of love, perhaps—may be the impulse behind the surprisingly massive documentation that often accompanies ephemeral works, and its specific presentational strategies. The profusion of videos, photographs, and textual documents point to an almost desperate storing-up of tangibility and evidence against the general catastrophe of forgetting, the erasure of cultural memory that such work suggests. Yet the primary duty of such documentation is a different one: that of speaking on behalf of ephemerality as such, arguing its case against a world of fetishized art objects, initiating us into its principles and its ways of working.

Take, for instance, the thick coffee-table book produced in conjunction with one of Ondák’s most celebrated works, Loop, his installation in the Czech Republic and Slovak Republic pavilion during the Fifty-Third Venice Biennale, in 2009. The work itself was essentially an ingenious staging of pure mobility. In fact, Ondák did little more than latch on to the principle of rapid circulation that is key to today’s hyperactive art world and that undercuts the traditional emphasis on “focus” and “attention” in art. The work consisted simply of an extension of one of the Giardini’s leafy garden paths, which, rather than bringing visitors only as far as the entrance of the pavilion, now took them right through the building and out the other side. I may have been in a particularly acute state of overstimulated distraction, yet I do not think I was the only person who passed through the pavilion in a jiffy, seeking the next thing to look at, barely reflecting on the way in which the continued pathway made spectators perform like signals in an electric circuit, a closed system that (like all circuits) obliterates the distinction between progress and recursion, transport and arrival. Here, site-specificity was emptied and turned inside out—the Giardini effectively evanesced. The circuit was generic in the truest sense of the term—it was representative of nothing in particular, but rather stood for an entire class of items, namely, all of the interlocked and nested circuits, from the Venice Biennale to the art world to the global economy, in which we ourselves circulate. We inhabit these circuits in much the same way that images and information inhabit them, perpetually on the move.

However, the book treats this mobility in a rather ambivalent way. On the one hand, it slows down or even arrests the work’s dynamic of perpetual motion, as it documents, in painstaking detail, the construction of the pathway through the building. No easy feat, we learn, as the full-page images offer a blow-by-blow account of the transportation of plants and earth on Venetian canals, the leveling of the terrain so as to erase the threshold that separates the building from the surrounding garden, the deliberations of gardeners and landscape architects, and so on. The book clearly establishes Loop as a piece of work, a physical construction in the most traditional sense of the word. Yet at the same time, the publication lends an almost objectlike character to the ephemerality and mobility of its circuit principle, as it serves up image after image of the passage through the building, repeating the loopy path through all its transformations. We keep traversing the ambulatory territory of the work, over and over again, to the beat of short and regularly spaced textual salutations from a host of art-world professionals.

In short, the book also promotes and protects the ephemeral and the momentary as such, and in a way that not only recalls a key principle of the nineteenth-century bureaucratic archive but reopens the very question of “the archival” in contemporary art. As Sven Spieker has shown, the function of an archival file was to freeze, through a collection of relevant documentary material, a specific moment in time in which something was uttered or decided on. While the selection principles that determined what constituted archive-worthy moments and materials were crucial to the functioning of state institutions, historians valued the contingency of the archive—its asubjective technicity—as a measure of objective history. In the Loop book, however, the momentary is entirely devoid of that specific significance, decision, or action that would justify storage for future use and that makes the contingent archival moment a select one, picked from the flow of so many other possible but insignificant moments. What is stored in this particular collection of documentary material is simply the construction of a piece of circuitry, a nonspecific apparatus of movement and ambulation—which in turn is a part of the larger circuitry that also supports the financing, production, and distribution of this and similar quasi-archival artistic publications. If archives are prostheses for memory, this one implies an imminent destruction of memory: the substitution of generalized patterns of operation for particular recollections.

It might be tempting to name this whole operation anarchival and file it among the many works of recent decades that undermine or deterritorialize specific forces or instances of bureaucratic and historical ordering: the mix of denouement and fiction in the Atlas Group’s archives of the history of the Lebanese wars, or subREAL’s ambiguous art-historical appropriation of materials from the decades-spanning photographic archive of the Romanian magazine Arta, to name two of hundreds of potential examples. The temptation is compounded by the fact that Ondák, who was born in 1966 in Žilina, Slovakia, is old enough to have experienced a nightmare of archival ordering: the hardwired bureaucratic mentality of the Warsaw Pact countries, where records and files were the instruments of an ardent Marxist-Leninist policing of the very meaning of history, including the question of who would be cast as history’s “betrayers” and who as its “heroes.”

But to succumb to this temptation would be to overlook the possibility that works such as Loop do not so much undermine the rules and regulations of traditional archival functions as engage with the new and radically temporalized archival principles that have installed themselves discreetly alongside the new technologies of memory. It might also be that someone familiar with the archival policing of socialist history would be particularly sensitive to transformations in the technologies of memory and to the ambiguous freedoms of what Wolfgang Ernst has called the reverberating circuits of capitalist memory culture: the freedom, for instance, to not have to choose what is or is not important, the freedom of memory lost in today’s indiscriminate archiving of anything and everything—one of the unplanned effects of the overarching emphasis on digital access. The answer to the question of how history will handle its current archival conundrum is, notably, an absurdity: the Wayback Machine, the Internet archive that stores almost everything, automatically. And the Wayback Machine is itself just the extreme answer to the challenges faced by today’s public archives as they struggle to decide what constitutes an archival document in an age of telecommunications. As Chun points out, when everything is memory, nothing is memory. Pertinence is overtaken by indiscernibility, obviated by searchability.

ONDÁK BEARS WITNESS to the unspoken mechanisms of this new archival order through a set of interlocking strategies: the unhinging of memory from a specific engagement with the past; the exploitation of the strange powers of the barely discernible; the exploration of the new flexibilities of scale, format, and material; the mobilization of new types of crowd behavior. And more often than not, these strategies are unleashed on art institutions, whose own preoccupations with techniques of storage, safekeeping, and access serve what is genially referred to as “our collective memory.”

Observations, Ondák’s contribution to this summer’s Documenta 13, is a relatively early exemplar. The work, created in 1995 and slightly modified last year, consists of a number of yellowing clippings, each consisting of a photograph and a caption whose sans serif typography suggests a 1960s provenance. The captions are ambiguous, to say the least. WORD AND SYMBOLIC OBJECT IN MUTUAL COMPLEMENTATION, says one, beneath a photo of a fish-shaped bait sign. WE MEAN BUSINESS, says another, beneath a photo of a brick wall emblazoned with the words DO NOT ENTER. It is hard to imagine what sort of book could have produced these. Whatever codex once interpolated these strange items into an overarching logic is seemingly lost forever. The gallery walls themselves, on which these images are eccentrically installed in pairs and trios, become the codex, yet the historicizing powers of those walls is defeated by the illogic of the clippings, which together suggest less a collective memory than an exploded memory bank.

A few years later, in 1998, Ondák produced a series of terse works that explicitly connected the vacillations of memory to the technical and institutional framework of art display. For the almost indistinguishable works Remind Me Again (at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Dunaújváros, Hungary) and I Remember This (at the City Gallery, Prague), he removed the electric sockets, ventilation covers, and alarm sensors from the gallery walls and mounted them on scaled-down versions of the respective rooms’ architecture—each a gallery within a gallery, just big enough to create an effect of doubling within the space itself. For If I Don’t Forget (at the National Gallery in Banská Bystrica, Slovakia), Ondák took down an electric heater normally mounted on a wall in one of the galleries and affixed it to the side of a pedestal instead, while for the similar I Can’t Recall This he affixed radiators and electric sockets to a large plasterboard cube. In Is That the Way It Was? (with I Can’t Recall This, also at Prague’s City Gallery), a basic bench for gallery viewers was created from excised sections of the room’s walls.

In works like these, artistic constructions are not representations or models, but minor spatial modifications that have taken over the basic technical functions of the original space. They are different, yet reassuringly the same, asserting a functional continuity with the original space in a way that tends to stabilize time, erase difference, and establish a sort of pseudomemory. Art objects and artistic performances do not stand out in their singularity but seem to disappear against the technical-spatial frameworks that support them. Even the minor semantic transformations of the works’ titles turn on the loss of singularity and pertinence. “Remind me again” is a variant of the experience of memory troubles that may also produce the more assertive “I remember this”—an expression of recollection against all odds. The slippages, shifts, and losses of meaning that are by-products of changeable media and constant updating are, in other words, performed by the “tags” through which Ondák’s works would normally be secured a unique “place” in historical memory.

But then, Ondák’s titles often turn out to be performative, acting alongside the situations and procedures that they seem to merely name. It Will Turn Out Right in the End captures precisely the sense of desperate optimism that surrounds contemporary technoculture, including its promises of storage and access, evoking the kind of gung ho spirit that actually covers a chasm of cluelessness: We know we are dealing with enormously facilitating technologies, and we also know that we don’t know what exactly it is that they facilitate in the long run. As it happens, the title’s anxiously comforting promise designates one of Ondák’s most spectacular transformations of scale—a perfectly executed sized-down version of Tate Modern’s iconic Turbine Hall, installed in 2005 in one of the museum’s more modest galleries. Human spectators loomed like giants in the reduced space of the mini hall, just as they feel Lilliputian in the original space. But as with The Hill Seen from Afar, one tended to adjust to the modified Turbine Hall, to perceive it as “the same” as its vast template. The immediate impulse was to think that you should have scaled yourself down, in the same way that you might (in another situation) look for the “zoom” function in your Web browser. The Turbine Hall remained curiously unchanged, as if there were no such thing as material loss and Louise Bourgeois’s giant spider might arrive at any moment to inhabit the updated version of the space.

WHEN CHANGE IS NEUTRALIZED as sameness, when time is understood as an unbroken continuity of technical improvements that promises to keep moving forward while producing a kind of endless, lossless archive, the critical and productive function of memory seems to amount to nothing much. Not only does this understanding of time blur the specificity of past events, it also blocks the future-oriented axis of memory, the processing of the past in terms of the indeterminacy or openness of now-time action—a concept at the heart of Henri Bergson’s theory of the creative powers of memory. Without this all-important notion of a production of difference at work within time itself, what is left is a strange hypothetical terrain where everything and nothing changes, an impossible frozen fantasy-state that is at once pure ideology and the bad dream of the new archive culture, in which the world becomes indistinguishable from the Wayback Machine. It is a fantasy that sums up a number of the conflicting desires of our present moment, and Ondák’s near elisions of difference and distinction, his pushing of contingency and ephemerality to their limits, establish complex relationships to this fantasy and its political implications.

This becomes evident in his many evocations of crowd phenomena, as in the production of a radio announcement on an international Slovak channel in 2002 enjoining listeners not to interrupt the activities they were engaged with at this moment, “as a sign of solidarity with recent world events.” The audience was, in other words, encouraged to behave as if nothing had happened, whatever had or had not happened—which is our default mode in any case. But indiscernibility may also permeate the dynamics of crowds on a smaller scale, as in the spontaneous queues Ondák has staged in front of various doors and staircases during public events where queuing up may already be the order of the day. In 2006, during openings at Vienna’s Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien and CAC Brétigny, he engaged crowds of local people (an art-world euphemism for people who tend not to have exhibition openings on top of their agendas) to enter the event and mingle with their shoelaces untied. Whether or not anybody would ever notice such minor acts of pointlessness was somehow immaterial: In this context, going under the radar may be as important as standing out in the light.

What did count was the fact that these actions were titled Resistance, as if to highlight the technologically enhanced revitalization of the eighteenth-century phenomenon of “the unruly crowd” (as distinct from the more regulated phenomenon of modernity’s “mass”). For today, the agency of the unruly gathering of dispersed individuals is reconstituted through multiple modes of instant connectivity that allow fleeting expressions and fascinations to suddenly attain critical density and political weight. Yet as seen in the repeated comments on the Occupy movement’s supposedly unfortunate lack of a unified platform, there is a widespread reluctance to fully acknowledge the powers of the new crowd phenomena. This reluctance may in fact stem from a deep ambivalence about the technologies that enable such crowds, technologies that, in their enduring ephemerality, exhibit a core fragility that can only give us phantasmal, refractory, and ever-morphing images of what the “we” who made them, and who want them, are all about. In Ondák’s Stampede, 2011, “we” emerge as a flickering digital projection on a wall, a murky media transmission of a brief and happy gathering of a couple hundred individuals without any apparent purpose beyond the production of this image. As Ondák used night-vision technology to film the people he had invited to squeeze into a small, unlit gallery at Modern Art Oxford, he seemed to question the very idea of an “image” of the collective—a stable visual record in which a society will recognize itself. Sometimes, in moments of worry and distress, I think it would have been nice to be able to see Roman Ondák’s beautifully poetic gestures as just that: airy surprises, discreet displacements, quiet reports on minor situational details. But such innocence does not hold up for long when confronted with the unexpected obstinacy of Ondák’s soft touch. As he steadily zooms in on the material underpinnings of the ephemeral, Ondák pictures the evasive site of contemporary politics.

Ina Blom is a professor in the department of philosophy, classics, history of art and ideas at the University of Oslo.