PRINT January 2016


David Raymond Conroy, Broadway Flat (The Good Man), 2015, wood, privacy film, magnets, sandbags, wide-format print, plotter print, dehydrated Big Mac, dehydrated Quarter Pounder, lighters, Trappistes Rochefort bottle, 94 1/2 × 35 3/8 × 29 1/2".

A DEEP EXISTENTIAL APORIA seemed to have settled over David Raymond Conroy’s show at Seventeen gallery in London last year. Cheap, jerry-rigged wooden frames became miniature stage sets, offering an ambivalently melodramatic presentation of the kind of mundane consumer objects that are so much a part of contemporary daily life: sneakers, Beck’s Blue beer bottles, a Big Mac. The mise-en-scène was literally scripted by texts mounted directly onto these structures, each offering a different glimpse into the life of the same character, an apparently middle-aged, middle-class male, who seems to live out a kind of perpetual identity crisis. A sample: “‘Everything’s fine,’ you’ll say. And he’ll apologize because he’s scared and wants to be a good man, liked by all and sundry. The thing is, he isn’t.” Perusing these texts, one began to suspect that the artist’s own identity was at stake here, too—a suspicion confirmed in the gallery’s back room, where a reconstruction of part of his live-work studio, with his clothes, a laptop, and other belongings squarely implicated him in this unsettled search for selfhood.

Indeed, the tangled interplay between authorship, consumption, and identity that defines our contemporary consumer culture is the fundamental focus of Conroy’s practice, and the Seventeen exhibition offered his most probing meditations on this subject yet. Also included, for example, was a pair of YouTube-sourced video clips of two stand-up comedians in action. One poses a long-winded question about a smallish winged creature seeking to traverse a boulevard—an all-too-familiar topic that nevertheless has the audience laughing uproariously. The other presents a more ironically self-aware riff on being a bad comedian, but the delivery is excruciating, with plenty of nervous pauses, jokes that bomb, and palpably uncomfortable listeners. Here the artist articulates a fundamental conflict in his work between two value systems—one that prioritizes authenticity and one that emphasizes success—through a pairing that makes it abundantly clear that the former is no guarantee of the latter.

Questions of authorship were also opened up (art) historically with a further piece in this ensemble, two cutout pages from Lucy R. Lippard’s Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972 (1973), featuring a message from the short-lived New York collective Orders & Co. sent to the Uruguayan President Jorge Pacheco Areco in 1971. It reads: “The 5th of November you will simulate normal walking but you will be conscious that for this day Orders & Co. have taken possession of every third step you take.” In the context of Conroy’s exhibition, this command made me think of former Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s menacing quip to the Wall Street Journal in 2010: “I actually think most people don’t want Google to answer their questions. . . . They want Google to tell them what they should be doing next.” Between these two moments, from an obscure project from the heyday of Conceptualism to our neocorporate present, the ubiquity of new information technologies—ostensibly offering an unprecedented freedom of choice, but in reality often providing only a limited range of algorithmically determined affirmations—has posed with dramatically renewed urgency the question of who actually directs our lives, complicating notions of agency and appropriation far beyond the boundaries of artistic practice.

Several of Conroy’s earlier pieces have even more explicitly explored the ways in which new technologies both influence our construction of identity and establish new modes of visual experience. In his programmatic video Hauling, usually shown together with the sound piece It is not the past, but the future that determines the present, both 2011, he records a Safari browser window as images clutter and then declutter the frame via some algorithmic mechanism. The rapidly scrolling images—of fashion, interior design, art, soft porn, etc.—bring to mind an exacerbated version of the “chronic voyeuristic relation” we have to the world of proliferating imagery that Susan Sontag presciently theorized in her 1977 book On Photography. Meanwhile, the accompanying monologue describes online existence as an ongoing and forever deferred search for an answer: “I want to find this thing, I want to fall in love with it.” On the one hand, this is modernity’s constantly deferred horizon; on the other, it suggests a further truth about Google—that it wants you to continue searching indefinitely, finding not an answer but only more questions, which cumulatively become monetizable data. That this is also in keeping with capitalism’s logic of mass consumption is clear, though few could have foreseen the relocation of value from tangible goods to immaterial data itself.

This anxious monologue—its obsessive circling of an uneasy sense of interpellated, conflicted selfhood, beset by a perhaps inevitably naive wish for authenticity—lays out many of the recurring themes in Conroy’s work. In his solo show at Modern Art Oxford, UK, in 2013, “PPE, or It Is Spring and I Am Blind,” he explored the value judgments that inevitably accompany our daily encounters with a torrent of objects and images. The central work in the show was the sound piece Do You, 2013. It again probed the fragmentation of identity, presenting the artist as an overdetermined figure, with multiple voices reading an edited transcript of a 2011 talk by Charlie Kaufman. The screenwriter’s lecture is far from artspeak; it comes across as a new take on the old trope of the “new sincerity,” but the fact that his message is delivered by proxy makes Conroy’s intentions slippery, as summed up in the formulation (in one of three simultaneously playing conclusions Conroy made for the piece, each explaining in a different way why Kaufman’s speech was so important to him): “I truly mean what he said.”

Last winter, Conroy took up a residency at London’s Camden Arts Centre and used it, in part, as an opportunity to respond to the Glenn Ligon exhibition also installed in the space. Ligon’s show examined moments of conflict in American racial politics, including, among other things, text-based paintings based on Steve Reich’s incorporation of testimony about police violence from one of the African American teenagers known as the Harlem Six in his 1966 piece Come Out. The concurrently unfolding and deeply impassioned discussion on Facebook about Joe Scanlan’s invented African American artist Donelle Woolford, following “her” inclusion in the 2014 Whitney Biennial, was thematized in Conroy’s performance at the end of his residency. The (literal) staging of a self at the heart of the project obviously spoke to his concerns, but he admitted that he was “scared stiff of talking about gender or race.” In the end, he decided to challenge, or sidestep, his own position: He spent much of the residency writing texts that he sent to other writers, accompanied by invitations to respond. For his closing performance last March, Conroy invited them to CAC to perform in his stead. Writer and curator Kathy Noble told a version of one of the stories that would be included in his show at Seventeen from a female perspective, and critic Morgan Quaintance discussed the ways race is constructed differently in the UK than in the US. At the end of these readings, Conroy himself sang a modified version of a gospel song: “May the work that I’ve done, speak for me. . . . May the truth that I’ve told, speak for me. . . . May the life that I live, speak for me” ever louder, ending up, beyond his voice’s limits, in a hoarse scream. This demonstrative gesture of desperate sincerity was (deliberately) more cringeworthy than provocative, since it was beyond doubt that the preceding readings made each of these terms—my work, my truth, my life—into a fiction (one redoubled, of course, by his own appropriation of a gospel song).

Conroy’s latest project brings his questioning of identity and authorship back into the art world, addressing the increasing slippage between artist and curator. At the Contemporary Art Museum Estonia in Tallinn this past fall, Conroy organized “Prosu(u)mer,” an exhibition focusing on that uniquely contemporary subject who produces and consumes at once, presenting a wide range of material—mostly but not exclusively by artists—with which to reflect on the idea of user-generated content. Among the works on view was a 2007 “museum-quality reproduction” of a Rothko painting, Untitled (Red, Orange), 1968, on loan from the Daugavpils Mark Rothko Art Centre in Rothko’s hometown in Latvia, whose collection comprises forty-one such prints and six original pieces from the Rothko estate. The work was pretty much aura-free here, sharing a dingy room with a large dehumidifier, and thus opened up a murky zone between veneration and imitation, original and copy. These categories played a different role in the case of a bomber jacket inspired, as Conroy explained in an accompanying video, by the jacket worn by Cayce Pollard, the main character in William Gibson’s 2003 novel Pattern Recognition. Conroy argues that as a copy without an original, a real product based on a fictional character’s clothing, it is a paradigmatic example of “how culture wraps itself around itself.” A similarly involuted self-reflexivity arose in a set of images from the video game Grand Theft Auto V, in which players can use an in-game smartphone to take “pictures” in its hyperrealistic CGI world. The images in Conroy’s show, which depict the game’s romantically run-down urban-noir scenery, had been “taken” by the gamer Karl Smith, although their reproduction rights remain with Rockstar Games, which considers them screenshots of its product.

In Conroy’s typically fragmentary and digressive style, “Prosu(u)mer” seemed to shed at least some light on the overburdening and undermining of subjectivity today, while also addressing the artist’s incapacity to successfully embody fantasies of its fulfillment. Everyone isn’t an artist anymore, but everyone is a curator, merely by choosing where to direct his or her attention within the stream of online and offline media that is offered us as a way to structure our lives. That’s a kind of prosumption, for sure. But in the field of art, such an approach runs head-on into a system that still privileges the fiction of a talented individual making finished works of creative originality—and this collusion creates a fundamental (if also fascinating) problem not just for anyone wishing to occupy the role of artist or curator, but also for you and me.

Alexander Scrimgeour is a Berlin-based editor and writer.