PRINT May 2018


Still from Patricia L. Boyd’s Operator, 2017, HD video, color, sound, 12 minutes 56 seconds.

IF WE WANTED to pin down an operation that tethers together Patricia L. Boyd’s work across media, it might be inversion. In the London-born, New York-based artist’s somatic, industrial work, objects turn inside out, oppose themselves, or reveal their other possible natures.This happens via form: sculptural molds hung as reliefs (in her untitled works from 2017 recently exhibited at the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts in San Francisco), photograms (in her “Impressions” series, 2015–), and video footage presented in the negative (in Operator, 2017). But it also happens on the level of meaning: She presents, for example, refuse as a new commodity (in the “Dejecta” series, 2016), or she makes her camera the subject of a film (Operator, Carl dis/assembling w/ self, 2013). In so doing, Boyd offers a queasy take on neoliberalism—she renders palpable, and uncanny, the ways in which external institutions colonize our inner motivations.

Take the mesmerizing video Operator. To produce this ascetic work, the artist designed a custom rig on which she installed four motorized cameras—two overhead and two on dollies—whose movements she manipulated via an external dashboard. In slow tracking shots, these cameras scan the scuffed floor of a black-box theater from different heights, variously displaying the mechanics of the entire setup as each camera surveils both itself and the others that cross its path. Boyd added a crosshair to the frame, evoking the intimate, voyeuristic POV of video games and suggesting that the camera itself possesses subjectivity. The effect is ominous: The camera becomes a paranoid actor amid the inner workings of an inscrutable, onanistic system over which it has no control. As Boyd’s edits move the viewer among the cameras’ various points of view, we toggle from subject to object, from identification to alienation. But what does this system produce? Nothing except an image of itself. The artist refers to the work as an “exhaustion engine.” It simultaneously represents and realizes the use and expenditure of her artistic resources: a commission fee and a studio at the NASA-grade production facilities of the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York.

Value derives from the image of his labor, not the labor itself.

When she began her research at EMPAC in 2013, Boyd produced Carl dis/assembling w/ self, a video that is something of a precursor to Operator. She instructed one of EMPAC’s technicians to put together the engine of a Dodge truck while holding in one hand a camera that both documents and impedes his labor. His performance, which Boyd edited down to a three-minute piece, is a bleak metaphor for the ways in which we conceive of and perform work in a post-Fordist, image-driven culture: There is an imperative not only to produce but to spectacularize production. Driving the point home, the man’s labor has an absurd character: After he finishes assembling the engine, Boyd directs him to break it down again, thus rendering his actions irrelevant, Sisyphean; value derives from the image of his labor, not the labor itself. In a winking moment halfway through the video, when the engine is briefly shown in its assembled state, text appears, spelling out the work’s sponsors: Frieze Foundation, EMPAC, and British broadcaster Channel 4.

Still from Patricia L. Boyd’s Operator, 2017, HD video, color, sound, 12 minutes 56 seconds.

By contrast, the most important constraint in Operator was financial: To structure the nearly thirteen-minute-long film, Boyd devised a complex, rule-based scheme guided by the logic of a loan-repayment plan. She started with her commission fee (an undisclosed amount) and imagined this figure was a loan she had to pay off, quarterly and with interest, over the duration of the three-year, three-month period of the work’s research and production, making for a total of thirteen payments. Omitting the final payment, she then edited her film into a corresponding twelve sections, basing the duration of each segment on the amount owed for that respective payment. (She demarcated these sections with two-second cuts to black.) As her payments accrued “interest,” the sections grew longer in duration—the first section is seventeen seconds long, the second twenty-eight, and so on. In this way, she makes ineluctable the funds that supported her production; they take on a disruptive presence that is impossible for the viewer to overlook. The gesture underscores the extent to which the institutions and agendas that drum up the funds for any work inform the very capabilities and sensibilities that go into its facture.

Two stills from Patricia L. Boyd’s Carl dis/assembling w/ self, 2013, HD video, color, sound, 3 minutes 25 seconds.

This conceit also grounds the work in the context of debt, and the way debt structures our time and inflects our modes of perception and our mood. Boyd, through various compositional decisions, emphasizes that anxiety—that enduring by-product of precarity—is a baseline condition of contemporary life. At 80WSE in New York this past fall, she projected Operator in large scale in a corridor-like room so narrow the viewer couldn’t easily take in the entire piece at once. Standing before the image, the viewer would be too close—would feel too claustrophobic—to see the whole picture. The clear precedent for this work is Bruce Nauman’s 1970 installation Live-Taped Video Corridor, which likewise situates its viewer in the confining space of a hallway. But whereas Nauman combined pretaped and closed-circuit video to conflate surveillant and surveilled, Boyd physically overwhelms her viewer with an oversize image of cryptic self-monitoring, alluding to the abstract expansiveness of today’s surveillance technologies. Boyd’s editing provokes further anxiety: She adds spacy distortion to the video’s diegetic sound, and intermittently displays footage in negative so that it appears blanched, showing us different—inverted—information. The result is an eerie allegory for subjectivity under capitalism. Coasting back and forth, our activity dictated by debt, compulsively surveilling ourselves, we perform at the behest of systems indifferent to us.

Two works from Patricia L. Boyd’s 2016 “Dejecta” series. From left: Dejecta (Flolock), 2016; Dejecta (elbow), 2016.

These systems are, of course, indifferent to the fate of objects, too. In the 2016 “Dejecta” series, Boyd cast used restaurant grease sourced from a biofuel refinery (and mixed with wax and resin) into molds of pipe fixtures and suspended the results from the ceiling. Bone white and flecked with brown residue, the material evokes reproductive labor; it is the detritus of cooking and cleaning, of traditionally unpaid, unrecognized, and feminized work. (Duchamp’s urinal, an industrial receptacle for the dejecta of the male body, lurks in the background of Boyd’s faux pipes.) Like the readymade, Boyd’s works denaturalize the commodity, exposing the architecture of its transference. In the related works Untitled (SL-1200MK2) and Untitled (Aeron), both 2017, Boyd used the unrefined grease to form negative imprints of items purchased at an office liquidation sale—the components of a desk chair and a turntable. She embeds the resulting molds in the gallery wall, such that they shirk their functions, sinking into the architecture rather than emerging in relief, making the depleted materials in their inversion valuable again as commodified objects.

Patricia L. Boyd, Untitled (Aeron), 2017, triptych, restaurant grease, beeswax, dammar resin, overall 26 × 33".

Boyd’s visual expression of the body’s imbrication in neoliberal institutions is somewhat dissociative, at once clinical and sympathetic. It reveals itself between what is rhetorical and what is felt. And this may be the point. Through a reappraisal of outside and inside, she suggests, we might better distinguish subjects from the negotiated commodity of their work; we might better understand our sovereignty in the face of human capital. Indeed, the promises of the gig economy are themselves inverted: If such freedom means making ourselves endlessly accessible—as workers, consumers, and spiritual beings—it hardly feels liberating at all.

Annie Godfrey Larmon is a writer based in New York.