New York

Nina Katchadourian

One Chase Manhattan Plaza

Full disclosure: I first encountered Nina Katchadourian’s Public Art Fund project, Office Semaphore, 2006, via its press release, which began by asking, “Ever spot someone in a distant office window and wonder what is going on in his or her life? Part message decoding, part small-scale reality show, artist Nina Katchadourian’s Office Semaphore is a signaling system in which one person, who works on an upper story of an office building, communicates messages to people outside on street level.” Maybe this mode of introduction was appropriate—in that it intimated that our experience of such work is often mediated—or maybe not. In any case, nobody working at One Chase Manhattan Plaza on my visit appeared to even notice that the work was there.

In fact, the public square was mostly a ghost town, and my friend and I had the distinct feeling that we were more of a spectacle to the smokers huddled nearby than was the project’s infrastructure. Perhaps this was because of the installation’s slight physical presence. (It goes without saying, but Puppy, 2000, Jeff Koons’s gargantuan Rockefeller Center–enshrined topiary, this was not.) As the title suggests, Office Semaphore was an apparatus for communication, an aim that may be achieved with scant resources. Katchadourian exploited a similar strategy with Talking Popcorn, 2001, in which she transformed a commercial popcorn maker into a Rube Goldberg–esque contraption capable of interpreting the “language” of popping kernels by means of Morse code.

Office Semaphore consisted of nothing more than a robin’s egg-blue tourist telescope and an information panel, the latter decoding collections of objects perched on the anonymous participant’s windowsill, which could be spied through the viewfinder and were said to change daily. The premise itself was culled, however loosely, from traditional marine flag signaling systems; yet here, nautical phrases, such as NEGOTIATIONS ARE UNDERWAY or the vaguely lewd I REQUIRE A TUG, correlated instead with those groupings—consisting of potted plants, legal pads, clocks, and, in a curious nod to product placement, New York Sports Club water bottles—spied through the viewfinder in the faraway window.

Lest these references and dissociations appear to be arbitrary, the press release asserts that “the phrases . . . were chosen and developed with the office worker in order to express the kinds of problems, victories and challenges he might encounter in a day on the job.” It also avows that the work specifically related to the maritime history of the neighborhood. This is surely true, and artists including Robert Indiana, who lived at the nearby Coenties Slip in the late 1950s and early ’60s, have mined the area’s possibilities (in his case by using the old masts of ships and warehouse debris for sculptures), though the resonance of Lower Manhattan has long since changed. Indeed, there is another, more proximate history with which this locality contends: the cavity that was the World Trade Center, a couple of short blocks away. This is not to argue that Katchadourian should have made her public art project about that event; nonetheless, in pointedly turning her telescope away from that view, she disenfranchised the possibility for critical reflection on such relevant (and site-specific) issues. In a week where lurid tales of Saddam Hussein’s execution and the possibility of further mass deployment to Iraq crowded other equally horrific headlines, one couldn’t help feeling—to invoke a glib seafaring metaphor—that she had really missed the boat.

Suzanne Hudson