San Francisco

Stephanie Syjuco, RAIDERS: International Booty, Bountiful Harvest (Selections from the A—— A— M——), 2011. Installation view.

Stephanie Syjuco, RAIDERS: International Booty, Bountiful Harvest (Selections from the A—— A— M——), 2011. Installation view.

Stephanie Syjuco

Stephanie Syjuco, RAIDERS: International Booty, Bountiful Harvest (Selections from the A—— A— M——), 2011. Installation view.

Having established herself as one of Conceptual art’s most passionate advocates, Lucy Lippard voiced her disillusionment with the new practice’s egalitarian, antimarket aspirations in the postface to her 1973 book, Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object. She wrote, “Art and artist in a capitalist society remain luxuries,” noting how all of the major Conceptualist figures were already selling their supposedly non-object-based work in prestigious galleries. When her book was republished in 1997, Lippard sounded a more optimistic tone, introducing the volume with a new essay, “Escape Attempts,” in which she proposed that perhaps Conceptual art’s utopian possibilities were in fact “still out there, waiting for artists to plug into them.” Bay Area artist Stephanie Syjuco revisited this question in her solo exhibition “RAIDERS” at Catharine Clark Gallery this summer, directing viewers to an online version of Lippard’s 1997 essay. The digitized text was at the core of Syjuco’s work Phantoms (FREE TEXT: Lippard: Escape Attempts), 2011, a xeroxed poster publicizing its Google Books URL by way of tear-off tabs that you’d see on a flyer for used trucks or free kittens. In doing so, she married an antiquated form of DIY communication to its contemporary Web-based counterpart—which, with its exponentially increased capacity for disseminating information, offers the potential to realize Lippard’s hope for a more democratic culture.

Playing on Conceptual art’s attendance to the overlooked materiality of language and its forms of distribution, Syjuco highlights the strange, insistent physicality of the digital world. For example, in RAIDERS: International Booty, Bountiful Harvest (Selections from the A—— A— M——-), 2011, she downloaded images of vases from the online database of San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum—some 135 brilliantly lacquered, glazed, and intricately painted vases that she then printed, mounted on laser-cut wood backing, and displayed in sixteen groupings atop a spread of loading platforms and crates. By rendering these artifacts as two-dimensional, pixelated props (which appeared something like facades in a Hollywood back lot), Syjuco both “raided” the AAM for its porcelain holdings and divested these original works of their auratic value. And yet, this strategy only made more palpable the reality that such treasures often function primarily as images—ones accessible via a digital museum without walls, far exceeding what Malraux had ever imagined.

The materiality and politics of Web-based distribution were also explored in Phantoms (h—rt -f d-rkn-ss), 2011, which comprises ten open-source digital versions of Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness and a three-channel video that spells out the book’s title, Wheel of Fortune style, with blanks standing in for missing letters. Each version of the book has been printed out as a paperback, with awkward spacing and online ads intact, revealing subtle idiosyncrasies in formatting—and, perhaps most tellingly, variations in copyright notices and conditions of use. In turn, all of this serves to highlight the different economic and legal circumstances governing the distribution of digitized creative works by private, nonprofit, and educational institutions. In the video, groupings of letters (all consonants) invoke the game show’s catchphrase to “buy a vowel,” driving home the more profound commodification of language that currently pervades the regulation of online information-sharing. At the same time, as in previous works such as Syjuco’s Counterfeit Crochet Project (Critique of a Political Economy), 2006–, in which she encourages people to join her in crocheting fake designer handbags, she alludes to the informal, underground, or shadow economies through which individuals create alternative ways of valuing and distributing culture. And in Proxy Audio Manifestation (Total Bootleg Collection), 2009, she reveals her own participation in P2P music-sharing by creating, for her personal collection of illegally downloaded music, fake wooden jewel cases installed heaped in a piles just as they’re hawked on the black market.

While the colonization of cyberspace by private and profit-making interests is obviously distinct from—indeed incomparable to—the horrors of European exploitation and racism in the Congo that Conrad described or the issues of heritage-theft implied by RAIDERS: International Booty..., it is not, Syjuco suggests, without its geopolitical consequences. Her investigation of the local and tangible residue produced by our immaterial communication systems prompts reflection on the socioeconomic inequities that attend the distribution of information globally. If new technologies offer the opportunity to make good on Conceptual art’s radical promise by bringing about a culture where ideas can be shared freely and for public good, Syjuco urges us to seize hold of this potential before it slips away once more.

Gwen Allen