New York

Billboard by Julia Weist, Queens, New York, 2015.

Billboard by Julia Weist, Queens, New York, 2015.

Julia Weist

83 Pitt Street

Billboard by Julia Weist, Queens, New York, 2015.

Parbunkells: two ropes bound together, with a loop on both ends. In June 2015, Julia Weist placed this single word on a billboard above a busy thoroughfare in Forest Hills, Queens. Any curious onlooker who plugged it into Google—and there were many—would have discovered just a single result, Weist’s own web page. Prior to her plucking it from a seventeenth-century sailor’s manual, parbunkells appeared nowhere on the Internet. That changed quickly. Parbunkells became a thread on Reddit; someone started a parbunkells Instagram account; on eBay, the domain name went on sale for twenty thousand dollars.

It has been over a decade since Seth Price first posted “Dispersion,” the influential PDF calling for an art that infiltrated mass media through formats like paperback novels, music tracks, and, well, PDFs. Brilliant and shrewd, “Dispersion” reconfigured Duchamp’s legacy for the digital era, and to this day it remains lodged in the footnotes of any text grappling with art’s transit through networks. However, in its yearning for art to stray outside the gallery, the essay never mustered much of a rationale for staying within it—save, perhaps, for the grim tautology that artists who stop exhibiting are no longer artists. In the hands of less subtle thinkers, Price’s muted resignation easily slackens into outright cynicism, which might account for the current widespread suspicion that much “post-Internet” art consists of vacuous, superfluous objects presented for the sake of cashing in on cultural capital accrued online.

Yet a gallery does more than facilitate sales. For instance, Weist’s project, which she titled Reach, 2015–16, has been covered by the New Yorker, Popular Mechanics, Gizmodo, DNAinfo, and WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show, but this is its debut in the pages of an art magazine. By exhibiting, Weist established an intersection—or, to play off parbunkells, tied a knot—between the synchronic sprawl of popular culture and the diachronic axis of art history. My own personal experience of Reach attests to this tangle: I grew up in Forest Hills and spotted the billboard while visiting family, wholly unaware of Weist’s involvement. Its Garamond lettering and white background led me to assume Apple was launching some cryptic new campaign. That blind encounter as a passerby haunts my studied evaluation as a critic, and I find myself in the unusual situation of reading about Weist in both Rhizome and Adweek. Walter Benjamin famously associated film and painting with the perceptual states of distraction and contemplation, respectively; Weist’s project suggests that we might now distinguish between circulation and exhibition as modes of dispersion and concentration.

Weist holds degrees in both art and library science. Unsurprisingly, then, her approach to exhibiting recalls Sol LeWitt’s old adage that the serial artist “functions merely as a clerk cataloguing the results of his [sic] premise.” The original vinyl billboard lay on a plinth, folded to an eighth of its full size. On a nearby wall, an LED spotlight flashed on whenever anyone accessed Weist’s web page. Along with this real-time registration of online activity, Weist displayed an archive of images culled from websites where parbunkells appeared, as well as samples of (still available!) parbunkells-themed merchandise. The most surprising of these various ready-made “results” was a plaque from the Outdoor Advertising Association of America, which honored Reach alongside campaigns for American Airlines and the movie Minions. On wireless headphones that served, however parodically, as the exhibition’s audio guide, you could hear a judge praise Weist’s use of “the medium”—an overlap of advertising jargon and modernist dicta. Someone like Thomas Crow would lament Weist’s award as evidence of the avant-garde providing R&D to the culture industry. (Indeed, Adweek expressed keen interest in obtaining Weist’s analytics.) Someone like Price might mourn Weist’s decision to reel Reach back into art. Both would have a point, but neither is the full story. It’s knotty.

Colby Chamberlain