Los Angeles

View of “Psychic Plumbing,” 2020. Background: Sara Ludy, Channels, 2019. Foreground: Philip Peters, Fault Lines and Freeways, 2020.

View of “Psychic Plumbing,” 2020. Background: Sara Ludy, Channels, 2019. Foreground: Philip Peters, Fault Lines and Freeways, 2020.

“Psychic Plumbing”

On the white landing page of the website www.thecanarytest.com, two surveillance-style live feeds appeared side by side and a time signature gave the current hour, minute, and second in Pacific Standard Time. The cameras were trained on Canary, a new downtown off-space housed in a former clothing store. One was positioned at the front of the long narrow space and the other at the back, where metal racks and clothes hangers were still installed. The gallery’s inaugural show, “Psychic Plumbing,” existed in these two locations: the physical space and its 24/7 broadcast online. But this past March, after Canary was forced to close its doors due to the Covid-19 pandemic, only the online iteration remained accessible, broadcasting the still and silent room.

“Psychic Plumbing” attempted to probe “invisible systems, queer inversions, and psychogeographies” through the work of Stevie Cisneros Hanley, Sara Ludy, Alison O’Daniel, and Philip Peters. This curatorial premise seemed somewhat overdetermined for works that hung awkwardly together. In the front half of the space, Hanley’s banner-like work on paper—the show’s namesake—incorporated pithy text, imagery reminiscent of tarot cards, and drawings of body parts, pipes, and machinery. Encroaching on the delicate, free-hanging drawing was O’Daniel’s 2019 installation, with its heavy sound-absorbing curtains and a wall-based neon element that traced the movement of hands signing “the changing sky,” the title of the work. Nearby, a flat-panel monitor displayed one of Ludy’s short, abstract videos that vaguely recalled a screen saver. Another of her videos was included in the back half of the gallery, which was dominated by Peters’s minimal sound piece, the standout of the show: To make Fault Lines and Freeways, 2020, Peters recorded eight hours of subterranean noise near Los Angeles highways and played it back through transducers affixed to Canary’s preexisting steel clothing racks. The low frequency caused the wire hangers on the racks to rattle, generating an additional layer of sound that deftly collapsed two locations: the site of the field recordings and the experiential domain of the gallery.

Yet the artists’ ideas were most successfully parsed not in person but in the stunning limited-edition catalogue that accompanied the show. More object than book (think Duchamp’s Boîte-en-valise, 1935–41), it enclosed loose pages of text and drawings in a case made from two sheets of glass and a cutout portion of the gallery’s wall. It also included a seven-inch record documenting Peters’s work (a sample of his freeway field recording was on one side, a recording of the sound work installed at Canary on the other).

That this exhibition was doubled (or tripled) in its occupation of multiple platforms spoke most directly to its notion of “psychogeographies.” Indeed, the tragic turn of events that led the physical gallery to shutter rendered its digital twin—the nonstop live image of an unoccupied gallery where nothing happens—the more poignant effort in exhibition making. The encounter with art (free of explanatory statements) through basic video feeds during imposed isolation felt refreshingly blunt, even poetic, with the empty space serving as a metaphor for an art community abruptly forced into indefinite distancing. Moreover, the silencing of Peters’s installation mirrored the eerie abandonment of its subject, the LA freeways. And the show’s bare-bones online presence provided a stark contrast to the embarrassment of “digital content” that so many cultural institutions began disseminating—through email, online viewing rooms, Instagram Live, TikTok, Twitch, Vimeo, Zoom, and the like—in often knee-jerk (or tone-deaf) responses to the closures of their galleries. “Psychic Plumbing” emphasized that art is a psychic space, something much needed during a period of collective trauma.