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Diner Dogma 4: Lipstick, Chocolate, and Licorice Allsorts - The Lady Has A Scar

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December 31st, 2003

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02:09 am - Diner Dogma 4: Lipstick, Chocolate, and Licorice Allsorts

This time, K and L discuss all of the strange things people try to make art from. As usual, K blames it all on the lexis. Their conversation was held in the Washington Square Diner, a classic joint on the corner of Sixth Avenue and Fourth Street in NYC. We join K and L as they anxiously wait for their lunches…

K: Where should we begin?

L: We should go back to that conversation we had this morning.

K: I’m so hungry. What were we discussing this morning?

L: The chocolate thing: “has it been made in chocolate”?

K: I think that was the phrase. What occurs to me is that for over a hundred years visual art has had a problem with what we would refer to as its lexis, which was historically the canvas easel painting. That was at the heart of art, and when you say “art” to this day you probably think of a canvas easel painting. Possibly you think of the Mona Lisa, which is on a piece of board but you probably think that it’s on canvas.

L: I thought it was.

K: See! So that was the lexis for visual art. That or say, marble sculpture, but that would have been a distant second. That was the lexis for sculpture. But the agreed upon central idea in art is that this was something made on canvas and stretcher bars and hung on a wall. And then that fell apart after the invention of photography. The problem became "how do you deal with this object that’s not multiple and repeatable – and therefore modern - in the way that photography clearly is". In the way that films are, and books are, and recorded music is.

So I think that became a great crisis in visual art, the problem of its outmoded substrate. It needed a new substrate, so what’s the substrate going to be? And the whole issue of Conceptualism, the whole thing that Duchamp set up with the Readymades - starting long ago, fairly shortly into the 20th century - was to demonstrate that all kinds of things could be a substrate of visual art. In fact, that any object could become a substrate for visual art, could become a piece of visual art by being identified as that and recontexualized as that.

And that has been pursued for ninety years, a very long time, and we’re still seeing it over and over again. People are saying to themselves “I need to have formal novelty in my work. So…I don’t know…what if I made it out of chocolate?” You know? If I take a thing and transform it into another substance that does two things in the great canonical conceptual way. First of all it robs the thing of whatever its original intent and purpose and meaning was, which renders it “artlike” because it’s now stripped of usefulness, it’s now a cultural object with no other purpose. Which is required of art. Secondly, I think it partakes of this ongoing struggle of how do we find a new substrate for art, how do we find a new lexis for art? Could it be chocolate? Could it be lipstick?

L: Can I insert a really classic example right here?

K: Sure.

L: (Canadian sculptor) Bob Wise was telling me about this woman who was a grad student at Uvic (the University of Victoria, Canada) who did this work using licorice allsorts. She took apart licorice allsorts and separated them into their different colors. So she had a blob of pink, a blob of orange, black, white, etc. That became her palette. Then she used this material like clay to shape tiny busts of various world leaders.

K: Right! So the novelty in that was not that she was creating busts. Using one of the old lexises for sculpture – marble, say - that would have been an exhausted strategy that would have been invalid. That would have been the term thrown at it – “this is an invalid approach, you cannot just make a marble bust anymore in contemporary art”. It has to be recontextualized somehow. So by transforming the medium - “has it been made out of licorice?” - you’re okay. But now licorice is taken.

L: Right!

K: She took it. She has to make sure that it’s publicized or someone could legitimately argue that she didn’t take it well enough. But assuming that it was publicized, no one else could then work in licorice. Licorice is now out of bounds, just as lipstick and chocolate and lard and felt and all of these other things are now out of bounds, the search goes on for formal novelty on the one hand, and also a kind of novelty of content that I think is very similar. It’s a sense of like “has this exact trick been done before - this exact move?” In the past we’ve referred to that as “another turn of the Conceptual screw”.

L: Which I think is an excellent description.

K: Even though these things work as pieces, I don’t argue with that, and I use this strategy in my own work, it’s perfectly correct to pursue in a sense. The question that it begs is why there is this enormous difference between visual art and other major art forms when it comes to the question of, in particular, formal novelty. Why is formal novelty so essential to the work, especially now? Why do we feel ashamed if the work doesn’t have this type of novelty?

It’s interesting that this is still an issue now, all these years into Post-Modernism. The whole obsession with heroic leaps of originality has been thoroughly discredited since at least Rosalind Krauss and yet people are still fixated on the fetish of formal novelty. I think that the answer to that lies in the problem of visual art not having an appropriate lexis. And I think this is a kind of thrashing around or casting about, looking for the appropriate substrate, the appropriate medium. Imagine film, for example, where you can have an entire spectrum of work between absolutely avant-garde and experimental films…

L: Like Stan Brankage…

K: And absolutely conventional Hollywood films, like Steven Spielberg. And yet they all have….

(Food arrives)

K: …and yet they all have a common substrate. So nobody goes to see a film and quarrels with the substrate. Nobody would say “Oh for christsake, its another 35mm film!”

L: (Laughs)

K: Right?

L: Right.

K: Because everyone loves that substrate. And they also love the fact that it’s got a working distribution system associated with it. So no one has any quarrel with the substrate. I mean it might evolve into video or digital projection or something, but those are incremental evolutions. Oh god, it’s so much better when they toast the bun!

L: Ah, you had a toasting success today.

K: Yeah. (long pause while he’s eating) Anyway I think that this is an unaddressed question, sort of the elephant in the room for contemporary art, which is: why are we so obsessed with that type of novelty? And why are we so obsessed with blurring the formal distinctions between visual art and other artforms? So you have people making “sound pieces” and people making “video pieces”. One great extreme of that is obviously Matthew Barney who makes films that he sells as art pieces in limited editions. “Movie pieces”.

And Net art, for example, where the internet becomes the substrate, the software becomes the substrate, and you try to create “software pieces”. The problem with Net art, with that lexis, is that it’s inclined toward interactivity which is, of necessity, extremely limiting in terms of how the piece can work…

L: (Comment inaudible due to woman talking very loudly in the background.)

K: Yeah. I think that most people involved in Net art recognize that they have a terrible problem with the fact that their work is not particularly engaging. Rhizome’s Net Art News makes defensive, jokey comments about that to the effect of: “and you thought ALL net art was boring, well here’s something that isn’t”. But to me that says all Net art pretty much is boring. Imagine somebody saying “and you thought all films were boring.” You know? The problem for visual art trying to merge with these different types of lexis, different substrates, is that sometimes a hybrid is just infertile. Like a mule.

Again, this is obviously an extremely formalist way to talk about artwork, 35 years into a paradigm of academic Conceptualism, but I think this is important to address because… (pause) oh god, this sandwich is so good.

L: So is this salad. Washington Square serves the biggest chicken Caesar salad.

K: See, for you, these Diner Dogma discussions are really all about comparing chicken Caesar salad.

L: Yeah.

K: Anyway, getting back to this question, trying to make work using a “borrowed” substrate like film or video opens up problems, in particular the problem of ambience. I raise this because I think that it’s useful in the face of all the attempts that are constantly made to dissolve the distinction between art and other things, this inter-disciplinary idea – “oh, art can be anything, anything, anything, visual art can be just like a movie” – I think that it’s useful to look for an essential formal distinguishing characteristic between forms of art. I mean, if somebody writes a haiku, nobody says, “oh Jesus Christ you deliberately used a set of rules. What’s wrong with you?”

L: Well, you might say that. (Laughs)

K: Well…

L: But you’re not a poet.

K: I think there are, up to a point,ways in which formal rules can be very positive, you know? The rules of narrative, in film, can be useful. The problem that happens for visual artists trying to sort of sneak over into those forms is that traditional time-based work, especially narrative work, like theater, film, literature, is not ambient. It has a narrative structure: beginning, middle and end. So if you took it out of order you would not have a full experience of the piece.

However with visual art the experience of the work is ambient, inasmuch as you take it in in little sips. This is why the most satisfying experience of a piece of visual art is when you live with it. It’s very problematic to go to a museum and try to take in a whole bunch of pieces of your favorite art. You are forced to view with the one quick exposure. It’s not actually an ambient exposure at all, in fact, because it’s actually a narrative of different pieces that’s forced onto you.

L: By the curator.

K: By the curators as you move from room to room and you focus on each piece. That’s a problem with the gallery system and the museum system, and it’s a terrible problem for art; it’s part of the reason it has such a small audience. People aren’t used to the idea that they can sit privately over time and experience work the way it’s supposed to be experienced, ambiently, a little bit here and there, out of the corner of your eye, quickly, when you’re distracted, talking on the phone, walking in the hall, passing it a thousand times.

And the closest most people ever get to that is posters, because of course the original art objects are so expensive.

L: I think I know where you’re going with this...

K: Mmm hmm. Where?

L: To your vision of flat plasma screens on the wall of every home delivering art ambiently.

K: Yeah, I’m going there after I finish criticizing Matthew Barney.

L: Okay.

K: And installation art. And object-based art of any kind. And Conceptual art. The impulse in visual art is to create a powerful ambient quality, by which I mean: something about it leads out polyvalently in different directions: it unfolds. So you have a simple thing, like a singularity, a conceptual singularity that opens up into different interpretations. And people complain about the ambiguity of art, but this is art’s strength: different viewers bring different things to it and then walk away with a lot of different responses opening up all at once in different directions. So the work is unresolved in a sense and problematic in another sense.

I think the strongest work does that, and it does that engagingly; in other words it compels you to confront its problem. That’s a tall order; if you look at most images, most snap shots, most single frames from a movie - they don’t do that. There’s nothing to start drawing you in and to start a process in your mind. Instead they simply stare out at you saying, “I’m perfectly explicable, and I can be understood instantly, I don’t pose any problem.” In the case of a still from a film it might say, “There’s a picture coming after me and a picture that goes before me and you can pretty much guess what they are just by looking at me right now.”

Now once in a long while an image like that, a snapshot or a film still or an advertisement, some random image will pose that problem or can be recontextualized so that it will pose that problem. Usually because time goes by, and the content becomes ironic or problematic or just through formal happenstance, through an arrangement of, say, the lights and shadows. I’m thinking of an Andy Warhol piece where he just happened to come across a random photograph of something that cast a shadow on a wall in such a way that it looked like a skull, so this was a piece, but an accidental piece. Many other images could have been created of that same arrangement of objects that would not have worked like that.

So the problem that comes up in trying to make a film like Matthew Barney, or even when you just try to make a video, is that you have a series of images constructed by an artist with that exact sort of impulse in mind, to make this powerful single ambient thing. And then they get strung together. And it’s remarkable to me how when people talk about Matthew Barney’s work they talk about it in those exact terms, as a series of remarkably powerful images sort of strung together, and they talk about the problem of trying to follow that implied narrative.

I think that the problem for visual artists is that when you try to have non-ambient time-based work you’re just going to make a terrible movie that becomes unengaging. You get overloaded by a cascade of powerful images and you can’t follow it after about five or ten minutes. Your brain tries to allow each of them to unfold in all the many polyvalent directions that a good powerful image wants to unfold in if was properly isolated and abstracted and constructed to be visual art. That cascade overwhelms you and your brain shuts down and stops following it. I remember watching some 20 minute Bill Viola video and for the first three minutes I was like "this is beautiful, oh this is great, I love watching this." Then after five minutes I was like "Oh, I'm so stupid, I can’t follow this, I just want to get up and get out."

L: I had the same experience watching Bill Viola’s work

K: And I had the exact experience watching Matthew Barney’s work, watching Cremaster at the Whitney ten years ago. I was sitting there thinking, "Wow, this is really engaging and riveting and powerful." But after five minutes I couldn’t look at it anymore. So how engaging was it? It had become unengaging, it had collapsed under the weight of its own ambience piling up through time. So I think there’s a limit to the amount of contiguous, linear time you can reasonably expect people to spend engaging with ambient time-based work.

In other words, if it demands that you engage with it but then it doesn’t give you the narrative to allow your brain to structure and abstract and process the information. This is why I think that the best time-based work is truly ambient inasmuch as it doesn’t matter at what point or for how long you look at it, you can take it in in little disconnected sips. For example, software-based work that just over time (which can be thousands of years) creates a series of images.

I’m thinking of Manfred Mohr’s work at Bitforms a few months ago, which he told me would take 100,000 years to repeat. It was abstractions gently evolving on the screen. It was beautiful, but what compelled me the most about it was that I did not feel obligated to continue to stare at it longer than I wanted to - so I always felt good about the piece! I was always just looking at the piece out of the corner of my eye, I would come back to the piece. Because it was ambient it didn’t matter when I did that. So I related to the piece just like it was a painting, but in fact it was a time-based digital animation!

And this is why I think Matthew Barney’s pieces don’t work in their totality but do work in discrete sips. The problem is they’re never presented to us that way. So people take it upon themselves to look at them that way. They look at the cover of Flash Art magazine and think, “that is a Matthew Barney”. Those images, those stills which they sell now as ephemera - I think those really become the work itself. I don’t think people sit through the Cremaster cycle and try and string it together, nobody could!

L: I think they try.

K: It becomes like some sort of sweat lodge ceremony.

L: Exactly!

K: Some sort of ordeal. The ritual ordeal that proves you have the biggest brain in the art world. Because you can then claim that you followed it, when in fact for most of the time you were fantasizing about your laundry.

L: (Laughs uproariously).

K: For visual art the proper solution is not to try and borrow substrates from other forms, not to try to make art that’s like music - because when you go down that road you’ll either make bad art or bad music. And if you make good music it won’t be art. Or you make a good film, like Julian Schanbel actually made a good film, in a very conservative, conventional way completely belying the way he makes visual art, you know? He would never make visual art as formally conventional and conservative as his film, but everyone agrees his films are really great. So the mission for visual art is to find a lexis, a substrate that allows it to first of all to connect with the broader based economy of ideas and culture that films connect to and literature connects to and that music connects to - and that visual art has been frantically trying to connect to for a hundred years as it thrashes around making things out of chocolate and lipstick and lard...

L: And licorice allsorts.

K: …and licorice allsorts. And that lexis, that substrate, should be the digital image. The digital image should be the new painting on canvas. And it can be a single still image or it can be time-based, it can be an evolving image - but it needs to be ambient. And then you can have an extensive collection of them in your nice digital frame in your house, and take them in in little sips and not worry about being bored by art. The end.

(9 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:January 2nd, 2004 01:52 pm (UTC)
Hello. I noticed you added me to your friends' list. Please let me know if I may reciprocate in kind, birthday compatriot of mine.
Thanks for reading and Happy New Year--J.
[User Picture]
Date:January 2nd, 2004 06:49 pm (UTC)
I would be honored if you added me to your friends list, thank you! Sept.17 is a very popular day in my family - I have four relatives with the same birthday as me (and you). PS - Your story about your Grandpa Jack was very touching and beautiful.
[User Picture]
Date:January 3rd, 2004 04:00 pm (UTC)
Thank you for the compliment. *curtsey*
[User Picture]
Date:January 6th, 2004 12:55 am (UTC)
i really really enjoyed reading this...where did you get it?
i actually saw that licorice allsorts miniature busts piece...
i noticed you added me to your friends list, but you never even left me a note, so i'm just wondering how you found me and why you decided to add me....
[User Picture]
Date:January 6th, 2004 06:16 am (UTC)
Hi. Glad you enjoyed the piece. I am actually the "L" of K & L.

I belong to the Victoria BC community, which is where I saw you post and checked out your journal. I grew up on Vancouver Island and went to UVic (where I also studied Visual Art). I live in New York City now and work with my friend Kevin who also attended UVic, he was a grad student when I was an undergrad. We run a couple of websites, this piece is from Artlexis.com. You should check it out, there are several more Diner Dogmas there and POD Theory is very interesting too.

Sorry I didn't send a note, I am new to this LJ thing and don't really know the proper etiquette. I added you as a friend because I saw you are currently studying visual arts at UVic and I was curious, what kind of an experience that is these days? For me it was great but that was quite awhile ago!

[User Picture]
Date:January 6th, 2004 12:12 pm (UTC)
It's still great...i really love it...
when did you two go to uvic? [if you don't mind me asking]
what kind of stuff are you two working on now?
[User Picture]
Date:January 6th, 2004 10:37 pm (UTC)
Unless I claim to be some sort of prodigy I'm seriously dating myself here... K & I both graduated from UVic in 1990. Only two profs we had are still around: Lynda Gammon & Rob Youds. I know Ingrid, Lucy and Steve R., all through my friend Bob.

Kevin, as you might guess, makes digital art now. He's also made some short films and is working on a comic book. Here's his work in ArtLexis.

Some photos that Bob & I collaborated on are in ArtLexis. I like these but they're not typical of the work I produced on my own. I've just agreed to do a photo-roman with another friend of mine, beginning with our graduation from UVic and episodically re-telling our lives since then. Hopefully it will be amusing, it's meant to be. For the past few years I've been caught up helping other people with their creative endeavors, between the websites and running an annual film festival here, and unfortunately I've sacrificed my own work. Not a situation I'm content with.
[User Picture]
Date:January 6th, 2004 10:40 pm (UTC)
BTW Do you happen to know the name of the artist who made those minature busts?
[User Picture]
Date:January 7th, 2004 12:40 am (UTC)
i could find out....it was in the uvic main gallery not too long ago...i'll ask around

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