Friday, November 16, 2007

The Course of Particulars (Intro)

The Course of Particulars: introduction for Terry Cuddy

Tell X that speech is not dirty silence
Clarified. It is silence made still dirtier.
~ Walace Stevens

This immediacy, in the fullest sense, of relation to artworks is a function of mediation, of penetrating and encompassing experience...
~ Theodor Adorno

Since I have known Terry Cuddy, his work has existed between design, the printed book, multimedia, video, site-specific installation, live music performance (including a rock opera, *Dr. Steadfast’s Last Migraine*), sound recording, and an ongoing investigation of sound and visual image, image and text. For anyone of lesser energy and commitment such a synthesis of approaches to making art would result in a dilletantishness. With Cuddy, his variety of approach seems natural, even necessary.

Cuddy’s practice is an intensely local one that nevertheless always touches problems of global importance. Minute particulars move towards universals, extending themselves as such, twisting like an arras in this extension. In this way Cuddy is a distinctly North America ‘nominalist’ (Emerson) during a time when it is most regrettable—ethically, politically, culturally—in many ways to be one. Like Muriel Rukeyser, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Charles Olson, Susan Howe and other Modernists before him he represents a genius of place as the local always remains in relation to other localities and individuals in his work—a world at large.

During a time of goth. revival, hyper-appropriation, virtual realities, and neo-psychadelia in popular visual art there is something unfashionable, and therefore difficult, about Cuddy’s commitment to a Modernist legacy indebted to traditions of film and video art (Hollis Frampton, James Benning, Tony Conard, Nam Juin Paik and others come to mind) as much to poetry and critical theory (Barthes, Benjamin, Adorno, Wittgenstein). After these confluent Modernist strains Cuddy returns compulsively to problems of representation, how sound, image and text synaesthetically mediate our understandings of the world as political, ethical and social beings; how, what’s more, a citizenry is inculcated in an era of American democracy’s last gasps.

In a video from 2004, Cuddy poses as the host of a home improvement program. He explains that in last week’s episode he was doing some work on the basement of a house and now he will show that work to the viewer. When, in the next scene, we find Cuddy in the basement he provides commentary on the renovations. While Cuddy talks a box appears in the center of the room. The presence of this box is unsettling in its familiarity, a text-book example of the uncanny. Before Cuddy leaves the shot ostensibly to show the viewer another room of the house he explains that he will take a photograph of the basement to document the renovation. A hand appears in the frame of the video and snaps a photograph; the photograph takes unusally long to flash, producing a stroboscopic light effect. The hand of the photographer, ominously, is wearing a white glove. The hand looks official, authoritative—like that of a doctor, or inspector. There is the pervasive sense this hand represents "the law," and that we have been at this scene of a domestic crime—a crime of interiority—many times before. In the following scene we are asked to compare the photograph just taken to another one. This later photograph is yellowed and pixellated, and shows the walls and ceiling of a room damaged by water.

When I saw Cuddy’s video for the first time I had not seen the photographs of Abu Grahib yet. I couldn’t bring myself to look at them, couldn’t make a “friend of horror” to quote Chris Marker after Marlon Brando’s Kurtz in *Apocalypse Now*. I sometimes wonder what my reaction would have been to Cuddy’s video had I seen it after encountering the Abu Grahib photos, especially that of the hooded man standing arms outspread with electric wires dangling from his chest. In the following scene of Cuddy’s video we see a television. While a program plays a hand begins to draw on the television screen with a magnet (a technique of vintage video art) slowly revealing the silhouette of the now iconic Abu Grahib prisoner. As the figure is gradually revealed a voice-over explains something about the relation between figure and ground; meanwhile the channels start to change, and eventually surf rapidly.

Through such forms of mediation—the parody of popular home improvement programs like *This Old House*, the use of historic video techniques, and appropriation of television footage—Cuddy fuses attentive and distracted attentions, diverging from both. The result is moral critique in the form of negative consciousness. The images we receive in the video are made things—that is, they are visibly produced—and Cuddy's viewer remains aware of this throughout. Beyond such awarenesses of form, Cuddy describes a haunted content. The memory of Abu Grahib as it is both affixed by indelible iconicity (the silhouetted image of the prisoner magnetized on the tv set) and erased by an attention deficient spectatorship (that of channel surfing and home improvement programs both).

As we might also say after Chris Marker's *Sans Soleil*, Cuddy makes us see “the black” in lieu of deferred contentment--"happiness". Procedure creates a blindness the origin and termini of an imaginative-critical faculty (and this is the dream of an anachronistic Modernist aesthetic practice as it collides with politics, the socially ‘real’, to this day). Form renders its contents senseless, anti-mimetic, and so produces meaning, has effects, instead. What is at stake in Cuddy’s work is finally consciousness itself as a form of action. Historical mediation via 'intermedia' as useful, if not instrumental. Playfully instrumental. Creatively didactic. A moralism that hints and points and winks.

In Cuddy’s most recent video, *The Harriet Complex*, we move among a series of scenes informing a controversy about Harriet Tubman’s commemoration in Auburn, New York, the final resting place of Tubman’s body and incidentally Cuddy’s home town. The specificity, the concise localness of Cuddy’s video, which features children performing a play about Tubman’s life in a local grammar school, a town counsel meeting where arrogant counselmen (and they are all men) argue whether an interstate that runs thru Auburn should be named after the seminal Abolition leader (in the end, an argument prevails the interstate should not be named after Tubman since this would make race an “issue” in the town, and therefore divide the citizenry along racial lines), a beautiful sequence of animated topological maps tracing Tubman’s Underground Railroad routes, and synthesized video images of town monuments commemorating Tubman, as well as photos and other documents of Tubman’s person.

Memorably, in the final scene of the video, Cuddy’s friends, family and community read letters written by locals and published in the local newspaper concerning the naming of Auburn’s highschool after Tubman (a commemorative controversy prior to debates about the naming of the interstate). During this segment each shot presents a close-up of the speaker’s mouth. That one only sees the mouths of the speakers is estranging, and distances what is said from what is seen, image from voice, ventriloquist from that thrown. That the letters are spoken by people of all different ages, genders, shades of skin, etc. provides yet another degree of reflection. The content of the letters, in their sequencing, demonstrate racial antagonism as it occurs rhetorically through the typical “letter to the editor” forum. In the very words used to state the problem of commemoration, the often absurb and illogical rhetorical arguments against the naming of the highschool, racism is revealed as banal, a quotidian evil. Unpressed by events more exigent than the seemingly apolitical decision to name a school or highway, racism remains unexamined critically and therefore abandoned as an "issue" in the town.

Through a variety of techniques and tactics Cuddy consistently returns his viewer to the fact that something is being watched, and reproduced as such (if the viewer is in fact a coproducer of aesthetic objects, and not merely subject to a work’s or author‘s authority). While certain techniques of *The Harriet Complex* would appear in loving tribute to early video art—a moment Cuddy certainly feels himself located by, and to take-up—I think they also revitalize video art’s relation to content. The content in this case is racism observed at an extraordinarily local level while extending towards problems of global import: who gets remembered, and how so on the basis of their skin-color? At a micro-political level, Cuddy’s video contains many of the problems we must still confront if racial ressentiment is to be overcome.

The key to activating this overcoming, as Cuddy’s video substantiates, is not to make speech a dirty silence clarified (to paraphrase Wallace Stevens’ poem, "The Creations of Sound"), but to make silence 'still dirtier'. That is, the more levels of mediation between a work of art and its content—the more semblance and the 'real' are related by craft—the closer we may feel to the actuality of a social problem in all of its messiness, contradiction, and the different positions of its interlocutors and actors. Or, to put it in the terms of Theodor Adorno: it is only through the mediation of artworks that social contradiction will be presented as truth *beside* political actions, consequences and effects. I feel this being *beside* as I encounter Cuddy’s work again.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

'Or of your time sense in no time'

for Eléna Rivera

'[...] the vast sorrow in between
what is reported and what one sees'
~ Eléna Rivera

'now-time' or of any century sut
ured so 'this is this' what is meant
"I" was that 'cincture endemic to
no one we boarded a non-sense
non-entity of trains the police

police they asked for the man's I.
D.--"you understand I.D.?"-- lik
e he was a moron and not one un
derstanding he was human at th
at moment utterly interpellated--

accused as always so difficult to
get the animal 'breath' back it's no
t easy being undead when we wro
te the poem the poem wrote us b
ack into life we asked to have ey

es but all we were given was com
munication--a 'bare life' for sign
ificance--referents towering com
mand our sorrow in fact you are
in Sante Fe and not here and I am

not in Sante Fe and not here also
what distance must I occupy to
have sight to save face from hard
ship proximities with which we
"deal" otherwise--'a many girded/

where mercy sleeps soundly'*--if I
am to fathom anything at all it is
the smaller frame of your words
their distance as Oppen taught us
to trust words as things otherwise

in their seeing than 'reportage'--
an event all our own but shared
if to overhear is to see I saw him
say 'swimming is to cadence as
music to breathing' but we are al

ways drowning likewise by rhetor
ical possibility 'at the war' we fou
nd another time other times and
these were sometimes adequate
to continue to face reality as if to

continue in some assurance or s
urety to continue with the names
as they fall away to sound to clu
tch a fragment figment vast in its
presence against 'society' per se

to endure 'age' as it flows upon
us an external pressure Stein sa
ys WWI made everyone 'Modern'
so what does that make us a ser
ies of ones valued for being con

temporary a civilian war of the m
ind and body as it continues in t
heir market aether 'Not Saleable'
one disclaimed but then she ide
ntified herself principally with the

market crash that seems immin
ent against any historicity will on
e build a better commons made
from waste products the sky has
become hasty and the ground no

t much better with impatient dan
cing 'mother fucking crazy' an ir
onic twist on the Rap song if the
re ever was one--'all I want to do
is - - - - - and take your money'

--while the 'real' guns fire in a di
stance of sense an ironic sense o
f 'missing in action' as if missing
itself were without an alibi--rep
orted though never actually seen.

*this line and the epigraph above are taken from Rivera's unpublished "Movement in the Upper Region"

Monday, November 12, 2007

Same Age

For the people of that flow
Are new, the old
New to age as the young
To youth
~ George Oppen

All the consequences return
contemporary to our research snow

after all of “us” has gone into
which misprision nothing begets

because you are here or I am
any one across that darker

always the distances the mind
that begets them so ice ellipsed

ice a syntax I want that mind
your mind as it can’t be here

for me given to its strangeness
your body blanked-out by the light

up there itself a kind of information
no one should actually sense

our sex given to shade or find
larger circumference elsewhere

space you look into multiple
in its vacuity also looks out

at us as once desiring in this
city we seemed the same age.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

A Multitude of Elsewheres

Vito Acconci A Live Reading Swiss Institute November 7th

Being better acquainted with Acconci’s language-based performances and photographic works from the 60’s and 70’s it was a refreshing surprise to hear him read from unrealized architectural and design projects this past Wednesday evening.

During the reading the artist read four ‘chapters’ from the writing project, each chapter dealing with a different architectural theme (e.g. ‘Buildings Inside/Out’). Between chapters Acconci played ‘interludes’—CD tracks of some of his 70’s recording projects. That the 70’s recordings should be interposed Acconci’s mainly 90’s and 00’s architectural writings proved a bit like time-travel (“Vito” then, “Vito” now), yet also consistent with a sense of delay pervasive throughout Acconci’s entire work.* For instance, the series of performances he did in the early 70’s involving the transportation of his library back and forth from his West Village apartment to a gallery where he was showing Uptown; when he wanted to peruse any of his books he would have to get on a train, delaying research. Or the infamous St. Mark’s Poetry Project “reading” consisting of a series of phone calls to the audience at the Project from different phone booths throughout the city. Acconci’s represented voice arrived, as well as his coordinates on the “grid,” however never the bodily presence of the performer one expects from a poetry reading context.

If any delay is at work in Acconci’s reading of last Wednesday it is that of architectural endeavors that also never embody or presence themselves for any number of reasons (because the money doesn’t exist, or technology hasn’t become sufficiently developed; because a particular location is not available or convenient). Among the projects Acconci proposed one of my favorites was his plan for a “research station” in Antarctica. Here the metaphysical thrust of the artist’s writings was felt as Acconci announced ‘an Antarctica of the mind’ and imagined ‘seeing the mind’ itself through the ‘blankness’ of Antarctica. ‘Think of this world as a blank piece of paper’. The ‘beacon’ of the Antarctica research station, likewise, would project a light not for ‘anyone’ (as hardly any one goes to Antarctica and fewer still inhabit it) but for ‘itself’. A communion or conveyance with the stars (‘information gets pulled down from the stars’). A space-age movie house for a cold, iconoclastic geography (‘a movie that is the air we breathe’).

Many of the spaces Acconci chose for his implausible projects may be considered utopian in a literal sense, the term deriving from the Latin for “no place”. In the spirit of Italo Calvino’s *Invisible Cities* or (closer still) Arakawa/Gins’ *Reversible Destiny* projects Acconci enumerates spaces of potentiality, the drafts of an accomplished artist-architect’s imagination unloosed.

Other projects I especially liked were for a garden at W. 24th St. in New York City along Chelsea’s “Highline”. Here a ‘crisscross of moving greenery’ would allow the occupant to ‘move through a magic carpet’ eventually ‘becom[ing] a spaceship [him]self’. Other aspects of Acconci’s utopian projects were to confuse opposed categories such as “nature” and “culture,” “appearance” and “reality,” “identity” and “non-identity,” “surface” and depth,” “inside” and “out,” “public” and “private”. As the utopian must admit the all-too-specific as well as the wildly implausible Acconci also projected a National Quilt museum for Indiana where each room of the museum would showcase a different type of quilt, or quilt by itself. Here the artist acknowledged the quilt as an American art form exemplary for its “multitude of elsewheres”: places, identities, substances, beliefs, fabrics and stitching patchworked.

Other projects included a “Plaza of Plazas” for Strausbourg whereby the elements of the typical plaza should be set into motion creating a plaza its occupants ‘never knew they wanted until they formed it by accident’. Also a ‘Sculpture Jungle’ for the Czech Republic (‘another world that’s somewhere but isn’t here yet’) and a ‘transfer’ for an airport in Atlanta.

In the ‘transfer’ piece the connection between the “no place” of Acconci’s unrealized projects and writing itself was evident in the many puns at play (‘you have lost your head, you have gained still another head’), as well as the conceitful position of Acconci’s narrator (first he tells his reader he is home in NYC, then says he has lied, he is in Atlanta, then says he is ‘nowhere’, he is at an airport, writing). Indeed we have perhaps always been nowhere before Acconci’s work, which consistently pits its audience between here and there, arriving and departing, potential and actual, on paper and off. For Acconci, who began his career as a poet and in so many ways still acts as one, language itself finally seems the ultimate elsewhere.

*for more about Acconci’s ‘delay’ see Craig Dworkin’s introduction to Acconci’s 2005 MIT Press book, *Language to Cover the Page* (ed. Dworkin).