Surrendering Rights

John Haber
in New York City

John F. Simon, Jr., Slater Bradley, and Lucas Samaras

Aspiring artists have a problem: the pay stinks. For most, the problem takes care of itself in due time. Either they give up, or they make a success, and either way people like me get to agonize over whether they deserve it.

For digital artists, however, not even time and celebrity may set things right. They often have more in common with the economics of information technology than of art. Each art object may require a substantial investment, even compared to stretchers and tubes of paint. One often lusts after the monitor more than the work of art. Worse, the art object may not exist, at least in the traditional sense, and collectors may find themselves scared to go near it. With its usual skill at unearthing an issue several years after the fact (and after I had otherwise finished this review), the Sunday Times calls video "art that has to sleep in the garage." Slater Bradley's Love You So Much It Makes Me Sick (Team gallery, 2003–2004)

So call me a cab. This spring, new media even made a point of surrendering the copyright. John F. Simon, Jr. played with ripping off Modernism's analog models, before putting his own work online. Slater Bradley created music videos so convincing that one had to have seen them before, over and over again. Think not of art asleep in the garage, but a real garage band. And Lucas Samaras took his own best brand, himself, and put it right in the hand—and mouse—of the viewer.

Modernism on a laptop

When I first encountered John F. Simon, Jr., in a Whitney survey of digital displays and the 2002 Biennial, I wrote him off as the maker of expensive screensavers. When I heard from him again, in a panel at the Guggenheim, I dismissed his foolish idealism. The Guggenheim panel proposed new media as a challenge to the gallery system, with its dependence on the unique art object. Simon has actually described his coding as akin as much to creative writing as to fine art, and his gallery will distribute his work on book and CD.

Surely Simon could not have it right both times—or I could not have him right. Then again, maybe I could. These days Simon really is pushing the limits of both market realities and free access. On the gallery walls, he may have finally warmed up to the art object, with more impressive results. Meanwhile, Whitney Artport online plans to feature Mobility Agents, his "computational sketchbook." Perhaps one can download one's cake and sell it at a premium, too.

Yet decades into an age of mechanical reproduction, the art market is booming. Could the potential for large-scale production of consumer goods actually have encouraged that? Artists as varied as Matthew Barney and Christina McPhee have approached the problem by crossing media. They display video or digital work alongside its props, packaging, and related photography, painting, and drawing. For others, however, the art continues to dissolve entirely into pixels, bits, and bytes.

Simon has tried overcoming the puzzle of the digital art object before. In the past, he hoped that the intricate displays would boost sales of, I have to say, innocuous plastic tchotchkes. Now he has learned to embrace both the gallery walls and even the concept of a screensaver, by throwing away everything but the screen. He has enabled Endless Victory and Endless Bounty to run on a laptop, shorn of its keyboard or indeed a visible computer. He embeds the flat panels in laser-cut frames, diamonds that effectively disguise the work's rectilinear origins. They also suggest interesting contexts for postmodern art.

His earlier displays, which multiply patterns out of small black-and-white cells, take off from Piet Mondrian. Here he extends the visual vocabulary to include other modernists, much as Casey Reas, also recently on Artport, digitally spins off Sol LeWitt. "Do the drawings of Klee, Kandinsky, and Miró," he asks, "anticipate a dynamic medium like computer graphics?" Perhaps not, but simply asking the question disturbs the boundaries separating painting, digital art, and conceptual art.

Simon's favorite Mondrian had been Broadway Boogie-Woogie, and here he gains as well by variations on a New York theme. The new images evoke traffic patterns and skyscrapers, disassembled and reassembled not quite floor by floor. The imagery also links the work more effectively to computer modeling in architecture, as well as to the whole question of how data become narrative and how painting takes on three-dimensional space. I have to admit it: I still find the images and their tight repetition awfully bland, and the colored frames and screens make me think more than ever of screensavers and Etch-a-Sketch. Still, at least I can now imagine myself as a child playing with modern art.

No apologies

Even when new media aim for populism, it may require premium cable. Along with Rirkrit Tiravanija's Hugo Boss Prize contribution, another largely overlooked show at the Guggenheim stakes out a channel that one never knew one received. In the case of Slater Bradley, one might think one had discovered MTV3, dedicated to rebroadcasts of music videos one had thankfully forgotten. This week's special feature: suicide and child molestation.

If that sounds like just another evening on Extra, Bradley might well agree. The curator calls the museum's new video acquisition, fleshed out by accompanying stills, "the collective unconscious of our mass-mediated culture." Bradley himself calls it his Doppelgänger Trilogy, although a video in one Chelsea summer group show ups it to four. By his doubles, he could mean familiar musicians, the proprietary videos they themselves had made, the popular culture that spawns them, himself, the evil twins of them all—or the images surrounding art and music that blithely link fantasy, death, emotional release, and dark impulses. One resists believing that he does not put himself before the camera, and he does not always trouble to tell you whose act he has appropriated.

Each segment could pass for a bootleg or a cryptic self-portrait, except that the same actor plays all the parts. In one, the coarse, crudely framed video presses its simulacrum of Kurt Cobain right in one's face. Its goes naturally with the singer's rough voice as he mimics Nirvana in concert at its grungiest. Forget "All Apologies": no apologies offered or accepted.

When I first saw "Stoned and Dethroned," Bradley's left-handed tribute to Cobain, I wondered why I should care. His gallery called the exhibition "an elaborate hoax." But what exactly differentiates the clip from every other 1990s' teenager wallowing in the guitarist's suicide and every other garage band imitating his act? Exactly whose melancholy should I feel, exactly who is fooling whom, and why should it matter? Does pop culture even have an unconscious, collective or otherwise? Perhaps that, too, is the point, but how deeply does it cut?

I felt better seeing the trilogy as a whole, especially since the other two segments play more overtly with quotation, mass reproduction, its icons, and their absence. Both look more like wildly distorted, black-and-white copies of something that already had a familiar public life. One picks on Ian Curtis, the lead singer of Joy Division and yet another suicide. In the third segment, Michael Jackson fills an entire, grainy wall as he dances more or less into view. (His later video, on summer display, circles around a John Bonham clone, drumming mightily to an empty football stadium, as if the sole member of a Led Zeppelin arena concert held in broad daylight.) And no, Bradley did not stage the entire Jackson trial this spring for publicity purposes.

I liked the eerie distortion of sensations so overused, at once so familiar and requiring so much time to recognize. It reminded me of another, better show at Bradley's gallery, of actual bootlegs by Jon Routson, shot with a hand-held camera in a movie theater, flouting at once comprehensibility and the law. The Jackson figure's blurry, stiff, isolated gestures may not threaten copyright protection, but they forfeit their reputed elegance and have to settle for a kind of pathos. And here Bradley did not even know that Jackson would again make the news. Still, is he really adding anything to what so many have already appropriated? When he finishes hurtling through imitations of enough pop stars, will he and his friends join the cast of Beatlemania?

The interactive artist

I can hardly imagine new media undermining market models so long as the artist himself remains a commodity and a star. Does that concept, not to mention the male pronoun, sound dated and offensive? Lucas Samaras has been placing his image front and center for so long that one can hardly imagine his art without him. Now, a year after a Whitney retrospective, he may finally be ready to relinquish control. He has set up row upon rigid row of desks, each outfitted with Macs, photo-editing software, and desktop patterns that expose everything but the artist.

The arrangement allows visitors to tweak his self-obsessive images and videos, their endless distortion dancing on the edge between the dictates of the medium and boasting. If that sounds immodest after all, the extra bit of trickery definitely adds to the work. Always in the past, he allowed viewers to pick and chose from among his representations. He also dared them to decide what counted as distortion. One could hardly say for sure when the manipulation arose from the artist's mastery, from the dictates of the medium, or from his surrender to his own bad habits. If you did not like the results, you could always turn away, or could you?

Now the medium lies in the viewer's hands, except that Samaras has obsessively built parameters and image banks into the process. The psychedelic flavor of the patterns and the snapshots included, often not of him but decidedly private in their associations, help place the work in his history—or no one's at all—rather than yours. He also makes it harder to turn away. How can you, while your hand is on the mouse? Who wealthy and educated enough to take an interest in galleries can put down gadgets these days anyway?

If you have absorbed the official line, it often starts with a pro forma bow of the digital community to nonvirtual reality: all art is interactive. Traditionally, however, the interaction is mental, the argument eagerly continues, not a physical determinant of the work. Aside revisiting what really determines the work, perhaps one should watch real users of digital art more closely. They enter something and click, often with hesitation, because they know they should, but except for gamers, nothing before the interaction may well have convinced them to consider the digital environment as their world. A work that revisits the relationship between the artist's obsession and the viewer's interaction may be onto something.

Samaras asks viewers to help create his image, without ever quite surrendering the copyright. When a woman artist, such as Cindy Sherman, creates fluid identities for the self, she emphasizes the fluidity of identities and the others who share in determining them. With the exception, such as Frida Kahlo or Julie Heffernan, one feels caught between an ego trip and a deliberate confrontation. Samaras can understand only the self-creation, although that, too, has the value of a provocation. At least, unlike Bradley, he does not waste time on the obvious sources of iconic power.

For me, however, the nicest part came when I did put down the mouse, circulating the room to watch all the users at once. (I am a Windows person anyway.) His image swam in and out of focus, and its multiplicity and the role of other performers at last took on a life of their own. Ironically, that, rather than when I myself was working, was the moment that the work stopped being totally about him—or did it? I could not help thinking that the neat rows of desks parodied not just the serial structures of Minimalism, which Pace has also displayed, but that grade-school classroom you hated most. Maybe soon Sherman's self-transformations will leave the fashion magazines and return to school.

BACK to John's arts home page

John Simon's latest work ran at Sandra Gering through May 28, 2005, with his "Mobility Agents" featured on Whitney Artport in October. Slater Bradley's "Doppelgänger Trilogy" ran at The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum through May 22 and Lucas Samaras at PaceWildenstein through April 10. Bradley's "Stoned and Dethroned" ran at Team through March 27, 2004. Related reviews look at Samaras in pastel and self-portraits.


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