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Following A Line

Following A Line, 2010

Pablo Bronstein, Peter Gazendam, Susanne Kriemann, Kyla Mallett, Alex Morrison, Frances Stark and Paul Sietsema

“As I write this, I feel very sad and somewhat inadequate.  I don’t know if it’s because I’m a weak and insecure writer, a weak and insecure artist or both. I feel like I’m going to cry.”  This sentiment expressed by Frances Stark in Structures That Fit My Opening and Other Parts Considered in Relation to Their Whole (2007), may read here as an odd opener. If the writer isn’t confident why would one read on? But maybe identification with this pathos is precisely what encourages further reading.  Being sure is maybe not the strongest position. ‘Maybe’ seems a key word. ‘Seems’ an even more fitting one. The wavering qualifiers in these statements is commonly and negatively read as a hesitation defined by uncertainty, but what I want to put forward is that this moment of doubt, this stumble in conviction, can act more as an opening than a finishing point. It can be a powerful point of entry. This doubting is certainly where I enter the Stark’s work. Her representation of her art practice in Structures That Fit My Opening…, a PowerPoint presentation that is played in her absentia, is built on uncertainty, but poignantly with a tool that is normally used to present information with exactitude. This contradiction between the authoritative tool and the artist’s self-reflexive portrayal is one that not only questions the value of her authorship, but also the delineation of her position. She states that she would like to push herself “toward a better understanding of what kind of ‘liberation’ [she] as a woman, artist, teacher, mother, ex-wife [is] really after.” These conflated but divergent roles articulated by Stark should also reflect an equally multi-faceted reader, so as Stark defines herself in complex terms she also defines me, the reader.

In the seminal text The Open Work written by Umberto Eco in 1962, he activates the reader, defining them as interrupters who generate meaning alongside the author and, as such, rendering the author’s stance as one that is continually in flux. He placed the rights of the author and the rights of the reader in a balancing act, where intention and interpretation can be equals, but it is a teetering game. This subjective collaboration between author and reader has been the dominant model for over half a century, but there is still something to be gained in testing the dialectics between author’s intent and reader’s understanding. For example, what happens when interpretation is stressed over intention? Stark and all the artists in Following A Line test this equation, forming a lateral relationship between author and reader, but here it is without direct intent and without defined meaning. This is not to say there isn’t a leaning toward a presentation that signifies meaning, but what is offered is anything but determined.

“A low variant from a split tongue,” is a linguistic phrase that signifies two modes of expression. Basically, it defines one side of diglossia, which is a switching between languages according to circumstance, divided between common (low) and specialized (high) usages.  Alex Morrison literally turns this pronouncement into signage. Carved in a font designed by William Morris mounted on an ornate metal frame, Morrison chooses the vernacular as his point of identification, yet it is articulated somewhat obtusely using a specialized language. The sign is substantial; it is over two feet long and six inches wide so has a significant presence, but its legibility is somewhat obstructed by the elaborate gothic-styled font and word placement. Like the tongue, Morrison’s sign is split between two languages – one that mixes high and low. The sign itself is a vernacular form and stylistically it denotes and conflates the arts and crafts movement with late medieval design and the lay language of commerce, but it is anything but common, even if it declares itself so.  The sign is not conversational. It is more the high variant, speaking a different register — one that is literary rather than ordinary, and thus requiring a reader more than a listener. But what is Morrison trying to say? How is he approaching me, the reader? He is divided, that is for sure — but he is also performing. There is a defined performative element when choosing to use high variants. To speak in the high, like writing this text or giving a speech, takes effort; it is specialized and to use it one must be conscious of the form. Morrison is no doubt putting low and high in opposition but creating an ambiguity in his identification with either side by formalizing the low but speaking high.

For Intermezzo, Pablo Bronstein uses the formal format of the lecture as a starting point, transforming a partly informative presentation on the 16th century French painter Antoine Caron into a dance exploration of gesture and space. The conventions of the lecture at its base require a speaker, a topic, and listeners, and it is generally given with the purpose of instruction. Bronstein doesn’t even adhere to these fundamentals. As a reader (listener), it is difficult to know what is historical fact or fabrication as Bronstein extrapolates the details of Caron’s paintings, focusing on the figures, stances and gestures and the elaborately rendered settings, drawing out the theatricality of each.  Bronstein used the subject of Caron, in some ways as a decoy to the subject of the 16th century intermezzo, an elaborate form of court entertainment often performed between acts of a play or at festivals and celebrations. When switching topics, Bronstein pronounces, “the power of the illusion on stage is rendered void.” This seems to be true of the lecture on Caron, which, to illustrate the intermezzo, turns into a ballet that both disrupts and speaks to the format of the lecture.  It is not that the roving and twisting themes of the presentation are uninformative, but the performativity of the lecture in part becomes the topic, the stage a prop and, towards the end, the dancer, as he mimics Bronstein’s gestures, a lecturer. There is something twofold, an ambiguity in the doubling of subject and format. The elusive topic carries meaning, but it is waylaid by the format of its presentation, challenging the instructive nature of the lecture and how information is ordered and transmitted, and what we are expected to perceive.

“Have you ever been able to sense how someone is feeling, in spite of how this person was acting?” This question is one of 12 posited in the self-help book How to Read and See the Aura to determine whether or not you have experienced an auric field. If you answer yes to any of the equally generalized questions recounting somewhat unexceptional experiences, you have witnessed the aura. For her recent work Kyla Mallett uses this book as her subject.  As she is learning to read the aura she is also figuring out how to convey and interpret her understanding which, to a large extent, is an aesthetic reading — one that pulls out diagrams and charts, and key information such as the above mentioned questionnaire, creating a colour field of 44 prints, a photograph, posters, and a slide show. She provides a fluctuating visual experience that reflects the goal of the book, which is to render the invisible – the aura — visible.  Literally, the inks she uses on the prints and posters fade and alter in hue when exposed to UV light.  She illustrates the aura, which is intangible, grounding it with something plausible, an image of the book’s cover.  The book is part of a well defined genre, symbolizing a widespread desire to speed dial to one’s self-improvement. The front cover boasts that in reading it you will “boost your vitality.” Inserting a little humour and humility, Mallett documents the book surrounded in a halo of yellow page markers, representing her own research and search for an easy route to a better state of being.  She makes herself the subject, but it is in service of her fascination with the way the book is and has been used as the most popular form and means of dissemination for this genre. There are common expectations in how this metaphysical advice is to be delivered and how the reader is to take it in which, if successful, is marked by some sort of notable transformation. Accomplishment of the task of self-improvement is contingent on some external proof, but how can it be quantified like the guidance unfolding over the pages? The proof is ephemeral, hard to measure and nearly invisible.

This difficulty with representing knowledge, and the need to demonstrate one’s understanding is common to the work in Following A Line. Many of the artists in this exhibition work from an archive of images, which they have compiled over years of research, but it isn’t essential to either artist to make this explicit or to lay out their research in an accessible form. Sietsema articulates this position well in speaking about Figure 3: “there’s so much consumption of culture and images that goes into the making of the work that the directionality of production is really mixed and unimportant.” 1 I understand his use of the term directionality to mean that he is not only uninterested in making his process visible but also feels no need to be explicit in what he is representing, yet Figure 3 reads as information, like history. It is a mostly black and white 16mm film with a few flashes of colour that seem the result of restoration to an old and poorly preserved anthropological document. The film appears to be chronicling archaeological artifacts: ceramic shards and dishes, fishing nets, basketry, coins and other common use objects.  Referencing the images in his archive, Sietsema has meticulously built each of these objects and filmed them in his studio. One after the other the unique sculptures are presented, as if to sequentially tell a history we already know. In their numbers they gain meaning, or is it redundancy? Do they become ubiquitous for any history, not telling us much at all — like their objecthood has little relevance? Periodically, Sietsema inserts abstracted scenes, creating subtle breaks in what seems to be information, but it appears this lull is where meaning might be found. Sietsema captures this intent, stating “a lot of what I do is trying to choose subjects that are basically invisible things you can see through. There is not quite enough there to satisfy you, so you look for something else, so maybe instead you look for what happens between things or why these things are connected together.” 2

The artifact is also where Gazendam begins, but he is positing what future civilizations will deem worthy of that status. He formal represents, through sculpture and photograph, how future images might be read differently or histories preserved and presented in a form that is made from a collision of cultures and disciplines who knowingly historicize. Like Sietsema, Gazendam builds his artifacts, but he begins with the image. For his new work, A Saloon Keeper, A Newspaper, Two Wars and A Doorman, he has made a series of collages from snapshots of four Vancouver public sculptures, removing their context and composing new monuments. He has transformed one into a small idol-sized sculpture that will sit on an illuminated, camouflage green, polyhedron plinth loosely based on a Tony Smith sculpture. In service to the icon, loosely constructed human-scale forms take the position of guards. Gazendam has built a scene that puts forward a new iconoclasm, re-imagining the future reception and re-interpretation of present day historical objects as new symbols that are more from the stuff of fiction than history books or museum displays. In the face of fact, he inserts a personalized interpretation of what is to come, popularizing it with subtle references to science fiction and dystopian survivalist fantasies, while also applying his subjectivity as something tangible, as a part of a legacy that imagines its future portrayal.

In the dual slide projection, Ashes and Broken Brickwork of a Logical Theory (Workers and Landscapes), Kriemann connects a series of black and white archival photographs. The images are of the same location, but are from different vantage points, times and photographers. Half of the photographs were taken by Agatha Christie of local workers at an archeological dig in northeastern Syria around the early 1930s. There is a familiarity in Christie’s images; they are proverbial, comparable to ethnographic documents. We have seen them before in text books, museums and popularized by National Geographic. This type of photography has defined history, influencing historians and readers. So much so that it is a vernacular. We come to know how to read these images as history, as archeological, as information, and as otherness. This otherness is clearly reiterated in the opposing aerial shots of the same area taken by an anonymous photographer approximately 8 to 10 years later. The physical distance of the in-flight image reflects the manner in which Christie documents her subject in her photograph. But this distance stands in opposition to how she popularized and romanticized the orient through her novels. Kriemann is noting something particular to photography, not simply how it is read or presented, but how it influences its user. Like adding a layer of history, moving time and building distance, Kriemann herself applies faint coloured gels over the images, implicating herself as a photographer and as someone who shapes how photographs are read. But as much as she is a maker of images she is also determined by them. Here rests an uncertainty that is divided between author and reader; it is as if they collapse into one, you make as you have read.

Back to the split tongue with its bifurcation: this phrase doesn’t necessarily connote multiple perspectives, but draws attention to the varying forms of their delivery. The selected works in Following A Line dislocate the conventions of how information is gathered and presented by using standard didactic tools and methods, such as lectures, films, PowerPoint presentations, archival images and signage, to convey subject matter that in some way challenges the instructive forms.  All the works begin with the familiar and have a layered history behind them. Whether it is representations of the day to day, pop culture or historical references, we have encountered these signs (images and texts) before, yet there is no delineated starting or end point. There is an ambiguity that is unsettling, leaving you to look for something else, like the relation between images, how objects and designs connect, and questioning why you are even paying attention.  Jenifer Papararo

1&2. Andrew Berardini. “Paul Sietsema: Dig forever and never it bottom,” Mousse Magazine, December 2008: http://www.moussemagazine.it/articolo.mm?id=30

Following A Line, Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver (September 10 – November 07, 2010)

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