Locate, Combine, Contradict, Iterate: Serial Strategies for PostInternet Art

Robert Lawrence

Abstract


We (I, Robert Lawrence and, in a rare display of unity, all my online avatars and agents)

hereby render and proclaim this

MANIFESTO OF PIECES AND BITS IN SERVICE OF CONTRADICTIONAL AESTHETICS

We start with the simple premise that art has the job of telling us who we are, and that through the modern age doing this job while KEEPING UP with accelerating cultural change has necessitated the invention of something we might call the avant-garde. Along the way there has been an on-again-off-again affair between said avant-garde and technology. We are now in a new phase of the new and the technology under consideration is the Internet.

The recent hyperventilating about the term postInternet reflects the artworld’s overdue recognition of the effect of the Internet on the culture at large, and on art as a cultural practice, a market, and a historical process.

I propose that we cannot fully understand what the Internet is doing to us through a consideration of what happens on the screen, nor by considering what happens in the physical space we occupy either before or behind the screen. Rather we must critically and creatively fathom the flow of cultural practice between and across these realms. This requires Hybrid art combining both physical and Internet forms.

I do not mean to imply that single discipline-based art cannot communicate complexity, but I believe that Internet culture introduces complexities that can only be approached through hybrid practices. And this is especially critical for an art that, in doing the job of “telling us who we are”, wants to address the contradictory ways we now form and promote, or conceal and revise, our multiple identities through online social media profiles inconsistent with our fleshly selves.

We need a different way of talking about identity. A history of identity:

  • In the ancient world, individual identity as we understand it did not exist.
  • The renaissance invented the individual.
  • Modernism prioritized and alienated him (sic).
  • Post-Modernism fragmented him/her.
  • The Internet hyper-circulates and amplifies all these modalities, exploding the possibilities of identity.

While reducing us to demographic market targets, the Web facilitates mass indulgence in perversely individual interests. The now common act of creating an “online profile” is a regular reiteration of the simple fact that identity is an open-ended hypothesis. We can now live double, or extravagantly multiple, virtual lives. The “me meme” is a ceaseless morph. This is a profound change in how identity was understood just a decade ago. Other historical transformations of identity happened over centuries. This latest and most radical change has occurred in the click of a mouse. Selfhood is now imbued with new complexity, fluidity and amplified contradictions.

To fully understand what is actually happening to us, we need an art that engages the variant contracts of the physical and the virtual. We need a Hybrid art that addresses variant temporal and spatial modes of the physical and virtual. We need an art that offers articulations through the ubiquitous web in concert with the distinct perspectives that a physical gallery experience uniquely offers: engagement and removal, reflection and transference. Art that tells us who we are today calls for an aesthetics of contradiction.

      — Ro Lawrence (and all avatars) 2011, revised 2013, 2015, 2018.

 

The manifesto above grew from an artistic practice beginning in 1998 as I started producing a website for every project that I made in traditional media. The Internet work does not just document or promote the project, nor is it “Netart” in the common sense of creative work restricted to a browser window. All of my efforts with the Internet are directly linked to my projects in traditional media and the web components offer parallel aesthetic voices that augment or overtly contradict the reading suggested by the traditional visual components of each project.

This hybrid work grew out of a previous decade of transmedia work in video installation and sculpture, where I would create physical contexts for silent video as a way to remove the video image from the seamless flow of broadcast culture. A video image can signify very differently in a physical context that separates it from the flow of mass media and rather reconnects it to lived physical culture. A significant part of the aesthetic pleasure of this kind of work comes from nuances of dissonance arising from contradictory ways viewers had learned to read the object world and the ways we were then still learning to read the electronic image world. This video installation work was about “relocating” the electronic image, but I was also “locating” the electronic image in another sense, within the boundaries of geographic and cultural location. Linking all my projects to specific geographic locations set up contrasts with the spatial ubiquity of electronic media. In 1998 I amplified this contrast with my addition of extensive Internet components with each installation I made.

The Way Things Grow (1998) began as an installation of sculptures combining video with segments of birch trees. Each piece in the gallery was linked to a specific geographic location within driving distance of the gallery exhibiting the work. In the years just before this piece I had moved from a practice of text-augmented video installations to the point where I had reduced the text to small printed handouts that featured absurd Scripts for Performance. These text handouts that viewers could take with them suggested that the work was to be completed by the viewer later outside the gallery. This to-be-continued dynamic was the genesis of a serial form in work going forward from then on. Thematic and narrative elements in the work were serialized via possible actions viewers would perform after leaving the gallery. In the installation for The Way Things Grow, there was no text in the gallery at all to suggest interpretations of this series of video sculptures. Even the titles offered no direct textual help. Rather than telling the viewers something about the work before them in the gallery, the title of each piece led the viewer away from the gallery toward serial actions in the specific geographic locations the works referred to. Each piece was titled with an Internet address.

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Figure 1: Lawrence, Robert, The Way Things Grow, video Installation with web components at http://www.h-e-r-e.com/grow.html, 1998.

When people went to the web site for each piece they found only a black page referencing a physical horizon with a long line of text that they could scroll to right for meters. Unlike the determinedly embodied work in the gallery, the web components were disembodied texts floating in a black void, but texts about very specific physical locations.

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Figure 2: Lawrence, Robert, The Way Things Grow, partial view of webpage at http://www.h-e-r-e.com/growth_variant4.html, 1998.

The texts began with the exact longitude and latitude of a geographical site in some way related to birch trees. ... A particularly old or large tree... a factory that turned birch trees into popsicle sticks and medical tongue depressors... etc. The website texts included directions to the site, and absurd scripts for performance. In this way the Internet component transformed the suite of sculptures in the gallery to a series of virtual, and possibly actual, events beyond the gallery. These potential narratives that viewers were invited into comprised an open-ended serial structure. The gallery work was formal, minimal, essentialist. On the web it was social, locative, deconstructive. In both locations, it was located. Here follows an excerpt from the website. 

GROWTH VARIANT #25: North 44:57:58 by West 93:15:56. On the south side of the Hennepin County Government Center is a park with 9 birch trees. These are urban birches, and they display random scratchings, as well as proclamations of affection expressed with pairs of initials and a “+” –both with and without encircling heart symbols. RECOMMENDED PERFORMANCE: Visit these urban birches once each month. Photograph all changes in their bark made by humans. After 20 years compile a document entitled, "Human Mark Making on Urban Birches, a Visual Study of Specific Universalities". Bring it into the Hennepin County Government Center and ask that it be placed in the archives.

An Acre of Art (2000) was a collaborative project with sculptor Mark Knierim. Like The Way Things Grow, this new work, commissioned by the Minneapolis Art Institute, played out in the gallery, in a specific geographic location, and online. In the Art Institute was a gallery installation combining sculptures with absurd combinations of physical rural culture fitting contradictorily into an urban "high art" context. One of the pieces, entitled Landscape (2000), was an 18’ chicken coop faced with a gold picture frame. Inside were two bard rock hens and an iMac. The computer was programmed to stream to the Internet live video from the coop, the world’s first video chicken cam. As a work unfolding across a long stretch of time, the web cam video was a serial narrative without determined division into episodes. The gallery works also referenced a specific acre of agricultural land an hour from the Institute. Here we planted a row of dwarf corn at a diagonal to the mid-western American rural geometric grid of farmland. Visitors to the rural site could sit on “rural art furniture,” contemplate the corn growing, and occasionally witness absurd performances. The third stream of the piece was an extensive website, which playfully theorized the rural/urban/art trialectic. Each of the three locations of the work was exploited to provide a richer transmedia interpretation of the project’s themes than any one venue or medium could.

 An Acre of Art

Location Sequence is a serial installation begun in 1999. Each installation has completely different physical elements. The only consistent physical element is 72 segments of a 72” collapsible carpenter's ruler evenly spaced to wrap around the gallery walls. Each of the 72 segments of the ruler displays an Internet web address. Reversing the notion of the Internet as a place of rapid change compared to a more enduring physical world, in this case the Internet components do not change with each new episode of the work, while the physical components transform with each new installation. Thematically, all aspects of the work deal with various shades of meaning of the term "location." 

Location Sequence

Beginning/Middle/End is a 30-year conceptual serial begun in 2002, presenting a series of site-specific actions, objects, or interventions combined with corresponding web pages that collectively negotiate concepts related to time, location, and narrative. Realizing a 30-year project via the web in this manner is a self-conscious contradiction of the culture of the instantaneous that the Internet manifests and propagates.

The installation documented here was completed for a one-night event in 2002 with Szilage Gallery in St Petersburg, Florida. Bricks moulded with the URLs for three web sites were placed in a historic brick road with the intention that they would remain there through a historical time frame.  The URLs were also projected in light on a creek parallel to the brick road and seen only for several hours. The corresponding web site components speculate on temporal/narrative structures crossing with geographic features, natural and manufactured.

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Figure 3: Lawrence, Robert, Beginning/Middle/End, site-specific installation with website in conjunction with 30-year series, http://www.h-e-r-e.com/beginning.html, 2002-32.

The most recent instalment was done as part of Conflux Festival in 2014 in collaboration with painter Ld Lawrence. White shapes appeared in various public spaces in downtown Manhattan. Upon closer inspection people realized that they were not painted tags or stickers, but magnetic sheets that could be moved or removed. An optical scan tag hidden on the back of each shape directed to a website which encouraged people to move the objects to other locations and send a geo-located photo to the web site to trace the shape's motion through the world. The work online could trace the serial narrative of the physical installation components following the installation during Conflux Festival. 

Gravity

Figure 4: Lawrence, Robert w/Lawrence, Ld, Gravity Ace on the Move, site-specific installation with geo-tracking website at http://www.h-e-r-e.com/gravityace/. Completed for Conflux Festival NYC, 2014, as part of Beginning/Middle/End.

Dad's Boots (2003) was a multi-sited sculpture/performance. Three different physical manifestations of the work were installed at the same time in three locations: Shirakawa-go Art Festival in Japan; the Phipps Art Center in Hudson, Wisconsin; and at the Tampa Museum of Art in Florida. Physical components of the work included silent video projection, digital photography, computer key caps, and my father's boots. Each of these three different installations referred back to one web site. Because all these shows were up at the same time, the work was a distributed synchronous serial. In each installation space the title of the work was displayed as an Internet address. At the website was a series of popup texts suggesting performances focused, however absurdly, on reassessing paternal relationships.

Dad's Boots

Figure 5: Lawrence, Robert, Dad’s Boots, simultaneous gallery installation in Florida, Wisconsin and Japan, with website, 2003.  

Coincidently, beginning the same time as my transmedia physical/Internet art practice, since 1998 I have had a secret other-life as a tango dancer. I came to this practice drawn by the music and the attraction of an after-dark subculture that ran by different rules than the rest of life. While my life as a tanguero was most certainly an escape strategy, I quickly began to see that although tango was different from the rest of the world, it was indeed a part of this world. It had a place and a time and a history. Further, it was a fascinating history about the interplays of power, class, wealth, race, and desire.

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Figure 6: Lawrence, Robert, Tango Intervention, site-specific dance interventions with extensive web components, 2007-12.

As Marta Savigliano points out in Tango and the Political Economy of Passion, “Tango is a practice already ready for struggle.  It knows about taking sides, positions, risks.  It has the experience of domination/resistance from within. …Tango is a language of decolonization. So pick and choose.  Improvise... let your feet do the thinking.  Be comfortable in your restlessness. Tango” (17). 

The realization that tango, my sensual escape from critical thought, was actually political came just about the time I was beginning to understand the essential dynamic of contradiction between the physical and Internet streams of my work. Tango Intervention began in 2007. I have now, as of 2018, done tango interventions in over 40 cities. Overall, the project can be seen as a serial performance of contradictions. In each case the physical dance interventions are manifestations of sensual fantasy in public space, and the Internet components recontextualize the public actions as site-specific performances with a political edge, revealing a hidden history or current social situation related to the political economy of tango. These themes are further developed in a series of related digital prints and videos shown here in various formats and contexts.

In Tango Panopticon (2009), a “spin off” from the Tango Intervention series, the hidden social issue was the growing video surveillance of public space. The first Tango Panopticon production was Mayday 2009 with people dancing tango under public video surveillance in 15 cities.  Mayday 2010 was Tango Panopticon 2.0, with tangointervention.org streaming live cell phone video from 16 simultaneous dance interventions on 4 continents. The public encountered the interventions as a sensual reclaiming of public space. Contradictorily, on the web Tango Panopticon 2.0 became a distributed worldwide action against the growing spectre of video surveillance and the increasing control of public commons. Each intervention team was automatically located on an online map when they started streaming video. Visitors to the website could choose an action from the list of cities or click on the map pins to choose which live video to load into the grid of 6 streaming signals. Visitors to the physical intervention sites could download our free open source software and stream their own videos to tangointervention.org.

Tango Panopticon 2 - 1

Figure 7: Lawrence, Robert, Tango Panopticon 2.0, worldwide synchronous dance intervention with live streaming video and extensive web components, 2010.

Tango Panopticon also has a life as a serial installation, initially installed as part of the annual conference of “Digital Resources for Humanities and the Arts” at Brunel University, London. All shots in the grid of videos are swish pans from close-ups of surveillance cameras to tango interveners dancing under their gaze. Each ongoing installation in the series physically adapts to the site, and with each installation more lines of video frames are added until the images become too small to read.

Tango Panopticon 2 - 2

Figure 8: Lawrence, Robert, Tango Panopticon 2.0 (For Osvaldo), video installation based on worldwide dance intervention series with live streaming video, 2011.

My new work Equivalence (in development) is quite didactic in its contradictions between the online and gallery components. A series of square prints of clouds in a gallery are titled with web addresses that open with other cloud images and then fade into randomly loading excerpts from the CIA torture manual used at Guantanamo Bay Detention Center.

Eauivalence

Figure 9: Lawrence, Robert, Eauivalence, digital prints, excerpts from CIA Guantanamo Detention Center torture manual, work-in-progress.

The gallery images recall Stieglitz’s Equivalents photographs from the early 20th century. Made in the 1920s to 30s, the Equivalents comprise a pivotal change in photographic history, from the early pictorial movement in which photography tried to imitate painting, and a new artistic approach that embraced features distinct to the photographic medium. Stieglitz’s Equivalents merged photographic realism with abstraction and symbolist undertones of transcendent spirituality. Many of the 20th century masters of photography, from Ansel Adams to Minor White, acknowledged the profound influence these photographs had on them. Several images from the Equivalents series were the first photographic art to be acquired by a major art museum in the US, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

My series Equivalence serves as the latest episode in a serial art history narrative. Since the “Pictures Generation” movement in the 1970s, photography has cannibalized its history, but perhaps no photographic body of work has been as quoted as Stieglitz’s Equivalents. A partial list includes: John Baldessari’s series Blowing Cigar Smoke to Match Clouds That Are the Same(1973), William Eggleston’s series Wedgwood Blue (1979), John Pfahl’s smoke stack series (1982-89), George Legrady’s Equivalents II(1993), Vik Muniz’sEquivalents(1997), Lisa Oppenheim (2012), and most recently, Berndnaut Smilde’s  Nimbus Series, begun in 2012. Over the course of more than four decades each of these series has presented a unique vision, but all rest on Stieglitz’s shoulders. From that position they make choices about how to operate relative the original Equivalents, ranging from Baldessari and Muniz’s phenomenological playfulness to Eggleston and Smilde’s neo-essentialist approach.

My series Equivalence follows along in this serial modernist image franchise. What distinguishes it is that it does not take a single position relative to other Equivalents tribute works. Rather, it exploits its gallery/Internet transmediality to simultaneously assume two contradictory positions. The dissonance of this positioning is one of my main points with the work, and it is in some ways resonant with the contradictions concerning photographic abstraction and representation that Stieglitz engaged in the original Equivalents series almost a century ago.

While hanging on the walls of a gallery, Equivalence suggests the same metaphysical intentions as Stieglitz’s Equivalents. Simultaneously, in its manifestation on the Internet, my Equivalence series transcends its implied transcendence and claims a very specific time and place –a small brutal encampment on the island of Cuba where the United States abandoned any remaining claim to moral authority. In this illegal prison, forgotten lives drag on invisibly, outside of time, like untold serial narratives without resolution and without justice.

Partially to balance the political insistence of Equivalence, I am also working on another series that operates with very different modalities. Following up on the live streaming technology that I developed for my Tango Panopticon public intervention series, I have started Horizon (In Development).

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Figure 10: Lawrence, Robert, Horizon, worldwide synchronous horizon interventions with live streaming video to Internet, work-in-progress.

In Horizon I again use live cell phone video, this time streamed to an infinitely wide web page from live actions around the world done in direct engagement with the horizon line. The performances will begin and automatically come online live at noon in their respective time zone, each added to the growing horizontal line of moving images. As the actions complete, the streamed footage will begin endlessly looping. The project will also stream live during the event to galleries, and then HD footage from the events will be edited and incorporated into video installations. Leading up to this major event day, I will have a series of smaller instalments of the piece, with either live or recorded video. The first of these preliminary versions was completed during the Live Performers Workshop in Rome. Horizon continues to develop, leading to the worldwide synchronous event in 2020.

Certainly, artists have always worked in series. However, exploiting the unique temporal dimensions of the Internet, a series of works can develop episodically as a serial work. If that work unfolds with contradictory thematics in its embodied and online forms, it reaches further toward an understanding of the complexities of postInternet culture and identity. 

References

Saviligliano, Marta. Tango and the Political Economy of Passion. Boulder: Westview Press, 1995.




Copyright (c) 2018 Robert Lawrence

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