I don’t recall the year nor the subject of my first critical text. Most likely it was a movie review slapped together for the high school paper I started (and was summarily barred from contributing to by my handlers—teachers, administration, counselors, etc.—in retaliation for my satire of the local, small town New England PD). Fortunately, I never tackled cultural criticism with any regularity or seriousness until after I’d spent a few years living across the pond. To date, most of what I’ve reviewed has been published on this website; and much of that has been lost given the inevitable changes in technology and webmasters, as well as my largely cavalier attitude with respect to my professional bio or anything that suggested an affinity for careerism. Despite this spotty archive, I’ve consistently developed a perspective rooted in the farthest reaches of leftist thinking. Because of this uncommon position—best described as anarcho-utopist—I feel obliged to let the reader (that’s you) know that my statements are largely based on a theoretical construct that rejects economic principles that assign value according to scarcity. Some useful primers that inform my take on culture—fine arts, performance, literature (mainly prose), film, drama, architecture—include the late John Berger’s Ways of Seeing (the two-part BBC broadcast, and the book), H. Marshall McLuhan’s Gutenberg Galaxy, and most of what situationists Guy Debord and Raoul Vaneigem have published. Of course, this doesn’t need to be read by all: one man’s ceiling is another woman’s window—with innumerable variations thereof. Still, you’ve been warned.
In discussing the New Museum’s latest exhibition, Pipilotti Rist: Pixel Forest, I’m compelled to reference the late Joseph Beuys, a German artist who played a part in the loosely knit story of the 60s art impulse known as Fluxus. “Everyone is an artist,” Beuys famously lectured an audience of laypersons attending a workshop at the kunst academy at Dusseldorf. That statement—like surrealist champion Marcel Duchamp’s credo, “Art is Life”—is arguably nothing but a utopist assertion stemming from the Marxist doctrine threading through most of the avant garde cultural initiatives of the twentieth century. For the utopist, every person is not so much equal as interdependent; on the timeline of historical progress, the creative contribution of every sentient entity cannot be reckoned without a bias tethered to the twin rivals known as capitalism and socialism. At the end of the century, an third tendency rejected both economic systems as equally wrong and posited ecology as the path to a harmonious future.
Defying warnings that electric media threaten the literary tradition around which all culture orbits, diehard champions of letters have noted and promoted a vogue for the voice that has given us the pop phenomenon of rap—in all its permutations—the high-minded oratory known as spoken word, as well as a parallel love for storytelling now sweeping its way throughout the English-speaking world. (Thanks to the successive imperial efforts of the British and Americans, “the English-speaking world” effectively means the world—at least for now.) Whether China or India—or both (and both are the constructs of British cartographers)—dominate the future is a question for another time. In our time, the lesson bestowed by Pipilotti Rist on the landscape of culture is that we are, in fact, the stories we tell. Whatever the source behind the stories with which we define ourselves, the potential to express these stories to an audience of a size unimaginable to Dickens at equally impossible speeds renders everyone—for better and for worse—a historian.
Any introductory course on the origins of contemporary culture will target the first half of the 19th century. Between the battle of Waterloo and the central European upheavals of 1848, the West saw the birth of the locomotive, the telegraph, the cotton gin, and the photograph. By the end of the century, the telephone, direct current and alternating current had expanded society’s technological possibilities in ways that many of us have yet to fully comprehend. In addition to changes in technology and manufacturing—changes that reorganized the social life of humanity forever—changes in social thinking affected everything from housing and health care to the structure of families and the nature of authority. Finally, the horrors of the American Civil War and—fifty years later—WWI underscored the magnitude and incomprehensible pace of change that humankind faced in every realm of life and death. These are all issues that continue to challenge global culture to this day.
What one gains from the works of Pipilotti Rist—just like whatever we learn from the works of every other artist—will necessarily arise from one’s grasp of history. Indeed, media artists like Rist require us to contemplate the role of science—and scientists—in cultural production. Collaboration with code-crunchers introduce questions of cryptology; the use of miniature cameras and closed audio-video delivery networks raise concerns about surveillance technologies and the activities of technocrats. Under such conditions, is it feasible to envision art as a realm for exclusive contemplation? Contemplating the place in society of contemporary culture as art—that is, as the production of objects divorced from the ritual purposes of art prior to the Renaissance, Guy Debord devoted a chapter (“Negation and Consumption in the Cultural Sphere”) of his seminal thesis, The Society of the Spectacle, to the historical changes underlying culture as a separate, autonomous facet of commodity consumerism.
The history that brought culture's relative autonomy into being—along with ideological illusions concerning that autonomy—is expressed as the history of culture. And the whole triumphant history of culture as separate can be understood as a history that reveals culture's insufficiency; a history that exposes autonomous culture as a formalist march toward its self-abolition. Culture is thus the locus of our search for lost unity. In the course of this search for unity, culture as a separate sphere is obliged to negate itself.
In a short essay titled “Museum,” surrealist Georges Bataille describes this search for artworks that are “but dead surfaces, and it is within the crowd that the streaming play of lights and of radiance, technically described by authorized critics, is produced.” Rather than art, one observes “the flow of visitors visibly driven by the desire to resemble the celestial visions ravishing to their eyes.” It’s a demoralizing search with a goal that escapes the throng of visitors.
At the New Museum, I couldn’t help but think of this search for a lost unity, surrounded as I was by a capacity crowd that was clearly driven to locate the right combination of key and elixir, like poor Alice down the rabbit hole. But in doing so, I wondered did my thoughts accurately reflect “correct thought,” and did such thought necessarily presage the “correct speech” to prescribe “correct action.” Was the unity of the crowd attracted to the venue an insufficient unity? Did I—along with Debord’s situationists and Bataille’s surrealists—truly believe that art (or even an anti-art) might inspire the billions of minds fragmented by the dictates of scarcity economics to collectively kickstart a spontaneous, participatory burst of creativity realizing the long-sought lost unity of myth-based society?
Every day over the course of the ten days that I set ought to attend the exhibition, I turned away in retreat, daunted by the line of visitors snaking north up the Bowery, rounding the corner at Stanton towards the east, before winding south onto Rivington. The line literally wrapped around the block on several occasions, like some ourobouros covered in human scales—that tail-eating snake symbolizing the cosmic infinitude of cyclical life (or the gullible helplessness portrayed by actors in the recent horror film franchise, The Human Centipede). Therein lies the rub: is this twisted queue an indication of the fatal collective experience destined for the mass of so many lowing sheep on their brainless way to be painlessly brained in the humdrum slaughterhouse of spectacular culture? Or is it the earnest exodus to experience what Rist tells New Museum curator Massimiliano Gioni is her healthful public serving of electronic hair of the dog? She’s sure of “the idea that art can heal. Like with a homeopathic remedy, for you to heal, you need the same thing that makes you crazy.” And presumably, what makes us crazy is the ubiquity of audio-visual light images delivered willy-nilly through electromagnetic pipelines. As such, the New Museum becomes the great Champ de Mars as envisioned by Rist playing Florence Nightingale, a series of dark enclosures as the park into which she distributes the electric fresh-air images for the walking wounded to assimilate in repose, a provisional triage space where victims of the international media bombardment can lay their beleaguered bodies to shake off the trauma of online gaming and disaster news broadcasts, action movies and superhero vehicles that infect the visitors with a surfeit of poison she employs thoughtfully, homeopathically.
A smartphone is laid in a corner of a stairwell landing, looping video of a naked Rist shot from above and engulfed by flames as she screams for help in English and French. Rist’s newest work, 4th Floor to Mildness, occupies the gallery at the top of the stairs; one encounters a floor arrangement of mostly twin beds—one large king size bed with headboard accommodates as many as six visitors. On the ceiling are two videos projected through cartoon cloud stencils depicting in close-up the environment at the border starting just beneath a pond’s surface and the air above. Down the stairwell, the 2nd floor gallery is festooned with a jungle of irregularly molded globes that cycle through a rainbow of color Rist calls Mercy Garden. On one wall, Rist’s breakout 1997 video, Ever is Over All, follows an exuberant young woman in a flowing sundress as she strides down a street smashing in car windows with an out-sized flower. In the opposite corner, Sip My Ocean (1996) is a two-channel projection that also follows a woman, this time underwater. Around the corner is the single channel projection, Pickelporno (1992), which investigates the male and female bodies in lots of extreme close-ups superimposed and intercut with images of nature (water, flowers).
Rist’s bright, colorful videos, full of close-ups augmented by sweet melodies and moody music provide a kaleidoscopic attempt at immersive environment that inspired the crowd of natty young people there with wonderful selfie and portrait backdrops they likely all saw as surreal. The few older visitors I spotted appeared more guarded. Maybe they were more hesitant about seeing themselves interposed on this pseudo-orgiastic rainbow of illumination. I wanted to like the work, and tried to imagine it as a more populist investigation of light than the works of Turrell that landed with similar fanfare at the Guggenheim last year. That show also featured endlessly queuing crowds of visitors eager to take snapshots of each other—themselves and their loved ones—with the electric colored lightshow called art as backdrop. The thing is, I couldn’t help seeing the works of other artists who’d made statements long before Rist, or even contemporaneously—maybe just better. Pickelporno, for example, can’t hold a lightcandle to the opening scene of Swiss auteur Jean-Luc Godard’s Le mepris—a film the Swiss native Rist must have seen while studying audiovisual communications and video at the Basel School of Design. The film opens with a slow pan from toes to head of Brigitte Bardot’s naked body as she questions Michel Piccoli: “Do you love my toes?” “Yes,” he answers, “I love your toes.” “And do you love me ankles?” “Yes…” The lighting cycles through the RBG spectrum familiar to media students in a sequence that challenges industry norms with a plot that follows American Jack Palance as a producer who engages Fritz Lang—as himself—to direct a porn version of Homer’s Odyssey with esteemed writer Piccoli as scenarist and Bardot as starlet. Rist’s purported “feminist” take on porn also made me wonder how her close-up images of flesh and genitalia measure up against real-life sexual intimacy. I’m not suggesting that she distribute handbills instructing visitors to approach their private pleasures in a prescribed manner. On the other hand, I couldn’t help imagining that the instruction cards of Fluxus artists directing the bearer to perform any number of acts went a lot farther in terms of provoking visitors to redefine the limits of creative discovery. In the same way, Mercy Garden—with its hundreds of dangling light orbs—put me in mind of David Hammons’ playful Blue Lights installations. First conceived in collaboration with artists Lorenzo Pace and Gerald Jackson for the Charlie Parker Festival at Tribes Gallery, Hammons revised the work a few years later at David Christmas’s capacious Ace Gallery. The coup de grace was the artists decision to provide visitors with their own, thumb-activated lights with which they explored the empty rooms—a live performance of Japanese string instruments served as the mood Rist loops electronically. It’s not that I’m calling for originality. The best art is all about appropriation and even plagiarism—what the situationists dubbed détournement. And that’s what seems lacking in Rist’s work. With all the resources and information at her disposal, she offers a lackluster—ultimately slack—version of approaches to video art that ignore everyone from Paik to Nauman to Hammons. Rist hasn’t done her homework. While a lot of nice pictures and soothing sounds may appeal to a generation of kids used to looking at images on smartphones, laptops and flatscreens, it robs these kids of what they deserve. If Rist was showing this work 30 years ago, it could work. But a lot has happened since she got out of art school and she seems not to care. Instead, one gets the feeling that Rist is resting on her laurels, careful to preserve and replicate a signature brand that Bill Viola, Lamonte Young, Paul Garrin and a score of other media artists rendered moot twenty years ago. Rist is what’s wrong with art stardom. As Raoul Vaneigem put it in his Treatise on knowing how to live to be used by the coming generation, technocrats are babbling on about all the great advances in communication without noting that this so-called communication is one-way. That’s not communication. That’s just a way of giving orders. By offering visitors nothing but the opportunity to take snapshots in front of her color blow-ups, she fails to provide them with the crayons one receives to draw on the placemats of a mid-range diner. Homeopathy? I’d rather feed my hangover a cube of ice and some Pastis. At least I can decide how much water to add.