It’s Blackwater meets Saved By The Bell. It’s Darth Vader meets Debbie Does Dallas. It’s Tom Hanks meets Velveeta. It’s Lord of the Flies meets Dance Dance Revolution. Its Vito Acconci meets Penthouse Forum. It’s Marquis De Sade meets Benny Hill.
These pairings are culled from a massive list of similar statements organized by Oakland-based artist, Anthony Discenza. Affixed to a wall in vinyl, the list, entitled Sometimes a Great Notion (Part 1) (all works 2009), is a keystone work in Discenza’s Everything Will Probably Work Out OK, the artist’s second solo show at San Francisco’s Catharine Clark Gallery. The more than 100 phrases, each written in the idiomatic analogy, “It’s…meets…,” were both written by the artist and found on the internet embedded in blogs, reviews, and advertising copy. Everything Will Probably Work Out OK is a humorous yet conceptually rigorous exhibition that interrogates textual and signifying systems through which information is circulated and meaning derived. Stretching commonplace strategies of description, Discenza exposes profound intersections between the oversaturation of images, the loss of meaning, and the limits and possibilities of perceptual apprehension today. The artist explores the dimensions of the signifying chain that serve as shorthand conveyers of ideas, demonstrating the role of abstraction in cognition and breaking old categorical regimes by bridging disparate phenomena.
More than just a descriptive trope, the vernacular form of “It’s…meets….” is perhaps most common in the movie pitch: where media executives contend by generating abstract allegories, justifying their new endeavors by associating their ideas to already existing popular entities. These are statements for projection, functioning less as illustration than as a means of eliciting associations and curiosity. This effort to seduce the viewer/reader by appealing to their popular consciousness, taking loaded cultural significations and exploiting their familiarity, is how advertising works: appealing to the recognizable in order to produce the desire for the new.
Sometimes a Great Notion (Part 1) plays out these tensions through a simple and standardized operation. Each of the “It’s…meets...” sentiments collude personalities, histories, genres, locations and contexts. The remarks play out a dialectical confrontation, a moment where different phenomena must directly engage. Through this rendezvous, an odd mutant, a synthesis, is implied. But these pairs are neither opposite nor entirely unrelated. Can one decipher these descriptions, extracting from the combinations their moments of truth, discerning the plane on which the twain can meet? For instance, is “It’s Twitter meets SARS” alluding to viral bio-cultural epidemics brought on by global communication? Can “Its Victoria’s Secret meets Buckminster Fuller” provide insight into the geodesic architecture of racy lingerie and mass-market desire?
Considering these abstruse propositions, signification and meaning become only understandable in terms of their ambivalent interrelationships. Unmoored to a simple common trait, these combinations are not easily resolved, soliciting abstract thought. Sometimes a Great Notion (Part 1), effectively functions as a dense intersubjective collage, amalgamating different cultural signs in order to jettison the mind out of familiar associations. By doing this, Discenza makes apparent the roles substitution and association play in our understanding of the world.
In this radical juxtaposition, however, there is a dystopian reality: all things are made equivalent in the list—equal attention is paid to each one, no matter if we are talking about “John Paul Satre” or “Pretty Woman”. The list of cultural figures, movie and television titles, events, organizations, and other phenomena surely indicate shared media literacy and serves somewhat as a portrait of our cultural moment.[i] No longer subject to the binary of “high and low” culture, all information now speaks to each other in common terms. The list ends with a prophetic “it’s,” implying that this activity is continuous, infinite. Discenza’s list demonstrates the mass ubiquity of cultural signs, the product of a media-saturated world where nearly all data, almost all cultural artifacts, can be accessed through the singular apparatus of Google. These are not metaphors, as the distance between the sources has almost entirely collapsed.
Though the handy, ubiquitous, and democratizing Google offers a redemptive equanimity, it also plays out a capitalist logic of value that regards all productions, even immaterial ones, as accessible, interchangeable and commodifiable. The mass equivalence is the result of the evolution of commodity fetishism, the process charted by Karl Marx, Guy Debord and others, where commodities no longer relate to their use value or material relations, but now are wholly determined by their sign value, a phantasmal social order where all things can be exchanged in the sphere of capitalist circulation. In many ways, these signs have become drained of meaning in their compatibility.[ii]
The mixture of both celebration and critique of popular media in Discenza’s work owes much to Pop art, yet the textual and non-visual components are clearly indebted to late 60s Conceptual Art. The list serves as a series of propositions for art and abstract relations to proliferate in the mind. As Sol LeWitt famously attested, “In conceptual art the idea of the concept is the most important aspect of the work . . . and the execution is a perfunctory affair.”[iii] The list is not a guide to producing juxtaposed phenomena, but exists as a list of ideas that need not be made—analytical propositions for critical negotiation. While Discenza is most known for his work in video, sound, and popular media, much of the works in the exhibition emphasize what Mel Bochner called “imagining” rather than “imaging”:
“Imagining (as opposed to imaging) is not a pictorial preoccupation. Imagination is a projection, the exteriorizing of ideas about the nature of things seen. It reproduces that which is initially without product.”[iv]
By reading the list, we not only imagine how these combinations would take place, but also attach to the cultural signs our own projections. In letting these ideas only exist within the mind of the viewer, the artist points to the initial ideas themselves, rather than the corrupted products resulting from their circulation. A central component of cognitive experience is one of imaginative completion. By leaving these loaded signs open to infinite personal interpretations, Discenza stages a conversation between the idea and the viewer and illuminates the mobility and ambiguity that inhabits language. This strategy is one of connotation rather than denotation, leaving comprehension open. Substituting language for the image and the object, Discenza utilizes a familiar conceptual operation, testing Ian Burn’s assertion that, “Artists are exploring language to create access to ways of seeing…Language reduces the role of perception and brings into use new material, areas for ideas and processes beyond previous perceiving.”[v]
Perhaps this is why Commissioned Historical Painting, hung directly across the gallery from the list, feels somewhat superfluous. The image, a Chinese production painting of the cast of Star Trek with their heads traded for members of the Bush Administration, demonstrates the associative procedure of the list by making material these statements, reifying the idea as if it were a real thing. Unfortunately by making this pairing a physical entity, the work effectively closes the viewer off from the endless representative and narrative permutations available in the idea itself. In a sense, Commissioned Historical Painting functions best in its exclusion of the viewer, supplementing Sometimes A Great Notion (Part 1) by indicating the limits of determined images to fully allow for complex conceptualization. As in the list, numerous correlations between Star Trek and the former presidential cabinet can be surmised (shared ideologies of frontierism, the notion of a “historical” painting pointing to the future-past etc.) but these are rendered flat by the literal representation. One must remember that the statements in Sometimes A Great Notion (Part 1) are not direct descriptions: they are creative attempts to characterize one thing by staging it as a synthesis of unrelated terms—they are not truly a meeting of two cultural signs. Many of the phrases in the list relate to a specific entity, for instance, “Its THX1138 meets Thomas Kinkaid” was a characterization of Wal-Mart. Nevertheless, the imaginative capacity of the phrase is more variable detached from its referent. In fact, the pair of sources only exists to locate the absent synthesis as a relation within a cultural spectrum.
While each of the works deals with the mechanisms that frame and market cultural information, the role of advertising is most apparent in two similar light boxes, Teaser #1 and Teaser #3. Alluding to the light box as a powerful marketing vernacular, just as Jeff Wall and others did a generation before, Discenza appropriates the language and material of advertising to communicate discordantly. The glowing white text on black (alluding to Kosuth or Kawara) each feature a combination of five distinct cultural entities. Teaser # 1 advertises a combination of “The Wu Tang Clan meets Conan the Barbarian meets Fraggle Rock meets Walter Benjamin meets America’s Top Model” while Teaser #3 presents the uncomfortable “Cirque Du Soleil meets Fear Factor meets Eyes Wide Shut meets Halo meets Gold’s Gym.” These sarcastic and complex agglomerations of proper nouns encumber decipherment by overlaying so many disparate codes that only abstract organization can resolve the terms. Nevertheless, these light boxes tease our anticipation by offering an unusual and ridiculous combination.
Discenza’s work often incorporates quotidian modes of address and layers them with unexpected content. He has produced a number of often-humorous street signs, for instance, that have been shown both in the gallery and in public. Adopting the formal language of information disseminated throughout the city, Discenza provides an alternative to the authoritative codes of civic address and the enticing slogans of commercial advertising. While some of the signs reflect a certain amusing cynicism (i.e. “A LAPSE INTO THE ROMANTIC ENABLES US TO AVOID THE HIDEOUS REALITIES ADDRESSED”; “LET’S TALK ABOUT FLUFFY ADORABLE KITTENS”; and “IT’S NOT AS BAD AS YOU THINK, BUT IT IS DIRTIER”), others serve as authoritative hailing mechanisms, interpellating the viewer into familiar systems of regulation and behavior (an arrangement of 8 signs alternate from starts to stops, i.e. “START THINKING” and “STOP TRYING” etc.). The blunt commands and pronouncements assert the indoctrination of social authority, the way by which the individual is transformed into an ideological subject who assumes the appropriate position when addressed, unknowingly participating in a prescribed order.[vi]
There is both veneration and irreverence in Discenza’s work: one can imagine that he is both disgusted and enamored by the sources he commingles. A duo of works, conspicuously parodying the text works of Ed Ruscha, plays out this attitude. Imitating the coupling of text with sunset-like hazy horizons, these multicolored prints minimally distort Ruscha’s painted and printed text works by taking away the confidence of his statements, rendering them less defined through the qualifier “like”. Vicious Beating features the disturbing words, “LIKE A VICIOUS BEATING SET TO PIANO MUSIC,” on blue and magenta, while Ghost points to dematerialization with another ambiguous simile, “LIKE A GHOST IN BRIGHT SUNLIGHT.” By rendering the textual strategy of Ruscha as a simile, Discenza arrests the possibility of treating the text as a graphical image in itself. It is important to recognize that a simile is not a metaphor, as it allows the terms to remain distinct in the process of comparison. Both a device of art and explanation, similes imitate literal comparisons by using a displaced form of description, extracting an out-of-the-ordinary relationship between the qualities of the topic and the juxtaposed vehicle. Unlike a metaphor, the relationship remains open-ended, a site for inference and abstract conceptualization. Likewise, Discenza has offered a moment of synesthesia, where an image can be described in relation to sound (Vicious Beating) and the invisible (Ghost), pointing to the phonetic interests of Ruscha.
A small room in the gallery contains A Viewing (The Effect), a sound installation with a similar take on description. Sconce-like sections of light dramatically illuminate four moderate-sized speakers surrounding the darkened space. In the absence of visual information, the speakers take on a sculptural quality, becoming minimalist forms to admire and experience phenomenologically. Continuously looping, A Viewing (The Effect) is a seamlessly edited series of descriptions assembled by searching Google for instances of the cliché phrase, “the effect is…” Found mostly in reviews and press releases, this phrase is an abstract and subjective qualifier, more an opportunity for poetry than a faithful means of description. For example, what does “The effect is like the visual equivalent of drinking ten gallons of coffee in one sitting” offer the reader/listener? The indifferent narrator (perhaps a text-to-speech program, but certainly an authoritative, disembodied, and impersonal voice) describes the series of artworks unremittingly, the only markers being the instance of the phrase between clauses. One might imagine such a space as schizophrenic, fluidly moving from one descriptive capacity to another: same voice, different quality of prose. While alluding to audio tours in museums, the explicated artworks are neither named nor fully described; they remain oddly obscured yet entirely familiar. A Viewing (The Effect) shows the readymade aspect of art criticism and description generally, the recycling of statements and abstract qualifiers have become the norm. By adopting a colloquial yet institutional trope, Discenza again confronts the mass-production/consumption of information and the cognitive abstractions used in communication.
Following in the footsteps of Dada and Conceptual Art, the artist is interested in the potentials of visual art without the visual. A profound demonstration of “non-retinal art”, Discenza’s A Viewing (The Effect)[vii] In an oblique and systematized process, Discenza has essentially curated a show without the need of the works themselves, he is only concerned with the experience surrounding the works. Perhaps actually viewing a piece of art can be a distortion to its potential.[viii] The review can become the view, emancipated from the tyranny of having a referent. With this, Discenza has transcended the thing itself and can now focus on the effects of art, a phenomenological and minimalist aim. Each of these statements on “the effect” tell an adjacent fictional narrative:“The effect is like what the world might look like to a newborn just learning to see…The effect is like looking through a collection of the world’s most boring postcards.” This is a powerfully affecting exhibition, sending the audience prompts for how they should feel. Given the subjective nature of art activity, these “effects” feel both absurd and limiting, yet they emancipate us to revel in the possible consequences of viewing. As in Bay Area Hyphy parlance, it’s not what it is, but “what it do.” This is phenomenology without phenomena—just the effects without the need for an object. shares certain intentions with a number of projects that each point to the exhaustion of the visual in a hyper-mediated world. By withholding visual experience, these projects elicit alternative perceptual meaning and interrogate the primacy of vision in systems of art.
Primary to Discenza’s practice is the processing and distortion of signs through technology. An imposing video alone at the back of the gallery, Charlton Heston: The Future Has Already Been Written, fragments both the flow of information and the human body.[xi] In this 96 minute loop, Discenza has systematically intertwined what he calls, “The Charlton Heston Dystopian Trilogy”: Planet of the Apes, Omega Man and Soylent Green. Rapidly flickering from one movie to the next, the sequences overlay and infuse, creating an epileptic cacophony of sound and image. There are moments when the movies coalesce, where Heston talks to himself, soundtracks mash-up, and explosions happen simultaneously. Produced over a five year span in the 60s and 70s, the movies each depict Heston as a moralistic man in a horrible future flung into circumstances beyond his control (in Planet of the Apes, as a man who finds himself in the future among repressive apes; in Omega Man, as one of the last people on Earth; and in Soylent Green, as a man who learns cannibalism is the rule in an overpopulated society). In each, Heston is a tragic hero, hopelessly trying to reverse or decipher the events before him in order to understand his place and better society—but invariably he either dies or is confronted with unlivable realities. Heston serves as an archetypically masculine wayward witness. The future for him has already been written, predetermined not only by the nature of the movies, but also by our familiarity with the narratives themselves. The dystopias vie for our attention, competing for their vision of the future. But no matter what story is told, it all ends in disaster.
A contrast to this predetermined situation is the almost infinitely fluctuating media work, A Variable Index of Developing Circumstances. In this project, a monitor displays a sequence of words in four columns, steadily appearing from left to right. Each of the columns has 120 words to choose from, yielding millions of possible combinations. With each word added, the syntax of the sentence shifts. What starts as “PREFERRED” becomes “PREFERRED SCHIZOPHRENIC DELIVERY PLATFORM,” which is how one might describe the work itself.
As the piece evolves through this indifferent system, new meaning is derived from the combination of different syntaxes. All the works in the show produce meaning not only from the signs and symbols communicated, but also through the structure by which information is organized. In a world where all information is ubiquitous, equivalent and available, the role of circulation is paramount. Likewise, there is a reciprocal process between the ideas presented and the role of the viewer to project meaning. Leaving these projects open-ended, Discenza confronts the cognitive process, exposing the role of abstraction in comprehension. In these combinations, there is risk and humor, an egalitarian potential and a dystopian reality, but the title of the show may defer such concerns—perhaps Discenza is correct in the show’s ambivalent name, Everything Will Probably Work Out Ok. But I would assert that his exhibition proves another of Discenza’s statements available as a limited edition sticker: “Pretty Pictures Will Not Solve Anything.”
- Post Brothers
[i] Though one could easily assert that the sources are highly localized, indicating the cultural experience of an American male at the turn of the century.
[ii] While Marx was speaking of “relations among things” (the interior dialogue between objects in the market as well as the rendering of people into things), Guy Debord offered the next stage when he spoke of “spectacle,” where social relations themselves have been completely acculturated into the capitalist apparatus as “relations among images.” It is not the exchange values conferred upon the objects that is of interest now, but rather the information that promotes the commodity’s claim to naturalness, the signs and images of cultural formation that produce desire. Jean Baudrillard took this a step further, saying that all things, values and meanings have been reduced not only into a symbolic system of signs, but also that all information, all social phenomena, is rendered equivalent and drained of meaning; our rehearsal of cultural interest is merely a desperate fantasy to access our lost senses by continuously replacing one empty sign with another.
[iii] LeWitt, Sol. “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art” reprinted in Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artist’s writing. Ed. By Selz, Peter and Kristine Stiles. (Berkeley: UC press, 1996) page 821
[iv] Bochner, Mel. “Speculation (1967-1970)” Artforum. (New York: 1970). May issue.
[v] Burn, Ian. “Dialogue” Art Press. (New York: Art Press, 1969). Page 5.
[vi] See Althusser, Louis, "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses" in Lenin and Philosophy and other Essays (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971), 121-176
[vii] Various shows since the sixties have used invisibility, darkness, and rumor to examine the perceptual experience of art. Recent projects include Ralph Rugoff’s History of Invisible Art (a trans-historical survey of conceptual works with little to no visual information), Raimundas Malasauskas’ Hypnotic Show (where a hypnotist implants invisible artworks in the mind of participants) and the Post Brothers curated exhibition, Exercises in Seeing (where artworks were presented entirely in the dark and documented in the form of a speculative audio tour). The experience of art is no longer grounded in the rarified encounter of objects, but rather exists solely through the mechanisms that disseminate and certify cultural production as real. Invisible ideas can move in the way concrete objects do. Most art is only known through reproduction and critical response. But contrary to Walter Benjamin’s treatise, the aura still lingers, haunting these displaced reflections by conferring a fetishized and ritualized power confirmed through the mechanisms of information’s circulation.
[viii] In a recent book, How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read by Pierre Bayard, the author asserts that nonreading (non-viewing) is a positive act that can be more edifying than reading and one that is more flattering to an author than actually engaging with the contents of her/his book. Reading the book closes it off from its endless potential in the consciousness. By word of mouth, reviews, and conjectures, more meaning can be derived. Of course, I never read the book, but rather read about it in a review.
[ix] Another cogent example of this is KD, a hazy and distorted digital print of a blond celebrity’s portrait. An extremely low resolution icon was blown up to poster size, and subsequently masked and misted by digital editing. Further distorted by quasi-painterly effects, what is left is a smudged visage with eyes sunken into blackened sockets—her face stretched and pulled out from her skull, mutilated by obsessive transformation. The body is subject to the deformations of technology, both in the apathetic condensing of her image and in Discenza’s translation.