Meat dress manifesto: On the contemporary irrelevance of contemporary art

Jan Sterbak, Meat Dress 1987
Jan Sterbak, Vanitas: Flesh Dress for an Albino Anorectic, 1987

By Rosemary Heather

I happened to find myself in Grande Prairie, Alberta. I had never heard of the city before. In Canada most urban life hugs the border with the United States. Canadians commonly refer to this border by its latitude: the 49th parallel. Grande Prairie sits just north of the 55th parallel. If you were driving from Montana, it would take over 12 hours to get there. Call me ignorant of geography. I didn’t know Canada had cities that far North.

I live in Toronto and it cares little about what happens in Grande Prairie; the centre of Canada’s media universe, news emanating out from here barely mentions the place. For the people of Grande Prairie, I’m sure the feeling is mutual. After all, Grande Prairie is booming. In part due to the dirty economics of the Tar Sands, Alberta is an exceedingly prosperous province.

Driving the streets of Grande Prairie, you can draw a map of Globalisms’ franchising coordinates. Starbucks is one outlet we are happy to find. Good coffee is progress, says my companion. Context is everything. In the absence of better coffee, Starbucks is good. Like the prow of a ship breaking ice, Starbucks opens up new markets for capitalism while setting better standards for coffee taste. This is the progress we like, one that caters to our urbanite selves. We can thank the Tar Sands for this, along with its disastrous environmental effects. History is always experienced as a lived contradiction.

At lunch, I read a BBC story on my phone about Lady Gaga. How does she do it? Various experts weigh in on the Gaga phenomenon. Like Starbucks, I don’t doubt that Lady Gaga is popular in Grande Prairie. Shuttling through stations on the car radio I hear Bad Romance and then Classic Rock. I want to understand the changing landscape of mainstream culture. In Grande Prairie, I find myself in the changed landscape itself. To me, it looks like a city that has popped up overnight, the spores of Globalism taking root in the form of big box stores. Seeing duplicates of chains I know from elsewhere makes Grande Prairie a place I both can and can not recognize. Thriving, it still seems to barely exist. It is simulacral, to use that old word.

At Starbucks I had picked up a flyer for a local historical society. This is what culture is in Grande Prairie, I think: Lady Gaga and historically-accurate reconstructed log cabins. Grande Prairie upends what I thought I knew about the world. Globalism redraws the map of the globe, and Gaga looms large on this horizon.

At the 2010 MTV Music Video Awards, Gaga wore a meat dress. Thinking about this, I make the assumption it augurs something new. Not the meat dress itself – that is an artwork made by Jana Sterbeck in 1987 – but the meat dress as an object of mainstream consumption. Claiming to be an artist, Gaga uses the shock tactics of the avant-garde, but not to any avant-garde end. As John Ashbery wrote in 1968, “the artist who wants to experiment [today]…is now at the centre of a cheering crowd. Gaga serves a structural purpose, not unlike that of Starbucks coffee.

Writing about the Pepsi Corporation in the New Yorker, John Seabrook notes that Pepsi products have a dual nature. Every bag of Doritos offers flavour combinations that are the same every time, fused with something more abstract. As Seabrook says, “PepsiCo grafts taste with desire.” The same could be said for any contemporary brand. In Gaga’s case, she embodies the culture social media makes. Gaga is the best example of its aspirational narrative: self-transformation is just a costume change away. This is why the music she makes can be merely adequate.

Art and pop culture are like languages. The parts of speech remain the same, while meaning is generated through the logic of substitution. If history’s substitutions always move from tragedy to farce, Gaga is definitely the farce. She wore the meat dress for the purposes of a photo op, nothing more. It was but a salvo in the arsenal of costumes changes she uses to keep her publicity machine churning. When Jana Sterbeck put the meat dress in an art gallery its point was decay. Not an irony for which Gaga can spare the time.

To claim pop cultural novelty is new is merely to betray my own biases. I am naive like every Liberal Arts student. Study of the modernist canon defines the scope of my formal education. Figuratively, modernism is reducible to clean lines and white spaces; pure abstraction and an absence of embellishment at one time signified a break from the past. It’s a legacy that lives on in the white cube of contemporary art today. And seeing the world from inside the white cube nurtures certain assumptions about what’s important.

Lady Gaga
Lady Gaga, Meat Dress, Designed by Franc Fernandez and styled by Nicola Formichetti, 2010

The problem modernism always had with kitsch is that it is not remarkable to be a fan – and fans are what popular culture creates. Today, it is unremarkable to be on Facebook; most people participate in the new culture the digital era creates. At the same time, Facebook is not merely the contemporary version of an older form. Facebook, like the internet, is genuinely new, in the way that collage and television once were. This suggests is that nowadays it is more notable to be on Facebook than it is to have an interest in modernism and contemporary art. In the popularity of Lady Gaga and Facebook and Starbucks, we find the cultural formats of the modern era’s irrelevance. Viewed from the perspective of Grand Prairie, Alberta, this becomes clear to me. Not the literal phenomenon of modernism’s end but rather the loss of its importance as a way to understand our culture.

Thanks to Ann Dean for her comments on this text.

This text was commissioned by Animate Projects’ for their Digitalis series of film commissions, which premiered at the London South Bank, December 2011.

The Digitalis catalogue can be downloaded here.

Daniel Cockburn’s You Are Here

 

Daniel Cockburn

A bemused and slightly anxious film, Daniel Cockburn’s first feature You Are Here(2010) is a perfectly concocted expression of everything we don’t understand about our new century.

Fitting for a movie that features the viewer in its starring role – the “you” of the title – a central character in Daniel Cockburn’s You Are Here (2010) is the aggregate entity ‘Alan’. The film creates Alan by layering in quick succession, shots of different men and women performing – or failing to perform – a series of small actions. Cockburn uses this device to displace the viewer identification that typically drives a film’s narrative. Meanwhile, a voice muses about the fragile nature of identity. “Are you the same person before and after putting something down and picking it up again?

Ryan Trecartin Makes Art Cool Again

Ryan Trecartin, K-Corea INC.K (section a), 2009.

By Rosemary Heather

 

The third time I visited Ryan Trecartin’s show of video installations,  Any Ever in Toronto, it was near the end of the exhibition. People moved from room to room, notebooks in hand, recording their thoughts. Like few other art events I can think of, the show contained within it the seeds of a conversation. See Ryan Trecartin’s work and you want to talk about it.

Trecartin opens up a space that is innate to video’s technological capabilities; yet, before him, no one had quite dared to go there. And treading where others fear to tread can produce fear itself. Fear and a reluctance to engage is one response his work tends to get. Fear because a goal of sensory perception overload would seem to be one of the first principles from which Trecartin operates.

Ramping up the confusion, he leaves no aspect of the world within the frame unaltered. His performers, some of them former aspiring Disney child stars, wear a hybrid of clubbing gear and campy almost-drag. Spaces are filled-up with bodies and things; in one video, a gaggle of boys and girls in blonde wigs simper and scream while crowded onto a bus. Competing with the actors are layers of motion graphics, of the kind you might see on an infomercial – that is, the graphics normally relegated to a netherworld of bad video aesthetics – which are overlaid or inset, or spin and scroll across the screen.

Trecartin himself, ubiquitous throughout his work, sports bitchy attitude and mastectomy scars. Faces are adorned with self-tan, white lipstick or day-glo swatches of colour; this is make-up applied to bring the work’s human element into alignment with its tawdry mise-en-scene. The scenarios play out among the accoutrements of a cheap Florida vacation; Trecartin produced the videos in the nine rooms of a rented house in Miami. His use of disposable IKEA dreck makes sense, considering the casual destruction the performers wreck on the place.

People break things and smash Blackberries against the floor. Posters of things like fluffy white dogs on the walls further help to fragment the screen space, and everything is accompanied by the drone of cheesy synthesizer music. When the actors speak, their voices are sped-up, an especial irritant for some viewers. People talk into cell phones, or mimic this by holding thumb and pinkie up to their face, all the while mugging for the camera.

Trecartin’s extreme emphasis on artifice helps to reinforce the feeling that you and the performers in his work exist in separate worlds.  The focal point of a single camera lens means you peer into the frame, and they peer out at you. Trecartin’s actors seem stuck in a box; one in which they are always compelled to perform for the camera. Of course, such an existential state of affairs would only seem like hell to a portion of Trecartin’s audience. The actors he works with are adept at suggesting this is their native habitat. It’s a naturalism of sorts, if of a world organized along the lines of a hilarious late night trip to the 711, where fluorescent lighting, a riot of purchasable items and the drugs you took are responsible for your disorientating experience of the place. It’s a world as seen through the frame of TV, but with no discernible narrative – Sit-com or otherwise – to give it coherence.

Keeping the operatic pitch of Trecartin’s vision in check, ensuring that, finally, there is order in this world, is the absolute brilliance of the artist’s language and editing technique. As with every other aspect of the work, the lines delivered by the performers are fragmented and nonsensical – but what poetry! “Don’t worry, my death was really sexy and ultra tan!” Or in the opening moments of the video, K-Corea INC.K (section a) (2009) “I really need a case of atmosphere. Are you finding Position? It’s such a hunt.” He achieves the imagined ideal of an invented language that remains comprehensible. The same could be said for his work as a whole.

In response, people I’ve talked to have called Trecartin’s work “empty.” “Visually stunning but vapid” opined a friend; another disparaged it rather grandly as “outtakes from the world’s worst reality show.” In contrast to this opprobrium, the most intriguing comment I heard is that Trecartin’s work gives us “a new way to look at the world.” Let’s shorten that to “new”, as in “what kind of news does this artist bring us”? My guess: Trecartin answers the question about exactly where contemporary art fits into the cultural landscape. As with the response to his work, the news is both good and bad.

In his excellent book, I.O.U.: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay (2010), John Lanchester observes that a postmodern era in finance led to the 2008 meltdown: “value, in the realm of finance capital, parallels the elusive nature of meaning in deconstructionism.”  The financial world of course runs parallel to the artworld; at many points, the two intersect. As recent events have shown, both realms are adept at conjuring value out of practically nothing. Compared to the art profession, the financial world is a relative latecomer to this game, one who found itself seduced by the question: how far can you abstract monetary value away from its origin in real things before it collapses?  It is still digging out from the wreckage of the answer it got. By comparison, the art system proves its resilience. It produces value around consensus that, however specious sometimes, is far from reckless. Art offers a model for the management of risk that is finely calibrated, and though it may conspire to elicit the occasional bad bet, it probably won’t ever collapse.

Trecartin’s work confirms something about this truth of the art world as purveyor of bankable assets. But he does this by showing us how the artwork as a value unto itself survives in spite of that. That’s the good news. The bad news is that, while the art business might be a centre of value production, it for the most part isn’t a centre of cultural energy today. It’s easy enough to find this energy elsewhere; I hardly need to name the culprit: suffice to say, if you are reading this, you are looking it. Trecartin smuggles some of this energy into the art gallery and its inhabitants, who are used to more calculated outrages, are amazed.  Even the Guggenheim, while acknowledging YouTube’s power with its Play Biennial, balked at going the full distance in their efforts. Almost all of the 25 shortlisted videos are slick graphic animations. This isn’t what people care about on YouTube, which is at its best as a hybrid vernacular entertainment medium and communications tool. I took note when I heard my friend say Trecartin gives us a “new way to look at the world”, partly because it’s such a big claim, but more important, because it begs the question why is Trecartin accorded this honour and not Facebook and YouTube? Isn’t the Internet the new way we look at the world, so obvious we can’t see it staring us in the face? Why is it we need art to tell us what we are seeing is New, confirming the truth of what we already intuitively understood?

Trecartin relates to this new internet-defined field of play first of all as an unselfconscious participant. As a performer, image-maker and manipulator, he is one among the thousands who upload material everyday to the web. Second, Trecartin acts out his affinity with web aesthetics in his use of what Hito Steyerl has termed the ‘ poor image’. While not making degraded images per se, the sheer busyness of Trecartin’s videos places his work within the visual field of the degraded image produced by illicit copies, cellphones, handheld video cameras, and webcams. Widespread access to video technology means the image proliferates, and on the whole, its legion of producers isn’t too concerned about quality. The degree of visual noise Trecartin crams into his videos, places his work on the low end of what Steyerl identifies as the contemporary hierarchy of images, with “sharpness…and high resolution” being at the top; as Steyerl points out, this competition between image qualities is a form of class struggle. In Any Ever co-curator  Jon Davies’ characterisation, Trecartin “transforms the space of the screen into that of the computer desktop with hundreds of windows open.”  He degrades the video image by overloading it with information and indulging in its worst aesthetic tendencies.

A wildly accomplished practitioner of his craft, Trecartin is widely lauded but his work does tend to inspire a certain amount of aversion. I suspect this is because he single-handedly revives the dynamic between high and low art; something a largely ossified artworld had forgotten about. However, even though Trecartin’s work might expose other visual art conceits to be hopelessly dated, the significance of the work he makes goes beyond that. Trecartin is important because he reaffirms the value of art beyond its monetary worth. He shows us the role artworks can play in reducing the world to its purely visual dimension. His work helps us extract what is New from the morass of everyday experience so that we can see it as historically specific, of today and therefore quite alien to any idea we might have of the past. It’s the Shock of the New all over again; how surprising to discover again that artworks have to the power to deliver it.

This text orginally published on apengine.org (now defunct), December, 2010.