DAVID JOSELIT with Lucy Hunter and R. Lyon
Where is a semi-public, high-security shipping container and publishing project in Brooklyn, New York. Its second show, Where 2, started with a proposition for an exhibition without an artist. What resulted was a video installation in which curator A.E. Benenson explores the limits of appropriation and temporality: Hitchcock’s Psycho is screened every evening in the container, while a webcam captures the film at a standard frame-rate and spits it out on the gallery’s website at two frames per second, simulating the effect of Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho. This unauthorized “screening” of a historical video work is a kind of aesthetic trap—an infinite regress of marginal difference.
To answer the questions posed by this exhibition, directors Lucy Hunter and R. Lyon spoke to scholar and critic David Joselit about the circulation of images, and the various networks through which art is made, received, and valued.
Lucy Hunter: In your work, you propose that images accrue power or “buzz” through their circulation and interactions with spectators. What are the limits of this system? It would seem to privilege the recirculation of existing content rather than the production of new content.
R. Lyon: Right, in other systems, you can’t endlessly recirculate material, or endlessly re-contextualize. Even in hyper-efficient biological systems. If the art world follows the rules of growth that apply to other complex systems, then there’s a disconnect between that and an idea of endless circulation. You can’t just recycle endlessly; don’t you eventually run out of steam?
David Joselit: Your comments remind me of Susan Sontag, writing on the ecology of images. She identifies the paradox that images, as you just mentioned, are not a scarce resource. In fact, they are just the opposite. You could talk about image pollution, but I am not sure what that would mean, except that one has to prioritize what is information and what is noise. Maybe that’s the big question. It seems to me that the overproduction you’re talking about leads to a problem of fracturing, on the one hand—lots of smaller worlds where certain kinds of images become popular or even fetishized—and then a kind of broader, blockbuster culture where certain images emerge as dominant.
Take someone like Damien Hirst; it’s clear that he wants to saturate markets, and it doesn’t matter with what. There is a kind of icon that undoes appropriation because it makes it public. If something is saturated enough, can you identify the original author? Does it even matter? Certainly online modes of image circulation privilege what seems to be anonymity in order to allow for the movement of the image. Brad Troemel, in his essay “The Accidental Audience,” says that it is easier to appropriate an image that doesn’t have a strong authorial root. And therefore success is resituating it. Maybe that’s the limit: this sense of ownership is less secure. The idea of displacing from one authorial position to another doesn’t have the giant payoff that it seemed to have in the late ’70s.
Hunter: Does that winning payoff have to do with context or criticality? If an image without an author is easily circulated, easily saturated, that would seem like a very different operation than saying, “Here’s a work that someone else made. What does it do when I said I made it?”
Lyon: For example, the Zapatistas in the ’90s purposefully created an image that was anonymous and could be appropriated. That’s different than the appropriation of the second kind. I mean, what is a Marilyn Monroe in a painting anymore? It’s this other thing that’s completely divorced from her biography.
Joselit: The Marilyn Monroe question is an interesting one because you’re acutely aware teaching 18-year-olds in 2013 that they may not even know who she is. She may be better known through Warhol than she is through her film career. The point you’re bringing up concerns degrees of openness in an image. I’m very interested in how fast images can move, how open they can be—versus how closed—and what kinds of connections they can make. If we can forget about the art world versus the world of politics and activism, we can think instead about the configuration of connections an image makes. What kind of shapes do you get? For instance, I saw a show of the Che Guevara image at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and it was very interesting to see that this image had moved through a variety of political contexts, become an icon, and then ended up in a museum context. There’s a permeability between these borderlands.
Hunter: Is there a correlation between openness and speed of travel? The more open an image, the faster it moves?
Joselit: I wish I could discover the laws of thermodynamics for images, but I think it probably depends on the situation. Is something like the Coca Cola sign an “open” or a “closed” image? It’s both. So you would have to decide the context for discussing this. What’s interesting about appropriation—the way it’s used now—is that it opens an image to other uses, no matter where it originally comes from.
Whereas before, appropriation had to do with authorship, or at least that was the dominant discourse for it. The term “appropriation” technically means “the seizure of property,” which is very different from how one thinks of sharing an image, or an image becoming a common space.
Lyon: When you talk about the production of icons, it sounds very formatted for capitalism. Capitalism loves super-compressed, simple ideas that can travel through a variety of media. That’s the marketers’ dream, right? But on the other hand, when you look at appropriation as a kind of piracy for the public, you have the opposite: taking an individually owned thing and putting it in the public domain for circulation. Those are two real forces happening in contradiction at the same time.
Joselit: Structurally, piracy requires a transgression of property rights. What remains interesting about appropriation is its question of how property is defined. Piracy is a serious redistribution and an addressing of inequities; it usually happens when there’s a market that wants something but can’t afford it, so therefore pirates it in some way. You could say it’s illegal, but it’s also a response to the incitement of a global market and then the institutional barriers within that market. If you remember that this is an Alfred Hitchcock film and a Douglas Gordon piece that Where is taking for another purpose, the question is: Are you really pirating it or not?
Lyon: I mean, Douglas Gordon can’t really copyright this work as a movie, because it’s based on an initial transgression, which itself is not really legal. There are layers of ambiguity that allow for the exhibition to be made without actually having to break any laws.
Joselit: But is it Douglas Gordon anymore? Does it matter? It does matter, in your piece.
Hunter: It does matter in our piece. But at the same time, the suggestion that circulation diminishes authorship does seem to hold true for our restaging. These operations distribute a singular authorial and contextual origin. But to return to our earlier question: Pirated or not, is there a threshold where an image peters out? In Where 2, A.E. Benenson is staging 24 Hour Psycho, but through a different apparatus. We’re not screening the 24-hour video cycle; rather, the webcam proceeds through a series of still images that will produce something by all accounts identical to the original work.
Lyon: There could be endless iterations of 24 Hour Psycho: an eternal unfolding of Douglas Gordon! We could just as easily have had people hold up still images of each frame once a day. But, will there be endless value? You might say yes, because the time is always changing and so the context must change. But I also see it following what, in economics, is called “diminishing returns.” That 100th hotdog doesn’t taste as good as the second or third hotdog. We ask, “Can this exhibition be appropriated in turn, or is it an end state?”
Joselit: Social discussions, framings, and re-codings attach to the object. The piece by Douglas Gordon already has a kind of paradigmatic status. You could be riffing on a lot of different works that people in the art world would not instantly know. So you’re taking advantage of what is crystallized around the object, the residue of all this social interaction. You’re using that in remaking the object, and the question is, I suppose, will it be sustained by discussion? And that’s the interesting thing. I don’t think anyone can anticipate how discussion will develop, and what will become central to a conversation.
The project breaks open an image for a kind of looking, as well. From a very formal point of view, regarding the way the work will be broken up again into stills. It’s a way of thinking about the image—and this is cheesy—as Harold Rosenberg’s “arena in which to act.” Something that is continuous, that has an illusion, that has a certain idea of montage, also has this other kind of tempo on it. I see it also as time signatures. Douglas Gordon made a different time signature [from Psycho], but yours is again one that has to do with quick breaking. This is a different kind of montage from the filmic montage, and a different kind of duration that does not correlate to lived time. With appropriation, it’s given a new time, a new temporality. In an optimistic way, that new temporality can release the work from certain kinds of commodification, though I’m not sure it can ever be free from that.
Lyon: You articulate that the meaning of a work of art isn’t located necessarily within the work, but is part of a network of operations that includes its exhibition, its discourse, its representation in books—this whole web around it. In this particular show, Benenson is the curator, it’s his idea, but it’s very unclear who the artist is. There’s a constant back and forth; all of it is negotiated.
Hunter: At Where, we’ve ported that lack of clarity over to the exhibition itself. We want to interrogate the exhibition as a format, and the relations that comprise that format: the curator, the artist, the critic. What are the possibilities for dislocating these roles? Can you take the same argument for the requirement of an inside and an outside around criticality and apply it to the exhibition format? Should there be clear lines between the kinds of roles?
Joselit: What you’re describing is an entire gallery apparatus functioning without a secure position of the artist, which I think is really interesting. In a lot of galleries there isn’t a secure position of the curator, because they are run by artists.
I don’t ever know what’s meant by “criticality,” I have to say. If criticality is about making visible a boundary between an interior and an exterior, then yes, I think that is a source of criticality. But the question then is, who’s reading it? I have no problem with a discussion that’s internal to an art world, but once something scales up, beyond the scale of your project, that question emerges. When you move from a context when you’re sure that your audience understands your terms of reference, to a context where you certainly cannot expect that, then suddenly there are these other problems. Are they curatorial or are they artistic? Is it going to be intelligible to the audience beyond the community that it emerges out of? Suddenly this whole apparatus that museums have, like the PR department, comes rushing in. How will we market this and what will we name it? It’s a scale issue.
This interview is excerpted from a book published in conjunction with the exhibition, which can be found at 1397 Myrtle Avenue, Unit 4 Brooklyn, NY 11237.
LUCY HUNTER is pursuing a Ph.D. in the History of Art at Yale University.R. Lyon
R. LYON is an artist who lives and works in New York. He received an MFA from Columbia University in 2012.