This, my friends, is not a pipe. We learned this lesson about language, images and thinking when we were issued Michel’s famous book during our early art education. And this book leads us down a thorny post-structural path to late 20th Century certitude about knowledge, language and imagery. But what if when we had reached the end of the Foucauldian labyrinth we found that this image of a pipe is just exactly what the sign says it is not – a pipe. What if the dead-on certainty of the not-pipe had somehow been reversed, and we discovered that this was indeed a pipe? Back in the early Postmodern days this particular deliciously ironic vision of language and imagery was like food for the gods. Questions about the constitution of reality, language and imagery were shotgunned at the entire history of meaning and reality. What is real, what isn’t? What is language, what is image? Where and how do we create meaning? Perhaps the obvious uselessness of Rene’s pipe was in itself letting us know that everything we know was unreal, or more to the point, surreal. But time has moved on, and reality, or non-reality, has slipped somewhere else. We exist in a Post everything world – Post Berlin Wall, Post Cold War, Post Internet, Post History, Post Nine Eleven, Post 20th Century, Post Rene’s Not-Pipe. The “real” has become something else entirely.
The campaign, launched to coincide with the start of Advertising Week, includes billboards that tout “This ad is real,” rail posters that say, “You are consuming an advertisement. You are real,” and signs on telephone kiosks that ask, “Media planners, do you have a reality problem?” In total, the campaign will feature more than 1,600 outdoor displays.
FEEL THE REAL
On the way to the day job I came across a huge screen on one of the buildings on 42nd street that said, “This Digital Ad is Real.” Normally, I would just ignore such thing, but there was a lot working on my mind that morning. I stopped and looked at the sign until it slipped away and became another advertisement. But that image stuck with me. First, the simplicity of the message immediately brought up Barbara Kruger’s once-subversive use of advertising, imagery and text. But unlike Kruger’s work this electronic image IS a “real” advertisement – not something made as Art for a gallery. In other words this was “privatized Art” created for business rather than for the art community. And it was that connection between business and reality that initially confounded me. The digital image is commenting on its own existence, on its own being – averring emphatically that IT is Real. Second, the black and red and white brought to mind that a great deal of the Modern Century was defined using those very three colors – Abstractions, Hate Groups, Totalitarian Regimes, World War II, Sports Teams – all of those “things” have defined a reality with Red, White and Black. Some of them were not very pleasant realities, but they were realities that impacted the world, nonetheless. This Times Square sign was knowingly using these particular colors to create a link to a reality, to claim its own reality through that chromatic history – which is a very “Post” thing to do.
The problem, of course, is that our Internet lives have very much become our “real lives.” Things you say online can, and do, haunt your offline world. Last month, evidence of a hack at the Office of Personnel Management in the highest echelon of our government exposed the sensitive personal information of 18 million people. On a smaller scale, I once Googled a recommended handyman and found he had made a string of vile comments on YouTube videos. He could be the greatest handyman in the world, but I certainly didn’t hire him. The book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson collects examples of people who were fired or had their public image destroyed because of things they said online. “Dear Ashley Madison Users: The Internet is Real Life,” Karol Markowitz.
So what is the actual “reality” that this image, this text is asserting? Can text be real? As real as say, my left arm, or the other humans carrying their venti lattes, grousing on their way to work? On the elevator ride up, crowded into the back of that sleek silver box, I watched my colleagues staring at their phones, their faces lit up by the blue-white light of information technology. On the front wall of the elevator, there was yet another screen flashing news, business info, and advertising. The company that provides this service is called Captivate – a clever corporate double entendre. Enclosed in this moving box we are captives, and our vision is naturally drawn to the Flashing screen of light – to be entertained, informed and sold – we are captivated by the light, by the information, by the imagery, like residents in Plato’s Cave. But what’s actually happening is that we are traveling in a camera obscura filled with lenses and screens manifesting images of reality. The light is no longer outside of the box, sunlight coming through a pin hole. It’s broadcasted straight into it. I reach my floor and make my way in through the glass doors to my cubicle, a screen and keyboard await – yet more boxes and screens, lenses and mirrors.
This particular department was designed as a clever experiment using the now “hip” again “open floor concept,” something Corporate Office Planners are very hot about at the moment. The claim is it’s an idea whose time has come (again!) This “new” socialization is based on the corporatized idea of the end of privacy, the new “Real.” But this new “reality” has been around for a long time. In the late 19th Century these vast rooms were called bullpens – and they were built to save money and space, to herd vast groups of “low skilled,” very replaceable office workers into a common area to keep tabs on them. In the end this kind of planning, this reality, is about economic processes – pure and simple. So in order to make this precedent planning “New” we have added the rhetoric, the text, that redefines this reality. There are no walls, no offices, just a vast common area to promote conversation and interaction, the sharing of ideas and solutions to common problems. The open office plan has been redefined as the Town Square. But this open room is weirdly quiet, because everyone is staring at their computer screens, sending messages and emails, communicating through their electronic extensions. There is very little actual conversation among the workers because our reality is that this open room is an endpoint in a flow chart. This room is a datasource, a hub for the parsing of information outward into the electronic world. The Reality of this place, then, is in the machines, through the screens and lenses, within the world of folded spaces and optical enlightenment. There are many versions of this Real existence in this city, and I’m sure, in many cities like it. And after seeing the digital ad claim that it’s Real it occurred to me that Rene’s not-pipe, its Treachery as an image, is a quaint old fashioned idea. In this world of programs and screens there is no longer any certainty about a not-pipe. Rene’s image can’t even begin to address what we see, understand or experience in this culture where the screen determines the reality. Because in this world, the world where millions of us work and exist for most of our day, Rene’s Not-Pipe IS Real.
Sticks and Stones…
“Every artistic movement from the beginning of time is an attempt to figure out a way to smuggle more of what the artist thinks is reality into the work of art.” David Shields, Reality Hunger.
Rauschenberg’s Factum 1 & 2 were made in part to show that AbEx rhetoric about process and purity were just another language, another “reality” of art history, something that we as participants in a culture could learn. If two paintings are made using the same materials, the same compositions in the same “style” of painting how then could anything about spontaneity, process, “action painting,” be more than a common language to be learned and processed? How does that have extra-Real appeal?!! Were any great truths about life, about painting, being unveiled? After the one-offs by Pollock or Rothko or Newman were there any other transcendent or “sublime” images being made? Were any ideas or expectations about Abstract Expressionism being challenged by those who used it? Soon after the Factum paintings were made the idea of reproduction, serial production and manufacture, began to become more common in the work of artists. Clem’s Neo-Modern processes of purity, nearly overnight, re-focused on the impure cultural processes of reproduction. Abstraction was not in what one painted, but in how one presented what one painted. The Postmodern age had begun. This change to Modern reality in the mid 50s was done nearly exclusively using the camera and lens, accomplished because our lens culture had taught us how to see, understand and “process” the world. Most every painter working today use lenses and the reality they create – either in the understanding of the history of Art, directly in the making of their work or indirectly in the presentation of their work.
We are swamped in abstractions, mediations. Everything we know and experience as a culture is coming more and more from the screen set right in front of you. We live a mediated experience of text and image, a very particular way of using sound and sight. We carry our screens everywhere using them to capture everything around us, quantifying every encounter and making each of those encounters into a programmable interaction. As abstract painters this is problematic. Mainly because there is no longer any division between abstraction as a form and everything else. Everything is pixelated into reality. Sure there are a number of abstractionists who hang on to the idea that purity is still in the processes, but once the painting has been photographed, and it will be photographed, it’s no longer any different than any other picture. The image exists as a product of the programming. The problem then is how to make this “real” image appealing for the punters. And increasingly, photos of abstraction, of abstract painting, are not. These images of paintings require text to determine their reality. Online abstraction, whether it’s a portrait of a brush stroke, a geometric pattern, a colorful monochrome, a torrent of sludgy paint, a flat brushy landscape or a push-pull chromatic show is seen in exactly the same way, in the same formats, in the same cultural space as Kim Kardashian’s selfies. And so painting requires text to separate it from Reality, to create the Modern distance required to remain a Not-Pipe. That is why so many artists have become Presenters, Spokespersons, Curators and blog aficionados, Tweeting and Facebooking and conducting PR campaigns for differentiation, explication. What the good abstractionist does is create Con-text rather than new visual ideas.
There are thousands and thousands of abstractionist painters working today. Most of whom seem to believe that there is still something called Abstraction, something defined separately as Abstraction. We still try to make distinctions presenting our processes or expounding on the medium’s purity as something separate and pure, as if we’re living in the 1950s. But this thinking is pre-historic – based on the nostalgic yearning for a time when there was little or no history of abstraction. There are sites all over the internet offering for sale kitsch abstraction for $29.99 or less. There are hotels and offices filled with the stuff all across the United States. There is an army of professional painters that know how to make an abstract painting. Walking down the hallways of the day job I can see work from nearly every contemporary artist known today on the walls of conference rooms, client reception areas, open office spaces and employee lounges. Very few who come into contact with these things know what this work is or why it was made or who these artists are. This work serves as something that interior designers like to call Wall Decor. For them Abstraction is a perfect kind of decoration. It can be beautiful. It can have texture and color. It can provide delight for the eye on a large white wall. It doesn’t raise any thorny personal issues that will have to be mediated in HR. And isn’t that what Clem was all about? This is how money and reputations are made, this is how abstraction has been fed into the world, this is a career in Art. But mostly, this is the world where a digital ad can state that it IS Real.
Today abstraction is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror, or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it. It is nevertheless the map that precedes the territory – precession of simulacra – that engenders the territory, and if one must return to the fable, today it is the territory whose shreds slowly rot across the extent of the map. It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges persist here and there in the deserts that are no longer those of the Empire, but ours. The desert of the real.
“Simulacra and Simulation” Jean Baudrillard