I. The Ring
When a sportscaster analyzes the movements of a fighter, she analyzes the internal logic of the individual and the external dynamics between individuals. She makes sense of a moving target: a fight that will be fought differently tomorrow. There is ethics in the internal logic of this analysis; there is politics in the external dynamics. It is this notion of ethics and politics that are relevant legs of philosophy to the site of a panel discussion in the art world. Each artist on a panel can provide a model of decisions made in his or her work; the group can provide a model of the state of decisions being made among artists in this representative sampling. We can learn about what we each have actually done and what consequence our decisions have on each other. We can leave with inklings of what we might do differently to make a different impact ethically in our own work, and politically on the work of other artists and on the world we refract through our work.
I was on a panel a year ago as an artist alongside artists A.L. Steiner, Phil Chang, and Thomas Demand. We each work on or with photography, and our match was scheduled during a conference at LACMA organized by nonsite.org called “Photography and Philosophy.” Britt Salvesen, department head and curator, Wallis Annenberg Photography Department and the Department of Prints and Drawings, LACMA, moderated. Each artist showed one image to represent each of our work. That day, it so happened that each of these slides demonstrated the possibility of using the practice of photography inside of fine art to analyze existing populist forms of photography and culture. We could have used notions of ethics to examine the internal logic of each of our representative artworks, and we could have used notions of politics to examine the external logic of our representative sampling of photography as a field.
This is what I recall: A.L. Steiner read a manifesto denouncing the single image. Thomas Demand told her that in insisting on the word “image” rather than “photograph”, she was using semantics to appear intelligent; Steiner was having none of that. Thomas then told Phil that the artwork Phil had shown is not a photograph, and Phil subsequently used humor to diffuse tension for the remainder of the talk. I tried to moderate, saying how remarkable it was to have four artists onstage that dealt with notions of photography so differently, and hoping someone would ask us how that was so. (I did not realize yet that in fact we were performing those differences.) Instead, someone in the audience—ahem, Walter Benn Michaels—called out that writers were not concerned with the proliferation of words on the internet, so why would artists be at all preoccupied with a proliferation of images, as we all four artists appeared to be.
Did we fail? Britt had asked us to think about ethics and politics, but about other aspects of our practices as well, and so we had no shared notion of exactly what about our work we would discuss. Neither had we previously discussed as a group what purposes serve a panel discussion. If we failed to discuss the ethics and politics of artmaking, we did not fail to enact them; it leaves the analyst later—in this case, me—to scour the event or at least my part in it for the kind of political environment we evidenced, the kind of ethics our work proposed. That day in Los Angeles, we succeeded in performing the polis—the state of citizens—in photography today, but one that rather rendered all of us Aristotle’s “tribeless, lawless, hearthless” animals.
II. The Fighter
In my imagined temporary community on the stage, in that ring and in those lights, we would have started with a single set of questions, a single set of definitions, and disagreed from there until we came to new sets of questions, and so that is what I will do here, sitting literally alone, around my hearth, and without tribe. The artist always fights herself, in the end. I relax, so I can strike myself harder. I establish my balance, so I can stay on my feet. I know things. I know that the English word ethics is derived from an Ancient Greek word êthikos, which means “relating to one’s character.” I know that through ethics, people have traditionally determined right and wrong, and that through normative ethics, I might determine what is right and wrong to do. I know that the word politics comes also from Greek: politikos, meaning “of, for, or relating to citizens.” Politics follows from Ethics insofar as it pertains to the way in which humans interact: it examines what are the essential modes of interaction—what is natural—and then, accordingly, what is right, on the various levels of human relations, including the home, the city, the nation-state, and the globe.
First, then, who is the ethical or political actor in this conversation: the artist or the artwork? The artwork is the surrogate for the artist; it stands for what each artist means about each of our places in the world, more or less literally. This is as true of a photographic work as it is of a performative work. The artist makes a choice about how the artwork will exist in the world—in space, in time, in the character of its assertion or diminution. The artist makes choices about the content of the work and about how much that content will be obscured. All of these things come to represent the artist not biographically per se but essentially, physically, existentially. The artwork is responsible for communicating the artist’s intentions once the artist has left the room, and again I say that even in terms of a performance by an artist, which is to say even in terms of an artwork that ostensibly leaves the room when the artist does. The artwork stays and fights. The artwork is our philosophical subject, then, but it is not personified. It does not act independently of the artist and his or her intentions on an ethical or political level, even if it has political consequences beyond the artist’s intent. It is an ethical and political proposal, and as such it is responsible for its ethical and political consequences.
So which fighter did I put in the ring last year? Whichever that was, I must use it also as my surrogate here, whether or not it is the most ethically or politically effective artwork of my own or of those onstage. I need a subject to interrogate, as much as Socrates needs Thrasymachus to test the aim of art. Whichever principles I achieve, they must apply to a random—if active, if willing, if able—sample. Did I say “apply to”? I meant “emerge from.” I find out what I want, what I feel, what I believe by wanting, feeling, believing. Thus, like the single self, the artwork—the one artwork—will serve as a subjective perspective and a register of available ethical and political processes for artwork generally. I also, though, find out about myself by not wanting, not feeling, not believing. The ways in which the artwork proves itself ineffective ethically or politically should be revealing as well. So again, which fighter has been drafted here?
The LACMA panel existed a particular moment in time: spring 2015, a month or so after I had closed a particular exhibition. I showed a particular piece from this particular body of work to represent my practice, and so it is this piece I must analyze to characterize its—my—ethics. I chose to represent my practice with a sculptural “negative”: In the Wake of Sound, In the Break of Sound. This is ostensibly a sculpture. My father had been practicing his drums in my studio, and his kit occurred to me as being very specific to his body. I was interested in his body because he is my father and because he had cancer; I was therefore interested in the choices he had made while alive and also in any notions of loss I associated with his potential death from cancer and from indubitable death at some point from any cause. The drum kit he plays he purchased in parts in 1968 and therearound. It is scaled very specifically as were drum kits produced around that time, and its parts—each cymbal, each hoop—were determined by my father’s preference and his body’s dimensions as much as would be any sculptural determination of scale.
I recreated my father’s drumset, piece by piece, purchasing vintage parts at local stores in Los Angeles. In so doing, my endgame was not the sculpture; it was the shadows it might cast in terms of negative space—my father’s body absent first of all, but also the absence of the drums themselves, or any potential sound. The origin and often endgame of my practice is photographic, and so what I sought in recreating this object was not only the way it would occupy and create space on the ground, but the way it would occupy and create the ephemeral space of shadows. What would be in space in front of a viewer would not just be the object, but its projected image on the floor and wall behind the object. Thus, I needed to think of its form skeletally, as a line drawing, and build it with its shadow in mind.
I employed someone else to weld together the steel stands and hoops without the wood and skin fill of the drums they are ostensibly designed to contain. I employed someone to slump glass into molds of the cymbals so that the shadow they cast would be articulate rather than opaque. In the end, this method of rebuilding the drumset rendered it not-a-drumset because it could not be played. It is not a good drumset. In the end, the sculpture, when lit, could be infinitely adjusted to create a variety of shadow sentences. I positioned photo-sensitive paper on the walls and floor around, behind, and underneath the sculpture in complete darkness and then directed one and sometimes two photographic enlargers at the sculpture. Over time, I exposed many photograms from the shadows and body of the one sculpture. I call the sculpture a “sculptural negative” because, though three-dimensional, it functions as would have a filmic negative for a photographer working with a camera.
III. The Ethics
In introducing this fighter to the ring of LACMA’s stage, I had reviewed no particular strategy. A reason I chose it as representative of my work because it had proven itself to me a fruitful artwork. It existed in and of itself as an artwork, but also enabled the existence of other artworks. I say “fruitful” because I have not yet determined if it is “good,” but I know at least that it was fruitful. Because of it, I was able to make a photogram, and another, and another. I could infinitely reposition and address the artwork, and therefore make more photograms that are fixed in time, but also see the artwork in and of itself in infinitely different ways in real time. The artwork held all of those possibilities in its own body, and because of that it is a spring through which it is possible to speak not only of it but of all the other artworks it begets. Each position my body takes to the artwork in real time, each photogram it bore, and each reference to it and the photograms it bore represents a new question. Here, the notion of being “fruitful” begins to suggest a positive principle championed by the internal ethics of this artwork. I believe that it is right and good to create avenues for further questions.
A question is an access point. The access point for this artwork begins with the question of the original drumset upon which it is modeled. The artwork looks like a drumkit. It looks like an object that is part of the visual vocabulary of humans, even pre-verbally. I did not have to write down or say in English or any other language that the object pictured on LACMA’s projection screen or situated in the gallery is a version of a drum kit. The fact that the artwork looks like a drum kit implies that a drum kit existed before the artwork existed. Drum kits exist as things. In this case a specific drum kit existed as a thing, and its specificity is possible to trace from the specificity of the artwork’s grammatical organization. This steel line drawing of a tom connects to this steel line drawing of a stand connects to this concrete plane of the floor for this distance until the floor connects to this steel drawing of a foot pedal, etc. The dimensions and relationships of the artwork imply a specific object, observed, and that object is one I have elected for the personal and metaphorical reasons described above, none of which you have to know in order to know that the object is one you might know too. You know that I chose a) to observe a real thing, carefully; and b) chose to recreate it, rather than give it to you as I found it. My choice to recreate a thing you and I both know implies faith in that everyday object to generate a second state, and the existence of a second state implies the existence of transcendence of the former. You and I transcend through transference and projection. Accessibility is an avenue for transference and projection, and transference and projection are necessary for investment; investment is necessary in order for you to want to ask a question.
Not only is the object recognizable, but, when looking closer, its parts are as well, and the ways in which they were put together. The logo of the company that made the foot pedal is legible; the price tag of at least one of the hoops remains on the hoop. The welds that hold the hoops to the stands are visible. The keys that screw the stands open so that they are stable are there. The glass of the cymbals retains the aberrations of their casting. It is clear, pre-linguistically, that parts of the piece were purchased in stores to which you and I have access, and that the artwork was pieced together through methods to which you and I have access. In this case, access is associated with retail economics, everyday materials, blue-collar labor, hobby or religion—whichever stained glass brings up for you—etc. The traces of these associations are available for you; the process of the making of the work is as transparent as is the glass itself. You do not know who enacted each of these steps, but the steps themselves are apprehensible from the work itself. Transparency of process can hinder transcendence if it stops you or I from observing and experiencing the state of the object at hand, or it can enable transcendence if it creates avenues for questions.
I have called this artwork a sculpture because of its affiliations with objecthood. I have also called this work a “sculptural negative”, because of its affiliations with photography. A photograph is first and foremost a shadow, and shadows play out on many planes at once and thus photography is physical and dimensional even if often flat. Is it possible, then, to naturally have a photograph that is also a sculpture? This piece might suggest that that is so. I have referred to the artwork as a line drawing, as well, and included in the apparatus of its ostensible drawing the plane of the floor upon which it sits and the walls upon which its shadows are cast. The artwork is also a performance: it changes according to where I stand, how it is positioned, and how light is positioned with respect to it. It is a performance insofar as it has to be remade on the level of dimensional relationships every time I set it up. It is a performance insofar as it was made once, over time, in my studio, and those marks are apprehensible to you. In terms of medium, then, it is anything but a drum kit. Its affiliations in terms of mediums bring up questions.
The artwork, again, looks like a drum kit, but is not a drum kit. Does it abstract the notion of a drum kit? If so, does the shadow enact the abstraction or does the artwork’s body itself? Does the artwork represent a drum kit? Does it represent the notion of vulnerability because the parts of it that are most meant to be struck are made in glass? Does it abstract the notion of vulnerability because parts of it are sharp and may hurt the human body standing next to it? Is it exclusive, abstractly, because there is no chair associated with this drum kit, and you and I are therefore not invited to sit with it? Insofar as the photograms that I made from this artwork are to varying degrees recognizably related to drum kits and totally transcendent of the drum kit, has the drum kit opened up new avenues for me as an artist to think about the abstraction of every day objects, the plane of the photographic page as much as the plane of the floor, the potential of any object to be or generate a line drawing, and the very difference or lack thereof between abstraction and representation? Questions about abstraction help to stop the hum of abbreviation that accompany the word “abstraction” in our world, just as questions about ethics help to stop the hum of abbreviation that accompany it as a word and practice in our world. The artwork raises questions about abstraction and representation, about transcendence versus the everyday, and about whether or not either of these binaries needs to be seen as such.
The artwork is my ethical actor. Its ethics appear to be the way it behaves with itself: the dialectic in which it engages itself and breeds further work. If I shadowbox now with my artwork in this writing, it shadowboxes with itself and wins. It is successful as an artwork if it adheres to the ethical principle—the internal logical principle—that it create avenues for questions. This, in essence, is how I might determine that it is ethical, that it is good in and of itself. Its ethical consequence is whether or not it influences a next step. Since I have found that in many ways the artwork introduces new questions and that new questions influence a next step, in some way, I have tested my fighter and am satisfied that he is robust. I know that it is possible for him to be one thing and generate many, and his generative properties are good. I also find that I am now curious about his teammates, his opponents, his stage. I have reached the margins of the ethical body of the artwork, the border between it and others, and so I have come to a place of politics.
IV. The Politics
My surrogate enters the ring, the cage: an image on a screen in front of an audience, no longer embodied, but a projected image of itself and of me. It must represent me and all the other work I make to the world. I have chosen an image of it to use in the slideshow that I think best represents it, too. If one were to look at this image long enough, one would see everything I have said and am about to say, even though the image crops the artwork and the space it is in, falsifies its scale, and freezes its shadows at a moment in time and from a particular perspective. (Fuck jpegs, those shadows of shadows of shadows that belie the life they purport to picture.) I believe in the artwork, though, to the extent that it can carry on maimed. May the artwork make its point, may its footwork be fancy, may it emerge with teeth and without brain damage.
The politics of any artwork may be the way it behaves with others and with others’ work. It is difficult for me to jump to the notion of right and wrong, when I believe in general what is lacking in the art world is enough time spent on how an artwork behaves with respect to a viewer or a context or a medium as context. What does that artwork do in terms of its exertions on a space, a viewer, a medium, or any other object? What does it really do, not what do you think it does before you have made it? What does it do right now, outside of itself? How do the questions it has raised for itself and for me connect outward? This is, in essence, how I might determine the artwork’s political relation. With ethics, above, I looked at the artwork’s internal dynamics, and it seemed that in each of these dynamics, my endgame was the promotion of further questions since that makes it possible to continue working. This naturally became my touchstone for what is right and good in the ethical field. I am an artist; process is important because when its cogs stop, so do I and so do you, looking at what I have done. What is right and good in the political field remains here to be seen, after I find out indeed how my artwork is behaving in that field.
So what is the politics of In the Wake of Sound, In the Break of Sound? What is the nature of the cage it finds itself standing inside of, and how many of those cages are there? How does it respond to them? Its first cage is my studio. The artwork exists in isolation from the photograms it bore, which means that it is self-sufficient, but also silent, non-conversant, non-combattant. An object, like a body, has limits. With the lights on and not directed at the artwork, I find the artwork dead. It is a strange object, for sure—all steel and glass and notable welds. It takes up space I could use to live otherwise. With the lights off, generally, but with one or two directed at the artwork, it comes alive. It begins to behave in ways that inspire me and direct the way I live. It begins to pay rent. I don’t resent it. It makes me in fact, after staring at its shadows, turn off all of the lights, take paper from a roll that cost me money, cut the paper on a cutter that cost me money, negotiate my way carefully around the glass cymbals, blind in the complete darkness, use my hands, my feet, my hearing, and feel my way to the wall or floor, to position the paper to catch the shadows I just saw. It makes me shuffle carefully back to one and then two enlargers, which cost me money, and switch them on. I have programmed them to emit a colored light of my own devising so as best to reveal the volumes and lines the shadows have suggested they can create on my paper. The artwork, a pathetic thing until activated, a vulnerable thing during activation, inspires care, stokes excitement, and moves me from a state of potential to kinetic energy. It makes me do things. This is the politics of it and I.
Say that I am done making some photograms and that my gallerist has decided to show these photograms in his gallery. He can sell the photograms; they are easily priced, more and more easily sold these days. The artwork in question, however—this drum kit—is not as easy a sell. Do I have to convince my gallerist that this work should exist in the cage of his gallery for the duration of our exhibition? No: the artwork—whether photogram or drumkit sculpture—must do the convincing. I prepare my studio for my gallerist to understand it the way I do: I turn off the lights and spotlight the drumkit sculpture. He can see the shadows. He can see the relationships this thing implies between itself and the photographic works fixed on paper around it. He can tell that this work will generate questions for the people who visit his gallery. They will look at the photograms I have given him to exhibit, and they will look at the sculpture, and the dynamic between the two types of artworks will make them do things. They will walk back and forth from the photograms to the sculpture. They will walk around the sculpture. They will take selfies of themselves in the shadows of the sculpture, or portraits of the sculpture with its shadows alone. They will want to play the sculpture, but they will be unable to. Their kids will want to play the sculpture and will go for it. Their kids will be admonished and will learn about vulnerability and the preciousness of real things. We decide together—the artwork, myself, and my gallerist—that there is a place for this artwork in his gallery, whether or not it will sell right now. In the Wake of Sound, In the Break of Sound will make people do things, as it made me do things in my studio. This is the politics of this artwork and the commercial gallery.
I could have let someone play the sculpture. In one of my photograms, my father mimed playing the kit. I did not ask him to make sound. I did, however, get in touch with Antonio Sánchez, a Mexican jazz drummer whose work creating the score for the movie Birdman had alerted me to what he can do. I asked him if he could do anything with my sculpture. He said yes. My exhibition was up during the Academy Awards season, however, and his manager said that his schedule was full and that he could not come to the gallery to play my drum kit during the show. What did I expect of him? What could this brilliant percussionist have done with my artwork? The artwork exists in isolation from the notion of music, because it cannot purport to suggest rhythmic sound for a band, and so it is either a meta-instrument or nonsense; and yet, its existence implies its derivation. Did I expect him to make music from the idea of what came before? No, I hoped he would tap and brush the steel hoops, tap and brush and maybe break the glass cymbals, blow them up and end his song, silence the bass with frenzied pushes of the pedal to an absent skin. Maybe he would tire of the sculpture and reject it, snapping his sticks together in the air above it to show my artwork how not to withhold. In any case, it would make him do things, my artwork, because that is how it behaves. This is the politics of the artwork and the world from which it comes: it is of that world, speaks to it, but is also wrong for it.
I keep calling the artwork a sculpture. It is so easy to call it a sculpture. It is so pretentious to call it a sculptural negative. It is not a sculpture because one of its purposes is to breed photographic works, and because the significance of some of its materials—the “glass negative” for example—are specifically photographic; at the same time, it is not only of a photographic matrix—not only a “negative”—because it stands alone as a sculpture. Thus, politically, in terms of medium specificity, it is confusing: neither a part solely of sound, image, or object, it rides the lines between. And yet, its existence implies the existence of these categories and begs their question. It does not seem unnaturally a sculpture, nor unnaturally a part of a photographic matrix. There are people for whom this matters. Sculpture has a history. Photography has a history. Artworks exist that ride the line between both histories. People categorize artworks into one or another of these histories, and they write about these histories. They base their careers on supporting or undermining these histories. Writers and institutional curators have typically done that work. This is the politics of my artwork and art’s histories.
Artists, though, are usually the ones to take up the challenge that another artist’s work poses. Anxiety about copying is stultifying; what we are after is conversation. The more articulate an artwork, the more meaningful the conversations that ensue. If an artist sees a photogram and stops at the notion that it is a photogram, we will have a boring conversation; they will do nothing in response to my photogram other than perhaps make a photogram. If an artist sees my sculptural negative and stops at the notion that it resembles a drum kit, we will have a boring conversation; they will do nothing in response to my sculptural negative other than perhaps make an artwork about a musical instrument. If an artist examines its ethical workings and picks up on one of them—be it in relation to material, process, or meaning—we begin to interact, politically. We do things, more things, better things, more articulate things. It is my artwork’s job to communicate to other artists that there are threads they might pick up from the way it operates: threads they can improve on, change, or challenge. This is the politics of my artwork and the artists who critique it with words or with their work.
And challenge my artwork should do, conceptually and physically. In terms of a notion of human relations, the physical fragility of my artwork would imply that politically it cannot bear too much touch, politically it cannot bear too much force, but politically it invites these—and so it is human, insofar as it is vulnerable and can break and die. Wanting to touch, wanting to force, restraining oneself: these are things that people do. Breaking, dying: these are things people do too.
My artwork also, I must admit, exists as a jpeg; this is a part of its life. In fact, its compromised existence in a jpeg is the entire reason I am using this particular artwork to write this essay. I did not deploy the artwork qua artwork onstage at LACMA; I did not set up the kit. I was asked to show a jpeg and so I did. My artwork is unique; the jpeg is not. I have sent out that jpeg as a part of grant applications; I have posted that jpeg on social media. My gallery has posted the jpeg as well. It is possible that other people have saved or reposted the jpeg of the work. They have talked about the jpeg and thought they were talking about the artwork; were they? The jpeg is the artwork to many people, even though to me, ethically, the artwork is a physical body. I have no control over the jpeg, even if legally it is mine. Actually, it was taken by another photographer who my gallerist paid to photograph my show, and so the jpeg is in fact not mine. The part of the life of my artwork that occurs through its reproducibility makes people communicate. This is the politics of the artwork and the digital audience.
My peers onstage at LACMA also showed jpegs, and in doing so, we each made choices about what was included in the jpeg’s frame and what was not. A.L. Steiner showed a jpeg of a part of an installation of multiple photographs, some appropriated and some her own. Phil Chang showed a jpeg of a unique archival pigment print in a frame. Thomas Demand showed a jpeg of an editioned photograph, and the jpeg was cropped to the edge of the image. In each of these jpegs was housed an artwork, and each begged the confines of the jpeg’s cage differently. Steiner, Chang, and I each made the point that our work exists in real space, outside the cage of the jpeg, by including the real space around the artwork in the space of the jpeg. The real space Chang includes, though, is implied by the frame and wall around an artwork of fixed dimensions, and in so doing, he refers to context: the status of the artwork as such. In cropping his jpeg to the edge of the artwork rather than its frame, Demand enforced the notion that a photograph is a window onto the content pictured, and that its body does not exist in sculptural space. By showing jpegs of our artworks photographed and cropped differently, we each communicated the questions we ask ethically about photography’s place in space. We exhibited our beliefs about that issue, and our beliefs pose questions of one another’s. This is, finally, a beginning of the politics of the panel discussion: how we choose to represent our work and what that reveals about our distinct ways of thinking.
Related to the issue of real space is the notion of dimensions, and scalability. Steiner and my jpegs showed pieces the dimensions of which would have to be listed as variable; in each incarnation of our artworks, the real space taken up by the artwork would change, without changing the nature of the artwork. Steiner and I, then, implied that within the photographic matrix, there is room for room. In fact, there is no way to photograph either of the pieces that Steiner and I showed other than by including the space around them. At the same time, Steiner and I exhibited different perspectives on the issue of scale, which is separate from dimensions. My drum kit—although it could possibly be spread out to encompass slightly more space than it does in one installation than in another—cannot be altered in terms of the scale at which each of its pieces exist. Were it to be altered, the piece would no longer accommodate or speak to my father’s body or yours; curious about scale, I work with the small and large play of its shadows, but the negative is fixed. Steiner’s prints—let alone the installation—could change in scale as well as dimensions without altering the meaning of her piece. Chang and Demand showed artwork the dimensions of which would be listed concretely; Chang’s is 60 x 44 inches and Demand’s 94 1/2 x 134 1/4 inches. At the same time, these dimensions are somewhat arbitrary; they could have been anything other than that and still, the pieces would function and signify as they were intended.
Before one enters the window of the jpeg, before one considers further questions lodged in content and form, we each encircle the artwork with another signifier of our beliefs, another communicative device, and that is title. My piece, as I have noted above, is called In the Wake of Time, In the Break of Time. Thomas Demand’s is called Atelier. A year later, I am not sure which of Phil Chang’s series, “Pictures, Chromogenic and Pigment” he showed, but each of this series is titled similarly: for example, Replacement Ink for Epson Printers (Magenta and Red) on Epson Premium Glossy Paper. I believe the installation of Steiner’s that she showed was Puppies & Babies. The ethics of an artist’s work are communicated through the title; the politics begin when titles are compared. Each of our titles has a ring to it, a specific flavor that we want to impart to the artwork. We each slyly refer to the content of our artwork, but also assume a voice. Steiner’s voice here has a tinge of irony; there is no way she is showing pictures of puppies and babies such as those that might appear on a drug store calendar, so the title makes me wonder to what kind of pop intimacy she refers. Chang’s voice has the command of facticity, but also irony; he appears to want to upend expectations of what a title should be. Is this the medium or the title? He separately lists the medium as “Archival pigment print”, differentiating and therefore drawing attention to both title and medium. The medium is parsed more carefully in his title than in the line about mediums: “Replacement ink” might be shown in a box on a shelf, but he is careful to be thorough, adding the preposition “on” to suggest the application of that ink (out of the box) on a commercially available substrate. Demand’s voice has the command of the succinct: in one word, he suggests an irony as well—does the artwork picture the studio of an artist or refer to his own? My title lacks irony. I wax poetic. I point the listener towards medium, vulnerability, death, time, but I do it under cover of language. The four of us seem to agree that titles should pose questions of our artworks; our voices differ in character as our artworks do; and Steiner, Demand, and Chang seem to value irony, whereas I exploit other poetic devices. The politics of the title set the tone for the artwork.
How many circles of politics do we journey through? An irony of human life is that we are unable to find the straight way to a sense of self alone. The contrapasso of the artwork functions similarly: no matter how carefully we construct our ethics, questions need rub against those of others in order to signify. After the jpeg, after the title, we arrive at the circle of first impressions. What do the differences between the first impressions of the jpegs shown at LACMA suggest? My artwork, as I have said previously, makes a first impression as a recognizable thing of a vernacular variety. Steiner’s does too: images of people, some naked, some not, and some, indeed, of the baby variety, appear as prints collaged together on a wall like a yearbook page or locker door. My artwork is a solitary thing made of up parts: a drum kit that more or less requires each of its parts in order to look like a single drum kit. Steiner’s is a solitary system made up of parts: a system of images that requires that there be parts in order to look like a (vernacular) system. The vernacular nature of the system is both in its off the cuff collage and in the kinds of photographs that make up the parts; they seem almost amateur in their composition and spirit. Demand’s appears also recognizable: it looks like a room with a drafting table and paper cuttings on the floor; the floor takes up most of the artwork, and the POV of the shot is very vernacular—almost amateur, including in the left foreground the corner of a kind of dark cart. Chang’s artwork does not appear recognizable, per se, nor vernacular; it looks like a swoosh of paint on a white page. Chang emphasized the vernacular in his title, but something else comes across in the first impression: Abstract Art and a history of gesture. Steiner, Demand, and I seem to agree that ethically there is something outside of fine art that might lure. Chang does not, in this case. The politics of the first impression beg questions of access.
The first impression belies the artistic turn. Demand’s amateur photograph is indeed a professionally articulate photographic capture of a model of Matisse’s studio, constructed out of paper and cardboard in Demand’s studio. Steiner’s amateur collage of amateur photographs is a combination of images she made and images she found, and in both the making and the finding as well as in their combination, she sets intentions. My artwork is not a drum kit, but it’s not an interpretation of one, per se; it uses the drum kit as Steiner uses the locker wall and as Demand uses the snapshot as parallels between an aspect of our photographic practice and an aspect of photography as it exists in the world. I point to performance and the stage; Demand points to snapshots and studios; Steiner points to a queer populist archive. The first impression that Chang’s artwork makes—of looking like one might expect an abstract painting to look like—is turned insofar as the artwork is not an abstract painting, per se. It’s inkjet ink, swiped in a practiced stroke onto inket paper; the paper and ink are used wrong, intentionally. I come from photography and Demand from sculpture; although we both make sculptures in order to achieve photographic results, he throws his away and I exhibit mine. I regard the sculpture as the vehicle for the photograph and he regards the photograph as the vehicle for the sculpture. Even in this difference, we reveal our ethics, to be further and further parsed. We all reveal ourselves, at least, then, to be insider artists: aware of and responsible for our work’s first impressions as much as we are aware of and responsible for its turn. Does that mean we succeed?
Politics does not so easily conclude, and we are now in its circle of reception. Demand told Chang that his artwork is not a photograph, but rather that its results relate to the photograph as the ingredients to a pizza relate to the pizza. This could have been an interesting question, but it was not pursued. Each of us on the stage break photography down into its constituent parts; how do we do so differently? What is the value of leaving some of its parts bruised, a tooth here and there not replaced? What do we learn about what photography can and cannot bear? Demand refused Steiner’s reliance on the word image; at the same time, her interest in that word has much to do with the deployment of singular images, and deploy the singular image Demand does do. Why did we not pursue the problems she might see with respect to his work in this regard? I heard from some audience members afterwards that they did not know that Demand’s work was constructed from paper; they believed that they were looking at a bad photograph of a room. Why was that not pursued? No one asked the question. How could that question have come up? We could have compared the relationship of sculpture to photography in terms of mine and Demand’s work; we could have compared the vernacular photographic content of Steiner’s work and Demand’s. The fog of war can paralyze. Politics works best when fighters fight their way out; otherwise, who’s on the ropes? Who’s in the corner? The artworks, all.
I seem to have come to a conclusion of sorts that an artwork’s ethics beg its own questions and that an artwork’s politics make people do things. Put another way, an artwork’s ethics are revealed by the politics of its interaction with the ethics of another artwork. I could follow either one of these threads to the ends of the earth of things that it is possible to question or do. The ethical and political posture is enough, though, to let you do that by yourself, both with respect to my own artwork and any other artwork: what questions does an artwork bring up and what does that artwork make people do? How does that artwork reveal the ethics of other artworks and of other phenomena and behaviors outside of the artwork itself? I think you will find that that posture is flexible.
I’m pretty sure that I have not yet, though, brought that posture into the real world of how others might read the artwork’s ethical and political stance. Gut feeling? No one who uses the words “ethical” or “political” to analyze artworks would use either in describing the artwork I put to task here. Is that a fault of language? Yes, actually: everything—not only every art object, but every thing—operates according to an internal logic and an extroverted logic. Everything has, in other words, an ethical and a political behavior. The word “ethical” does not actually just mean hashtag green, hashtag made in America, hashtag no animals were harmed. The word “political” does not actually mean CNN or Fox News. Those entities and what they represent are the content that crucially our ethics—our decisions—support or decry and our politics—our interactions with others—reveal.
What is the common—and probably inaccurate, but important because common—use of these words? In common parlance, when people speak of ethical work, they mean that it is good as pertains to upholding the value of human or animal life, environmental systems, and other aspects of our local and global networks that are sometimes overlooked in favor of trends and profit. Largely, the use of this word goes unexamined, as do the objects it is deemed worthy to describe. If a piece of jewelry is described as ethically produced, consumers who value the notion of practicing “ethical” business are more open to buying the jewelry. (Hashtag ethical. Hashtag socially responsible. And Walter Benn Michaels wasn’t concerned with the proliferation of words on the internet.) This is useful, but not articulate. The ethics and politics of anything are separate from what it is or what it is about, and artworks can train us to see that. Steiner’s work shown at LACMA that day was the only of the four of us with ostensibly political content, according to common parlance, and yet it is not only the content that sets her work apart from Demand’s, mine, or Chang’s. Each of the four of us have elected subject matter at one point or another that pertains to current events beyond the context of fine art; her work’s ethical posture, in political dialogue with that of the other three of ours, is still different from ours, as ours is different from one another’s, if we were to compare with hers artworks of ours with content that pertains to current events.
I could choose now to return to the other artworks shown on stage alongside In the Wake of Sound, In the Break of Sound. I could compare their ethical and political workings—what questions they bring up and what they do, to whom, where, and why. There is a lot there left unsaid. This essay, though, is not about my work or Steiner’s or Chang’s or Demand’s; our work and especially mine has here been deployed in the service of understanding what “ethics” and “politics” might mean in the context of the work of art. Why, though? Why not turn to the content? Because we are on the stage together—each with a place at the table, defining our field and how to make choices inside of it. Doing so actually has ramifications for whichever kind of content we want to unpack, abstract, represent, or otherwise deliver. What if the value of an artwork has to do with the richness of its ethical and political capacities? What if it is worth more—in terms of whichever currency you imagine, including that of culture—if it is able to generate more questions and more actions than other works by the same artist or by other artists?
On one level, I think this is already the case. If an artist has been particularly influential in some way, it usually means that their work has generated more questions and more actions within and sometimes without the art world than have others. Leadership can be quantified. It can also be falsified. I attended another panel discussion at another art world get together: its subject was collecting contemporary photography and collectors spoke about their notions of value. Museum acquisition, I had always supposed and my gallerist had confirmed, is a mark of value. For an artwork of mine to be included in a museum collection is a potent symbol that my artwork has become part of a conversation as large and networked as is that museum’s collection. With which pieces does it initiate conversation? With which does it pick a fight? The consequence of an artwork, I think, can also be measured in terms of its impact on culture, on the public. The panel of collectors dismissed the notion of museum acquisition as a mark of value, saying that the value of an artwork at auction is what they look to in their investment. They spoke, of course, not at all of public reception. While these collectors do not represent all collectors, their perspective brings up a problem for which examining the ethics and politics of an artwork provides a solution.
The art world in 2016 is rife with conversations about what to do about the gallery system, the power of collectors, the high prices of artworks fetched at auction, the flippers that buy from the young and jack prices up so fast they have only a precipice of value in advance of their next steps. I would suggest that the actual impact of a politics of the artwork that valorizes its ability to do and to make people do is that it puts the agency of the art market back in its rightful place. The artwork is the agent of the history of art. It begs questions, interrogates itself, makes plausible the notion that you interrogate yourself, and that you, like it, make people take action in whichever context naturally occurs. The fighter in the ring has more power than the person who put him there: his influence is not only in the winning or losing, but in the way his performance makes others play the game.