VOX, Center for the Contemporary Image and Cinémathèque Québécoise
Hans-Peter Feldmann, Pictures of car radios taken while good music was playing (detail), 2004; five color and gelatin silver prints; dimensions variable; courtesy 303 Gallery, New York
Stephen Shore, Chicago, Illinois July, 1972, 1972/2005; color print; 5 x 7 ½ inches; courtesy 303 Gallery, New York
Whether exhibition or book, a careful study of the relationship between Conceptual art and technology is long overdue. Until now, art historians have focused, for the most part, on the central role of language in the putative dematerialization of objects. The connection between words and technology has been tentatively made in the designation that the words that were central to so much Conceptual art were neither literary nor meaningful in the conventional sense but, rather, sheer information—symbols reduced to bits, the metaphorical value of which had been emptied of any possible sentiment or connotation.
Historians have rightfully looked to the words of Conceptual art as they functioned denotatively, something akin to the 010101 that is the authorless basis of digital code. This, the view that the language of Conceptual art is technocratic information and not poetry, is as far as art chroniclers have gone, despite the fact that the collective platform of Conceptual art forty years ago was a handful of shows devoted to emergent technology: The Xerox Book put together by Seth Siegelaub in New York in 1968, Cybernetic Serendipity at the ICA London in 1968, Software at the Jewish Museum in New York in 1970, The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age at MoMA in New York in 1968 and Information at MoMA in 1970.
Curated by Marie-Josée Jean, director of the fantastically smart project space VOX, Center for the Contemporary Image in Montreal, Road Runners looks not to digital but to analogue technology in Conceptual art, in particular that tool so obvious and altogether hidden in plain sight, the automobile. The exhibition focuses on work “about” the car—video, photographs, textual works and photo-text pieces—by Conceptual artists since the postwar period. It is a cross-generational survey with work by Robert Barry, Iain Baxter, Chris Burden, Michel de Broin, Hans-Peter Feldmann, Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Abbas Kiarostami, Margaret Lawther, John Massey, Stephen Shore, Terry Southern, Peter Gnass, Rodney Graham, Chuck Jones, Jack Kerouac, Simon Morris, Robert Rauschenberg and John Cage, Edward Ruscha, Patrick Blackwell and Mason Williams, Jon Sasaki, Roman Signer, Kerry Tribe, Bill Vazan, Jeff Wall and Ian Wallace. The key here is the preposition “about.” Road Runners deploys a very nuanced sense of the word “about,” and in so doing reveals how a body of Conceptual art stretched, tweaked and made proverbial mincemeat out of that old convention that art could be symbolically “about” something else.
Jon Sasaki, still from The Destination and the Journey, 2007; video; courtesy the artist
Michel de Broin, L’épreuve du danger from the series Matière dangereuse, 1999; gelatin silver print; 24 x 24 inches; courtesy Galerie Donald Browne, Montreal
The work in this exhibition is not descriptive or literal. When one mentions the car and art in the same sentence, people assume one is referring to the subculture of “car art,” heavily ornamented vehicles like those paraded through downtown Houston every year as part of the Art Car Parade. From coast to coast, MOCA Los Angeles to the Musée des beaux-arts in Montreal to MoMA New York, notable museums have also done exhibitions based on this object-centric point of view. However, the tale told here is always once, twice or thrice removed. The exhibition tells of the car not as a blunt object but as a lens through which to experience the world, or what I call in my work on the same body of art, a “prosthetic.”
Take, for example, Ruscha, Blackwell and Williams’ art book Royal Road Test, which documents Ruscha dropping a vintage typewriter from a Buick speeding down a stretch of desert highway. The title of the work refers to Sigmund Freud’s declaration that dreams are the “royal road to the unconscious.” Generally speaking, the work, in all of its Conceptualism, is intended to trigger the manifold questions that Duchamp posed with his first readymade in 1913. Is a work of art just the art object or is it the discourse, the market, the academy and the gallery that construct it?
We might ignore the rhetorical flourish of Royal Road Test, its deployment of the document as frame and not as bearer of truthful contents, to think about what is in fact inside the frame, to what we see: references to Freud, the road, the journey and the vehicle. It is only then that this work becomes “about” the automobile, but indirectly so. Deflating the once valorous and always imperious notions of humanism, the mind is reduced to a carlike machine. At the same time, the car is raised to the poetry of Freudian psychoanalysis. Or, in a wink and nod to Marshall McLuhan, it is the medium—the oft-overlooked midwife that constitutes the art itself —that makes the message. The work tells us that we think, exist and act as world players through technology. The car has become the human body, our endo- as well as exoskeleton: something that allows us to be.
John Massey’s series of doctored photographs in This Land (The Photographs) seem, on first blush, much more literal than Royal Road Test. Yet Massey is only quoting literalism—the over-inflated romanticism of automobile advertisements—to turn it on its head. In these photographs, mechanized podlike car interiors in muted tones of dun brown and light gray contrast sharply with the colorized natural landscapes seen through the windows. While intended by car hawkers to entice buyers with a security-from-the-wilds message, the images in Massey’s hands come across as sheer man-made concoctions.
Two photographic reproductions of scrolls, Kerouac’s On the Road and Rauschenberg and Cage’s Automobile Tire Print, serve as poignant reminders of how early in the twentieth century the Conceptual turn in art emerged and how important technology was in this turn. Though indeed more powerful in objects rather than images, their presence even as photographic vestiges brings home the fact that the car—like the telephone, television, Sony’s Portapak handheld camera and the computer—helped to unravel long-held conventions of human communication, those that had been in place since the emergence of Renaissance architect Brunelleschi’s codification of one-point perspective and held steadfast until Clement Greenberg and the high formalism of Modern painting in the mid twentieth century. In this unfolding, we are reminded of Victor Hugo’s prescient words in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, “This will kill that.” If Hugo meant printing will kill architecture, in this instance, it means the car will kill Greenberg, as it did.
Charissa Terranova is Assistant Professor of Aesthetic Studies and Director of Centraltrak, an artists residency at The University of Texas at Dallas.