|Playgrounds Perception and Prototypes, catalog essay for Protoslag by Adam Mason and William Kaminski 2011|
|Playgrounds Perception and Prototypes, catalog essay for Protoslag by Adam Mason and William Kaminski|
Protoslag 2011 is a curious title for an exhibition. At first glace the prefix proto brings to mind a proposal, a prototype, something awaiting mass production. At the same time it brings with it questions of what this production might entail. The term slag has multiple connotations. Primarily, it’s the residue of undesirable materials left over after a metal smelting process, and can also be globules of metal that form on a welded joint. And oddly enough, Slag is also a British term referring to a sexually promiscuous person. 2011 is, of course, the year of this exhibition; its use in defining this kind of moniker emphasizes that the accumulation of objects here occurred during a specific time. This peculiar title, Protoslag 2011, is a very apt way to understand the works displayed here, for they share some commonalities, even though they are produced by two artists with seemingly disparate practices. If all the works here share something, it’s that they use a certain kind of production, often utilizing welded metal, to create situations that seem to be proposals, something not yet realized in mass production, but could very well exist as such given adequate time and resources. Additionally, all the works are meant to be engaged with by many bodies, sometimes more than one at a time. This interaction is not strictly sexual – though a certain sense of libidinal play is evident in some work more than others. In this play of bodies - in the work, on the work, around the work, and dangling from the work - we see an overarching and palpable interest in the limits of corporeal space, an exploration of what delineates us from everything else.
William Kaminski’s practice takes to task our understanding of our bodies as vessels carrying with them our whole history, our understandings of ourselves connected to the past, living in the present, and continually imagining and fabricating a future. In this exhibition he continues this with a three works that derive their meaning through audience proximity and participation. Kaminski’s Scanning Bed melds the skeletal form of a tanning bed with the function of an interactive observational device, something akin to a medical examination table. The welded metal skeletal structure holds a human-sized flat platform, illuminated from below and above by florescent lights. Individual visitors are given the option to lift up the hood and lie down, most likely face up. Five flat-screen monitors sit atop the work, connected to five corresponding cameras placed facing the bed, designed to capture five distinct sections of the a person lying down inside the structure. The enclosed participant’s body is displayed as a fragmented whole, an isolated head, breast, groin, thigh/knees, and legs, on these monitors. A series of buttons allows people in proximity to the piece to change the images displayed on the screens, switching to views of other bodies in similar positions. The entire bed is situated in what used to be a glass-enclosed meeting room, with a kind of new-age infomercial projected on a roll-down screen. In this infomercial an underwear-clad model/pitch man presents both the bed and himself for consumption. Here, this space is turned into a large display case, where the work sits awaiting interaction with participants.
As a structure that invites you to lie down and put yourself on display, the work speaks to the promotional side of self-imposed surveillance. One has to choose to put oneself in there, to be cut up and reassembled, for onlookers to ogle. In this way, it’s impossible to see this work disconnected from the many reality shows populating media today, shows that hold the possibility of placing “everyday people” in various, fragmented, and often exploitive, positions for public consumption. As a work mimicking the structure of a tanning bed, Kaminski’s piece immediately brings to mind The Jersey Shore, an MTV reality show that has elevated binge-drinking, super-sexual, violent, and extremely tan twenty-somethings to the status of exorbitantly paid celebrities1. Seen as a work created during the time of this show – and so many others like it, one cannot help sense an underlying critique of bodies in public, obsessed with how they look, willing to put themselves on display for others to see.
However, this critique also involves those individuals surrounding the bed. It’s these viewers, who are also actors in this situation, who provide the work with an audience, invest it with meaning. It’s these viewers who can, at any time, switch the channel on the monitors to something else, or simply walk away. This situation speaks to the choices we make and the power present in viewing and being viewed. The performance of being watched inside Kaminski’s piece brings with it a hypersensitivity, perhaps an embarrassment or awkwardness, at least for some. Others are more than happy to receive such attention. Like it’s UV Ray emitting cousin, one has to ask, how much time in the Scanning Bed is enough before any real harm is done? In an age where self-promotion seems paramount, where one does not exist without a Facebook account, a “presence” on Youtube, twitter, and other venues accessible through the internet and, Scanning Bed seems like a contraption from a not-too-distant future, or a very real present2.
Kaminski’s BlackTron Bed presents a dark moody construction also designed to be interacted with, sat upon, considered in relation to the viewer’s active body. The piece is made primarily of welded metal, with a large swatch of black carpeted flooring holding a black spray-painted sheetless mattress, a TV and other strange trappings of adolescence – a guitar, candy wrappers, a mini fridge, etc. The entire structure is elevated more than a foot off the ground and is partially shielded from above by a crystalline yellow plexiglass covered structure. Inspired by Lego sets the artist played with in his youth, the work directly mimics the formal look of these toys, especially the strange conical overhanging shell and the awkward floor plan. Even the yellow gas tank holding nothing harkens to jetpacks on Lego characters. But here these childhood playthings are enlarged to life-size proportions. The artist conceived of the work as a kind of realization of his adolescent bedroom as imagined for his current adult self, a melding of the imaginations inspired by the toys of is youth with the complicated fabrication techniques needed to make these fantasies reality. In presenting this life-sized work, which viewers are welcome to sit on, and share a drink and a story, Kaminski speaks to how nostalgia for the past informs understandings of the present and designs for the future. Like a reworking of Fredric Jameson’s prophetic assertions that the Postmodern condition is typified by a nostalgia for the present, Kaminski’s Scanning Bed and BlackTron Bed, both imply that our current condition is enmeshed with a nostalgia for the future, a nostalgia for the ambitious reality we were promised in our youth – our fifteen minutes of fame, our complete connectivity, our dreams made real.
United by their use of beds, Scanning Bed and BlackTron Bed have direct, interactive relationships to the body. A bed is, after all a space designed for the body’s developmental, carnal, sexual, nocturnal, and even morbid states. With BlackTron Bed, we see a nude, sexually ambiguous, ghost-like body projected onto the bed, moving ever so slowly as if sleeping. If one sits or reclines on the bed, their image, along with the body, is then relayed body onto a TV nearby. This projection, interaction, and transmission literalizes the notion of wholly mediated beings existing in two places at once. As a work designed to have futuristic connotations, BlackTron Bed presents a scene where our bodies, wholly disconnected from our minds, sleep the days away while our consciousness runs loose elsewhere.
This out of body experience is also present in Kaminski’s Sink to Hell, an installation consisting of a working sink with running red water resembling blood, topped with a vertical monitor reminiscent of a medicine cabinet. The monitor displays video of images of the universe, the unknown, as well as abstracted documentation of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana performances. From all this emanates a droning soundtrack suggestive of a merger of Tibetan chanting, industrial noises, and guitar feedback. Placed at the end of a narrow hallway, the work is difficult to view in groups of two or more. Couple this with the fact that the installation is lit dramatically from above, making it altar like, and it’s hard to see viewers standing in front of the work as wholly separate entities from it.
Since the work’s monitor is in the place of a mirror meant to reflect the viewer’s image, and takes the place of a medicine cabinet meant to hold objects directly related to the body – pills, combs, gels and lotions, etc - we can surmise that the piece connects notions of the embodied self with the images in the video. These video images are of the untouchable and perhaps wholly unknowable infinite, the microcosmic and otherworldly. The insertion of Cobain into this imagery brings with it thoughts of artistic excellence, subcultural affiliation, but also melancholy, depression, talent wasted, the tragic hero who never wanted to be a hero. Kaminski grew up listening to Nirvana, was alive when Cobain took his own life, and Cobain has played a significant role in Kaminski’s past work. In keeping with Kaminski’s sense of nostalgia evident in BlackTron Bed, the work uses Cobain as a substrate for reimagining the obsessions of youth, as a way not necessarily to resolve, but to frame, and provide a setting for, the anxieties of the present. This sense of anxiety is furthered, and in some ways literalized, by the piece’s sink running red with blood. Here is a world defined by the unknown, a world out of sorts, a hallucination, something resembling a dream state, where, again, one is left to ruminate on the limits of perception, the difficulty of a body’s understanding of itself in space and time.
Bodies out of control, a return to adolescence, to infancy, to the very state where we come to define ourselves as individual consciousnesses, these too are ideas present in Adam Mason’s work. But to get to these understandings, one has to first contend with the physical reality of the work. One of the first things that strike you about Mason’s work is the conspicuous perfection of its construction, which often involves heavy metal welding, and bright, seamless, powder-coated surfaces. His work employs a kind of finish-fetish where every surface is handled with the utmost care. His subjects often resemble familiar structures; he has remade children’s carts, baseball dugouts, and in this show he presents a swing set, a doghouse, standing partitions. The fact that each of these objects is constructed with mind-boggling attention to detail is what gives them particular resonance; there are no bubbles in the welding, no chips in the paint. Everything looks pristine, unblemished – at least until it is used.
Mason’s perfect surface serves two purposes. First, it speaks to our fascination with machined, sterile, clean objects. Such objects seem futuristic in their construction because they bear no marks of the human hand, that fundamental and antiquated tool whose use reminds of a time before machine technology, a time that threatens to return us to our primordial roots. Second, because this surface is so “untouched”, it easily conveys use when it gets scratched, dinged, or handled too rough. One of the primary operations of Mason’s work is that his objects are to be used, to be interacted with, and through this interaction his work unveils its content and critique.
In Mason’s Farley Farley Farley the audience is presented with a pyramidal swing set and three rocking benches, and are given the opportunity to interact with these objects. Like a standard playground swing set folded in thirds back into itself, Mason’s pink contraption ensures that when more than one participant swings, they risk crashing into others swinging on the set. Three rocking benches, color-coded to correspond with each seat in the swing set, are placed at equidistant lengths away from the scene, allowing up to nine viewers to participate in direct spectatorship, comfortably gazing at the bodies crashing together in front of them. It’s meant to be fun, and funny.
In a conventional swing set found in some playgrounds one is not supposed to swing into another person. It’s also worth noting that American playgrounds are progressively phasing out the swing set as a potentially dangerous apparatus3. While with a typical swing set, many people might use a row of swings at once, and someone might help push a swinging person off the ground, such a contraption creates a series of individual experiences, marked by a view towards an empty expanse, or towards the heavens, with the primary goal of experiencing a sensation akin to flight or weightlessness, centered around the awareness of moving ever higher, ever faster, into the air. In Mason’s work this experience is made absurd, with all the structural and experiential components of a typical swing set inverted. Mason’s swing is designed for “wrongful” use. Here you can swing looking directly at other people on the swing set, you can’t swing too high at all because you inevitably crash into other people, and your isolation is taken away from you. The result is that you are made aware of your body in relation to other bodies in motion.
Additionally, Mason’s work heightens the choice of which direction to sit while engaging with the swing set. Does one sit facing outward, towards persons looking at the swing set? Or does one face inward, with a direct, and perhaps more in-control view of any other people swinging on the set? These decisions, while they may seem inconsequential on a conventional swing set, take on great ramifications in Mason’s work – they can be the difference between seeing where you are going and being able to deflect the bodies coming towards you, and blindly oscillating while awaiting the eventual impact with another body.
Farley Farley Farley derives its name from the legendary Saturday Night Live cast member and movie star Chris Farley, a comedian known for using the outrageous extremity of his own body to get a laugh in situations of unease and anxiety. Like Farley’s antics, which had him crashing through walls, busting out of his too-tight clothes, and loosing track of the limits of his own physical presence, Mason’s work also implies, and provides, scenarios where bodies find themselves out of control, uncomfortably placed in positions that are both humorous, but also potentially dangerous. That he situates this comedy in a scene where viewer and performer are placed in prescribed close proximity to one another speaks to questions of who is watching whom, who is audience and who is actor, when are we participants with, or simply viewers of, the pratfalls and comedic interactions that make up the experience of the everyday? In the end, when is a joke at someone else’s’ expense, their physical body’s expense, and does this, in some way, impact us, the viewer?
In Mason’s Astro Stand In, we also witness a situation providing the opportunity for interaction. Here a bright pink four-walled structure toped with a yellow slanted roof sits on a long stretch of Astroturf extending towards the gallery entrance. This Astroturf (here a pun no doubt on the name of The Jetson’s dog, who would seem quite at home in Mason’s sleek canine abode) is elevated vertically like a photo backdrop behind the dog house. While a dog house is a structure that anthropomorphizes man’s best friend, making it first and foremost a peculiar construction speaking as much to its owner’s need for companionship as the dog’s need for shelter, a dog house is a house nonetheless. In the gallery, this house is big enough for children and adults to play in, only in small groups, huddled together, sheltered from the action outside. This inevitable meeting of people inside a miniature home speaks to how children “play house,” work out the conflicts of “the home” while trying on adult roles, playing with the established symbolic order of the family, a game psychologically linked to the anxiety of becoming a subject, growing up, and separating from one’s parents. Like Farley Farley Farley, the work plays with anxieties, marking them as both funny, but also formative in one’s own development. The work also demarcates zones of viewership and participation, inside and outside, spaces where one is either framed in their own actions (the fake grass photo backdrop), or placed in a position of self-conscious spectatorship (standing at the gallery entrance, a site typically defined by its inhabitants position as viewers).
Mason’s Space Available consists of three white metal display signs. This works seem the most fitting in an exhibition titled Protoslag 2011, with all of it’s nods toward the prototype, the pitch, the trade show. Yet in this exhibition two of these three pieces are left blank, illuminated only by bright custom-made lights on the floor. In leaving these two stands blank Mason highlights the possibility of information sharing, which, after all, is what these kind of objects are traditionally designed to do. In their blankness they stand in for all potential information, a stream of endless future proposals, ideas to be considered, accepted, and rejected. Yet the absence of any information on these kiosks, also allows one to focus on their construction, unobstructed by any paper attached to their sleek, white, and somewhat reflective surfaces. During a consideration of this object-ness, one cannot help but notice the care with which they are made, their perfect edges, unblemished planes of white painted metal.
In this instance the conspicuous refinement of these structures speaks to the arc of design history, primarily the living history of Modernist design and architecture. In Mason’s finish-fetish information-relay devices, we see the programmatic silhouette of the Modernist fascination with a “form follows function” mantra, and its belief in the communicative power of reductive, de-ornamented surfaces, as well as the emancipatory possibilities of the machine-made. Yet these are highly constructed objects, built with painstaking exactness by the hands of the artist. They bear the look of high modernist design, but are in fact custom-made objects. In this sense they reflect something larger at play in contemporary culture, standing at the end of a path beginning with such modernist idealists as Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Gropius, and Mies van der Rohe, who imagined their designs as having profound political and social implications, to the pages of Dwell Magazine, where Modernism is reduced to a look and a lifestyle choice, with all of its aspirational implications4.
On a related note, Mason’s kiosks also speak to the importance of how information and ideas are presented to others, particularly in a public and/or corporate setting – a setting framing the temporary gallery where the work is situated, a site positioned at the ground floor of a corporate office building. Set against, or at the foot of, this site, Mason’s information stands seem to speak to the idea of “putting your best foot forward,” presenting your ideas “in the best light.” How strange it is then, that what is proposed is only the vessel for such a presentation, absent any “pitch.” Such an absence allows us to focus on the strangeness of the object, and consequentially, the strangeness of all contraptions designed to sell, market, or convince.
The blankness of these two display structures makes the third, which holds a singular piece of paper describing an as-of-yet unrealized intervention into the space, even more conspicuous. In the proposal attached to this additional kiosk, Mason briefly outlines a situation wherein he slowly floods the gallery during the opening reception for Protoslag 2011, by removing a cap on an exposed water line in the space. This proposal is ripe with potentiality.
Given the procedural hurdles needed to execute such an intervention - the need for approval from the building, the reality of fire codes, and the damage resulting from such an action, one has to think that this proposal will no doubt remain unrealized. However, knowing that its execution is possibility given proper permissions, highlights the reality of such constraints, their institutional connotations, the reality of making art in this particular setting and the power structures at play when one negotiates the installation of artwork with governmental (The City of Glendale), corporate (the property owners), and service organizations (GATE).
At the same time, when one reads this proposal the image of a partially flooded gallery comes rushing to the fore. Like some of Claes Oldenburg drawings proposing never-to-be-realized monuments in public spaces, like a multi-story building-sized plinth placed in the middle of an intersection during heavy traffic, or even Yoko Ono’s instructional works, which would have people paint with their blood until they die, this proposal operates firstly in the mind and imagination of its reader. What would it mean to be in this space, up to your ankles in water, to be placed in that precarious position where health and electrocution would force you to leave?5. Perhaps in its unrealized state Mason’s proposal speaks more accurately about imaging a future where we are even more hypersensitive to our bodies as precarious, aging, fragile, and aspirational entities, than if it were to be made a reality.
This is the power of propositional gestures, be they in the form of prototypes as artwork, written proposals, or even oratory presentations about plans for the future. All these bring with them the idea that introducing something, some object, action, or idea, into the present reality will bring about a change. But the thing with conventional prototypes is that they almost always purport to make things better, as if to imply that the present is not good enough without the introduction of this object into it. With Kaminski and Mason’s work, little optimism or pessimism comes into play. Their objects, proposals, installations don’t seem to want to make the world a better place, instead, they intend to make us simply aware of the world, ourselves in it.
1. As an example of the extent to which this kind of celebrity production has become part of the entertainment industry, it should be noted that two people on The Jersey Shore, Snooki and The Situation, recently secured a deal that nets them $100,000 each per episode. See E-Online’s account of this at http://www.eonline.com/uberblog/b235983_wtf_jersey_shore_castmembers_are_making.html
2. The deadpan stare of the participant displayed on the monitors above the bed is reminiscent of Warhol’s screen tests, which featured singular faces gazing, often emotionless, into the camera for extended periods of time. In a similar, and more contemporaneous example, Scanning Bed, brings to mind a new trend in the production of home-made Youtube videos, where people just stare into the camera. Perhaps the most popular version of this is the Youtuber MRirian, a young girl whose wide eyed staring sessions garner more than half a million views.
3. See “The great American swing set is teetering,” by Greg Toppo, USA TODAY. Posted 3/19/2006 8:08 PM http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2006-03-19-swing-sets_x.htm
4. The same observation applies to Mason’s doghouse. The level of highly considered construction that went into this miniaturized one bedroom would be lost on any K-9. Assuming that such an object is expensive, and is in fact costly to produce, Astro Stand In can also speak to the inequality of housing, how those with such disposable means would buy overpriced homes for their pets while ignoring the homelessness just outside their own front doors. For evidence of this see The Daily Mail’s “World's most expensive kennel: Great Dane owner shells out £250,000 for doghouse complete with spa and plasma TV” by Luke Salkeld. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1089315/Worlds-expensive-kennel-Great-Dane-owner-shells-250-000-doghouse-spa-plasma-TV.html
Last updated at 7:47 AM on 26th November 2008.
5. Seen against the recent 2011 tsunami in Japan, which seemed to occur in the blink of an eye, such quick destruction cannot be understood as physically impossible, nor can such disasters be seen as wholly separate in their devastation and aftermath, from the human actions that contribute to them.