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Jan 15, 1996 :: Michael Sippey

This week's "obvious" may not be so obvious. It also may be a bit confused, but I'm gonna try to make sense of some stuff that hit me all at once yesterday, from many different directions. So bear with me... Trina and I did the "art thing" this weekend, hitting a few galleries and the SFMOMA. Which is incidental, but crucial. You see, I'm just gonna use some (hyper)text to try to make sense of the stuff we saw, and the stuff it made me think of. But that's not the point, really. The point really, is that there is no one point. It's all a bunch of interconnected points.

On Saturday morning, we hit Crown Point Press to see a collection of prints by Christopher Brown, for whom "the question was, and is, how to create a visual analog for memory." Besides the beautiful surfaces of his images, what I love about Brown is his ability to pull the strings of popular culture to let flow emotions that are buried deep within this American psyche. Some of his best work is a series of five prints based on images from the Zapruder film. A brief glimpse of the president's limousine, with the blurred red and white of the American flag in stark contrast to the black and chrome metal. Jackie reaching across the back of the limousine. A man with a camera. Two women on the grassy knoll in shock.

Later that day, Refusalon, a gallery in the same building as Crown Point. On display, sculpture and video work by Patrick Tierney. Tierney's wall-mounted pieces started on one side of the gallery as fairly realistic-looking explosive devices, made up of beat up metal boxes, electricians tape, portable phone batteries, torn apart digital watches. As we moved along the wall, the pieces got a bit more fantastic. The metal boxes morphed into random found objects or even just balled up newspaper. What had been realistic red, green and yellow electrical wire was now a single extension cord leading nowhere. And by the time we reached the end of the wall, the pieces had become completely allegorical. The "bombs" were now discarded teddy bears wrapped in dozens of layers of saran wrap, with wiring made out of coaxial cable. The bomb is reduced to a banal image, wrapped in a banal substance, with a tail made of the stuff that brings us our daily dose of entertainment. Because as we all learned in Philosophy 101, a bomb that doesn't get to explode isn't really a bomb at all. It's just potential energy.

Brown's prints and Tierney's bombs remind me of Don DeLillo's fascination with (1) the Kennedy assasination (the event that "broke the back of the American century"), and (2) the effect of terrorism on the national psyche (where terrorists have more control over our imagination than novelists).

But that ain't it. Because Tierney's video work, Neglectosphere, is playing in a corner of the gallery. And it's on a used color TV set that you could probably pick up at a pawn shop for $25 bucks. The VCR is halfway decent, probably $200. And there are incredible images coming out of it. Split screens, animations, layered textual elements, multiple sound tracks. And it pops into my head how hard it would be to even come close to doing that type of presentation digitally, on a PC. How you would need much more than $225 worth of equipment to even show it, much less produce it. And then a line from the video jars me. Tierney is teaching a group of students how to draw simple cartoons, and he says, out of the blue "the telephone system is the most powerful tool for national destruction." And it makes me wonder if he's read Josh Quittner's book on that very topic.

Even later that day, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to see Andrea Zittel's "living spaces," three beautiful green camping trailers. Each was custom built for different "teams" who took trips from San Diego to San Francisco. Mundane on the surface, but Zittel's green trailers are exploring conflicting themes in American culture. The difference between "exploring" and "conquering" the frontier. Living life "on the road" while enjoying the "American dream" of home ownership. They are magnificent machines. I want one (which is probably what Zittel wants me to do).

Which reminds me (again), of something else I read recently, but I can't quite put my finger on it. Which is frustrating. But hey, may attention span has been ruined by that Saran Wrapped teddy bear, right?

And then Sunday morning, over coffee. I'm re-reading Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death, and I come across a passage which hits me in the gut. Postman is discussing the effect of the telegraph on national discourse (which was previously dominated by typography):

The telegraph demands that we burn its contents... The telegraph is suited only to the flashing of messages, each to be quickly replaced by a more up-to-date message. Facts push other facts into and then out of consciousness at speeds that neither permit nor require evaluation.

Which reminds me of something. Replace the word telegraph with "web" and by God, you've got something there. Something that the Sucksters must have heard when decrying the state of software that just manages bookmarks. Hit the site. Flash the message. Mark/burn it, move on. There's no time.

Which reminded me of statement 48 from Douglas Coupland's piece for The New Republic titled "Agree/disagree: 55 statements about the culture. (satire)":

048. Technology got us into this; technology will get us out.

Agree or disagree?



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