in ‘Hello and welcome’, Bignan / Tarbes: Domaine de Kerguéhennec / Le Parvis, 2004
Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah and blah.
—Blah Blah, in Blah, Blah, Blah. Translated from (some language other than your own) by Blah Blah. First published in Blah Blah 196-blah (or 197-blah).
It’s over my head. It was said better before. There are only a few brilliant ideas left to be absorbed or uttered. I’ve seen this show before, only it was done by somebody else, someplace else, some time ago. I saw it reproduced in a magazine. I saw the announcement card. I read the review. Familiarity breeds contempt, and/or comfort—and art is full of clichés.
Recently, looking at a picture of book spines arranged in neat rows in the library of a well-known celebrity, I was struck by a single book buried alongside books on English gardens, books of photographs of other famous people, books by well-known authors that look elegant on a shelf or bedside but are never actually read, and a wide range of obligatory art books—most of which were published by name-brand museums about the late-career works of name-brand artists who painted what is now regarded as bland late-career paintings. Whose library it was is irrelevant—just another beautiful face—and the fact that it might not have even been this person’s library is also possible, as the space in which the photograph was taken was not identified as being owned by this person, who was simply standing and smiling, or wincing, in front of the books that framed the image. The books certainly lent a scale to the image—I wasn’t sure how tall she was in person, but now I can tell that she’s two monographs, one romance novel and one-half a critical theory book tall give or take an inch or two to correct for perspective. [Or, instead of the one-half critical theory book, she might be one-half a self-help book—but perhaps I’m projecting that onto her, as the self-help book is slightly to the right of the critical theory book and not exactly centered on her head.
Obviously, placing somebody in context of books doesn’t make the person smarter, more interesting, or even prove that they can read. It’s a fairly standard trick and part of a long history within our visual vocabulary. Classical painters from the past knew that books represented knowledge and, by placing the subject in front of them, they imparted that learning on the sitter. I don’t think that the 18th- or 19th-century viewer would have fallen for the trick any more readily than somebody would fall for it today when used by a lawyer advertising personal injury or divorce law in the telephone book.
The single book that drew me to the image was a copy of the catalogue for the 1969 exhibition by Harald Szeemann titled When Attitudes Become Form / Live in Your Head, which could have only found its way into this library through the act of some cosmic accident. Like a clue in a mystery novel—a catalogue that had no worldly reason to be sitting on a shelf side by side with what could only be described as “pedestrian,” bland books of little consequence. A diamond in the rough, a shinning beacon of light in a dark, sad, stormy world.
Of course, When Attitudes Become Form / Live in Your Head is conceivably one of the most dull looking, poorly crafted (physically), least animated art exhibition catalogues ever produced. Though that’s clearly part of its charm as is the case for few other titles of its time—Op loose schroeven (Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 1969), Information (Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1970), Software (Jewish Museum, New York, 1970), and the grandmother of all such books, Lucy Lippard’s Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object—which all exploit the banality of technical, fact laden, and dry but intellectually challenging journals. Lippard’s book was explicitly so, to the degree that its treatise is laid bare on its front cover:
Six Years: The dematerialization of
the art object from 1966 to 1972: a
cross-reference book of information
on some aesthetic boundaries: consist-
ing of a bibliography into which are
inserted fragmented text, art works,
documents, interviews, and symposia,
arranged chronologically and focused
on so-called conceptual or information
or idea art with mentions of such vague-
ly designated areas as minimal, anti-
form, systems, earth, or process art,
occurring now in the Americas, Europe,
England, Australia, and Asia (with
occasional political overtones),
rather than having a stunningly beautiful reproduction of an artwork there. In all frankness, here’s one book you really can judge by its cover. And while the cover of Six Years, as well as the cover of When Attitudes Become Form, are examples of almost timeless good graphic design, they are specifically not coffee table books or the sort of books that I expected this person to possess.
Thinking this—my quandary of the odd book on the shelf—through a bit further I started to consider that the model might actually have, as a percentage of her mind or physique, a similarly offsetting oddity within herself. Perhaps it is a stray hair, a hidden beauty mark, a deformed toe, or a stray thought.
Websites and computer art lack the ability to be classed, shelved, or displayed as books. We’ll never see a model standing before a collection of neatly piled data—which is a real shame. Clearly we will see, however, people staring into their monitors or laptops, thoughtfully looking into the slender window of digital media. In fact we already do, as on the next page of the magazine, the model was looking at a picture of herself on her agency’s website. Just as conceptual art marked the point at which art and information blurred, the web offers a tantalizing location where the spines of two books become merged beyond recognition. More importantly, the web smudges art, advertising, shopping, games, and entertainment into an unending smear of electronic data where, in a real sense, all things are equal. What wins out, or what holds our interest, can be measured, weighted, and revealed in the form of pure entertainment, pure fact, or pure advertising. The concept of “ownership” over anything presented on the web is emotionally, if not intellectually, tenuous, which is to say that, while there may be an acknowledged creator for web projects and the project may reside at a specific site or be owned by a specific individual or entity, information wants to be free.
When the value of ownership of the object is denied—it can’t be hung on the wall, framed, or otherwise displayed—then the currency of the work changes from being a consumable good to being an amorphous, truly dematerialized artwork that can glide between art and commerce. The overwhelming sense of what the web has to offer is akin to the model’s library—filled with many pretty things, but mostly containing hints of artistic value masked by an overwhelming but vacant beauty.
Claude Closky’s web-based projects are engaging, sassy, smart, and slyly dumb.
A simple catalogue of his projects found on www.sittes.net play out over forty unique web-based works that exploit basic web or graphical scenarios, but all perverting expectations with particular wry twists—much in the manner that many of Edward Ruscha’s artist’s books of the 1960s and 1970s have subtle twists. Think of Various Small Fires and Milk (1964), Nine Swimming Pools and a Broken Glass (1968), or Colored People (1972) as obvious examples of Ruscha books with witty, ambiguous punch lines.
Most of the projects seem less like art than components of what might be found in hundreds of websites. Search, for example looks not much unlike Google. Type in a query and rather than get the expected results—a list of indexed sites, a list of information, or some other resulting factual information—Search returns only the simple text that informs the user a specific term, for example, “claude was searched 35 times”. In an odd way Search draws a user to insert terms into the engine in an effort to discover what terms have been searched for the most (Closky?) and what has not been searched for before.
Other projects similarly play out this undermining of expectations. (Today) provides a faux entry to sittes.com with a personalized greeting by a personality’s smiling face, and a text “Hi! I’m” followed by a different celebrity’s mismatched name. “Hi! I’m Ru Paul,” over an image of a smirking Pierce Brosnan, “Welcome to www.sittes.net.” Or Webcam provides a window into a static webcam (a fixed image overwritten with an updated time stamp); Full Flavored features endless pop-ups written in Chinese; Going for the High Score is a window into an endless game of Tetris being played by Closky; and Worldnews mimics a news crawl, but is filled with impossible, hard-to-factor news bites.
web site, http://worldnews.online.fr/, php program
Cloaked within these projects is a heavy dose of disbelief. Perhaps these projects could be construed as what they actually seem to be—a real search engine, a sponsored website with authorized use of celebrity likenesses, a webcam focused on an artist’s studio, etc.—but the belief could only be held for a brief moment until the unreality of these simplified elemental projects becomes evident. Perhaps it takes more than a single viewing, but the clear elegance of the projects reveals itself quickly. None of the projects are overly complex, requiring much “getting-it,” though, at the same time, all of them are clever enough that the play on known structures seeps into your brain alongside television commercials, computer games, and IQ tests.
Television itself is in Closky’s line of sight—more so than film, television is the “gold standard” of what both video work and, more often than not, web projects strive to mimic. “Television” by Closky is disarmingly simple—a web page that looks like television itself (a Sony model perhaps) with 9.999 possible channels, each channel containing a brief large pixel animation ranging from pure animation pulled from video games to what seems to be news animation. Through every channel a low static hum resides. Exploring every one of the 9.999 channels is perhaps possible given enough time and finger strength.
Seeking something familiar, I started clicking in random numbers. A moment of colorful explosions here, a woman dancing there, and so on. Perhaps if I spent the time, I would find an elusive moment when the work folded back into itself, where images became duplicated or overlapped from one channel to another—but I could never find that moment. No doubt I’ll come back to the piece to see if I can find it off-guard and expose that flaw. However, for now, I’ll be content to believe that it must happen, as reading a web project such as this will never be as simple as examining the spines of books on a shelf.
 Harald Szeemann, Live In Your Head : When Attitudes Become Form (Bern, Switzerland: Kunsthalle Bern, 1969). Like many exhibitions of this period noted within this text, the number of people who actually saw the exhibition in person has been dwarfed by the number of people who have seen (and possibly read) the catalogue and who have been influenced by both its content and graphic design.