Though I missed the inaugural show at Galerie Kenilworth, I was quite pleased to make it to their second exhibition, The Shape of Things to Come. The gallery itself is a cool story. Amy Brengel owns the building, lives in the flat above, and had Village Bazaar – selling interesting multicultural jewelry and gifts – in the space below for years. But, with the East Side (my neighborhood!) changing, “growing up a bit,” she decided that it might be time to fill it with an exhibition space. And Brengel signed on none other than Jessica Steeber to manage it. A veteran of the art world (who gave me my first ever Milwaukee exhibition!), Jessica was half of the Armoury Gallery / Fine Line Magazine team (with Cassandra Smith) in the late 2000s and early 20-teens, and the main reason I wanted to make it out tonight – and I’m glad I did.
The Shape of Things to Come is a beautiful exploration of, well, matter – and why it matters. It is a minimalist show, to be sure, in that it invokes non-representational shapes (Haas, below), and textures (Ogpenorth, above), and materials (Nelson), asking us to focus in on in how we perceive (and thus act), when there are no recognizable “signs” to “read.” This exhibition has us, rather, think-with process, and relation, and bodies in space (both human and non-human).
But, The Shape of Things to Come is also a more contemporary revisiting of Minimalism, in that it is not only about phenomenology – a human perception or experience. Here, shelves, or concrete, or wood, for example, are themselves uncomfortable. They are twinned yet their own. They are mean or light, funny or jarring; they tell their own stories, whether or not we are listening.
What is that sphere thinking? Why is that shelf holding on? Where are those fibers going? Idle, weird, rhetorical questions, maybe… but also worth asking. What does our world want, and are we doing right by it?
My two favorite pieces on show are both called Untitled (Diptych), and by Keith Nelson. Gray concrete and gray concrete. Natural, shellacked wood and natural, shellacked wood. Each half is, described that way, identical. But even the image above shows how different the twins are. Minor shifts in color and shape, in space and shadow, are… annoyingly jarring. A diptych is always meant to be inherently in tension. I feel this tension more and more, the more time I spend staring at how off-kilter, and unshapely, and simply distracting these “same-things” are in their difference.
What else can concrete and earth, wood and trees, tell us in their sameness and difference? It is worth sincere consideration.
Galerie Kenilworth is at 2201 N Farwell Ave Milwaukee, and open Tuesday – Friday 3 – 7pm, Saturdays 12 – 4pm. The Shape of Things to Come is on show until the new year.
This blog post is a sketch – something I will occasionally do about my own work, or with others. It will always be a thinking-with of new materials and ideas, with this one coming out of the writing of my forthcoming second book (Ecological Aesthetics: artful tactics for humans, nature, and politics), chats with colleagues and peers and specialists, playing with media objects, proposing a fellowship (I didn’t get), and more. I welcome feedback! I imagine this particular proposal being a years- and perhaps decades-long project, with this first exhibition being produced over the next two or so years… The images are very recent experiments!
THE WORLD AFTER: US SPECULATIVE MEDIA SCULPTURE
What will Digital Media do, after us?
The World After Us will be a new series of media sculptures that materially speculate on what our devices – phones and tablets, batteries and displays, etc – might become, over thousands or millions of years. Through research, experimentation, and craft, I will try (and likely fail) to turn phones into crude oil, coal, or other fossil fuels – and put the results on exhibit, in beakers and tubes. I will attempt to mimic geological time, as pressure and heat – through chemical interactions or specialized machinery – on laptops and tablets, then display where that potential lies, as petrified-like LCDs or mangled post-exploded batteries, on pedestals in a gallery. I hope to turn “dead media” computers into efficient planters for edible goods, food for mold, or seeds of their own growth – and show both those experiments, and their results, as videos and sculptural forms. I will also turn ground phones into usable supplies, for example ink and paper, and put them to use in these new forms. The final outcome will be an internationally exhibited body of work, and catalog. It is impossible for humans to truly fathom our planet on an Earth scale, or conversely from the perspective of bacteria. But we can feel such things, through art and storytelling – making our aesthetic encounters both conceptually and ethically vital toward new futures. At stake, whether in our everyday interactions or on a larger scale, are the (digital) relationships between humans and the natural world on the one hand, between politics and commerce on the other.
The World After Us will be a traveling exhibition and catalog, beginning in Milwaukee, and shown in several other spaces internationally. It asks:
What will digital media be and do, after us?
What will my laptop, or phone, look like in a million years?
How will our devices weather over time?
Can we artificially weather our devices, to sense and feel this?
These are not rhetorical questions. But they are more speculative than they are able to be answered directly and correctly. And with this research project, I will speculate and experiment, wonder and wander, with our materials. I will (safely) mix phones in blenders, press laptops under steamrollers, break down tablets with borax. I will soak iPads in chlorine and sludge, cook iPhones like cakes, inject the Apple Watch with spores and mold. Torch, grind, freeze, flower. Highlight, amplify, ironize, intervene. Resiutate, speculate, wonder, and propose.
Can we use biofuel processes or hydrothermal liquefaction to turn a phone into fuel?
How might a laptop make the most efficient planter, or bed for life?
What would a tablet made of carbon, instead of plastic, be and do?
What does a joule feel like?
Geological time and Earth size, decomposition and regrowth: these are concepts we can comprehend rationally, but they are impossible to truly fathom. I propose that we can feel such things, aesthetically and thus ethically, if we substantiate future potential, artfully, in objects and installations. My experimental project will do precisely this. It will take the form of between eight and 15 objects or installations that might be: beakers of coal- or oil-like matter labelled with the device they once were (ie iPhone 7); laptops growing spores and mold, propagating life in new and different ways; participatory machines that take our energy and convert it into media; new designs for carbon-based phones, which will more easily decompose over time; prints made entirely of media devices: image, ink, paper, etc… These objects will be accompanied by the stories and experiments that produced them (text, image, video), as well as an essay which mediates the research as a whole.
Some relevant reading (not including my not-yet-released book!):
Disclosure: South African-born and New York-based artist Sean Slemon is a long-time friend. That relationship grew precisely out of a mutual respect for each other’s work, and interesting conversation about cultural difference, politics, and life. When we met, he was a South African about to move to New York with his Jewish-American wife, while I was a New York Jew living in South Africa. And, bluntly: I think he and his work are brilliant.
As part of our work-friendship, I’ve had the pleasure of writing on, and around, Sean’s work for something like 15 years. I’ve penned a press release, a review, an academic essay, and two catalog essays, alongside his practice, which has continuously gained depth. There’s something to be said for this. While artists often think they need several voices across catalogs (etc) reflecting on their work (and I’ve certainly gained a great deal from the writings and thoughts of many others telling me what my work is doing, for them), there is also much to be gained from a lengthy engagement, from someone who has taken that journey with you.
Artists should have long-term conversations with writers, or theorists, or other artists, invested in their work. (More on this idea in a post in the next month or two, when I plan to preview a forthcoming book by philosopher Brian Massumi.)
I’m currently writing the catalog essay for Sean’s solo exhibition, Confluence Tree, which opens in Minnesota next month. And I’m also finishing up a section on his work, Goods for Me (also a bit on Public Property, above),for my forthcoming book. Here I’d like to briefly shine a light on his Paduak (Pterocarpus Soyaxi), and a few of the ideas I borrow from mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead to think-with Sean in those other texts.
A paduak is a West African species of tree. Nowadays farmed, they grow about 160 feet tall, create bright red lumber, and get darker with age. Here Slemon extruded a two-dimensional drawing of a paduak into a sculpture, and then he simply made a paduak tree, at paduak scale, out of paduak wood. It’s fascinating to hear him talk about this memorial and celebration, this ludic attempt to turn a tree back into what it once was. Paduak is an especially hard wood, like nothing Slemon has ever worked with; he went through many saw blades for the show, had to cut it as if he were working with steel. It was a hard-won piece of art, where, in the end, the material itself speaks as loudly as Slemon’s intent with it, giving both him and “tree” some agency in that final piece.
Despite that Paduak will never again be a paduak, it re-members. That is, it embodies again. It remembers what it was, just as it is substantiated into what Slemon made it. Substantiated: given meaning like a substantiated argument, but also made into a material, and substantial, form. In this case, the two meanings are one and the same.
As viewers we have an immediately felt experience – what Alfred North Whitehead calls “self-enjoyment” (Modes of Thought 1968: 150) – which also has us “concern” ourselves with the before and after, with the outside that both made for this occasion of experience, and where, with our help, it might be heading afterwards (1968: 167). Film Scholar Steven Shaviro explains that Whitehead’s self-enjoyment “happens pre-reflexively in the moment itself. I enjoy my life as I am living it; my enjoyment of the very experience of living is precisely what it means to be alive” (in Beyond Metaphysics? 2010: 249). Self-enjoyment and life are processual – that is, ongoing rather than static – but are autonomous and individual events, each one “my” self-contained experience.
And while self-enjoyment is part of every isolated occurrence or experience, concern is for and with the things we experience – our outsides, and their befores and afters. Concern is “an involuntary experience of being affected by others. It opens me, in spite of myself, to the outside.” Concern thus “compromises my autonomy, leading me towards something beyond myself.” Concern is, Whitehead asserts, concern “with the universe” (1968: 167). It implies, Shaviro explains further, “a weight upon the spirit. When something concerns me, I cannot ignore it or walk away from it. It presses upon my being and compels me to respond” (2010: 249). Concern is always for and with things external to myself, with the many pasts in and of the world around me (which lead to this present moment of transition), and with the potential futures I may help to make.
Slemon draws and draws out a concern for matter and things, life and time.
While many painters, printmakers, and illustrators “think with ink,” sketch to produce new ideas, Slemon does so with his own matters of concern, as a sculptor. Wood with wood, each informing the other. In-form: in the process of being formed.
The artist recently told me, recalling his growing up in South Africa, “I come from a place where social equality and its very imbalance are always in the spotlight.” And he does not see this concern as distinct from that of the Paduak. When Sean Slemon is concerned with trees, he is also concerned with himself, with past and future, with resources, agency, and equality, with what they were, could have been, and still might be; he is concerned with how worlds and lives, things and selves, together practice their unfolding. Our experience of his art is an intensification, he says, of “ideas, people, parts of the country, attitudes, and points of view.”
Overall, in a long and beautiful body of work, Slemon re-places and re-presents different concepts of time and relation, people and peoples, matter and what matters. How does the Earth tell time? That tree show care? This nation flourish? We, as people, move forward? We are like children trying to sense and make sense of things we can never fully understand.
And yet, we can wonder at, and concern ourselves with, consequence and potential, style and aesthetics, compassion and beauty, so as to aim towards better futures.