I curse. And I curse when I teach. I've been told by a superior of mine, a well-respected and so-called radical, that my cursing "offends the moral and religious beliefs of my students."
That may be the case. But I retort twice:
1. So what? The ideas of my class surely offend their moral and religious beliefs. Is that a bad thing? I was told this by a theorist who certainly proffers beliefs, and a lifestyle, that offends most moral and religious beliefs.
2. And: Why? What is so wrong with profanity?
Every semester, I encounter some student of religious upbringing who tells me that he or she was taught that cursing is for those who lack vocabulary, that it's lazy: I curse because I can't find a better word.
Let's assess this claim. One, it assumes that language is always referential, that its first if not sole task is to mean something, refer to something. But, as I teach, meaning is only one function of words. Words, and communication, are affective; they effect people's emotions. A well placed "fuck," an aptly turned "asshole," can resonate in people's minds, hearts, and bodies and move them, persuade them. Just as ee cummings can move us to tears with nonsense, grammar thrown by the wayside, a well placed "motherfucker" can bring down the house.
In fact, I'd argue that cursing—and cursing well—is pedagogically effective; it wakes the little assholes up—just as you woke up when you read that. Cursing in the classroom affords me the opportunity to seize their attention, if only for a moment.
Now let me address the matter of laziness. First, if laziness is the crime, not cursing, then let us condemn all laziness. Let us condemn the lazy students who don't try to understand what I'm saying; let us condemn the academics who churn out the same, tired, familiar shit article after article, book after book, lecture after lecture. When I teach, I give my fucking heart and soul, all my vitality, to that hour and a half so my students can see, and experience, live thought. What about those lazy professors who deliver the same dry lecture, year after year? If laziness is the accusation, let us please purge the halls of academia of laziness.
And, second, a curse may or may not be lazy but it is by no means sufficient grounds to establish laziness. For cursing well—with the proper timing and the proper placing of syllabic emphasis—is as difficult and demanding as any creative effort. Certainly, there are those who curse lazily just as there are those who pray lazily or preach lazily or live lazily. But let us not condemn cursing just because of a few poor profaners.
I accidentally watched United 93 the other night, the film nominally about the 9/11 hijacked plane in which the passengers re-hijacked the plane, crashing it into a field, killing everyone on board but no one else. I feared it would be some banal tale of heroism, the hero in us all emerging in times of distress. What I discovered is an incredibly complex film about information, knowledge, uncertainty, and action in the age of electronic technology.
The film is narratively strange. There are no central characters; we are not privy to any intimate relationships——no lovers for whom we will weep, no reluctant heroes waiting in the wings. Rather, the camera maintains a peculiar distance, an indifference, as it follows the flow of bodies and information.
For the most part, the film does not focus on the action on the plane: it follows the flow of information that demarcates the event. This begins, more or less, at air traffic control in various cities—Cleveland, NY, and central FAA headquarters. One air traffic controller, watching a blip on a screen and speaking into a headset, gets no response from a plane. Soon, that plane—or rather, that blip—is not following its prescribed trajectory. Soon thereafter there is some mysterious sound from the errant plane's cockpit, a foreign accent, muffled words. No one is quite what's happening; tapes of the exchange are played back repeatedly in an attempt to decipher the voices.
This is how information works in a tele-electronic network: a blip on the screen in Cleveland disappears over NY where air traffic controller search their monitors and then grab binoculars to search the sky. Meanwhile, a feedback loop plays, "We have planes." There is no one person to make sense of the information, to declare, "This is what's happening." Instead, there's a series of phone calls, relays, between different individuals at different air traffic control centers, an office in the Pentagon, and rumors of phone calls from passengers on one of the planes. It's one big insane game of telephone, only there's no original message to distort: there's distortion from the get go.
The scene on the plane mimics the scene on the ground. No one passenger knows what's happening; no one passenger rallies the troops. Everyone pipes in to whomever is next to them; rumors spread; a local zone of activity emerges, based on the premise that the terrorists' bomb is not real. BUT NO ONE KNOWS.
What's impressive about the film is that it passes no judgement. There is no implicit condemnation of those who can't figure out what's happening—EVEN AFTER ONE OF THE TOWERS IS ON FIRE. There is no celebration of the passengers, no triumphant music. The camera moves, unsteady, as if it's simply another node within this network, this network without hierarchy, without certainty, this splay and spray of information.
Of course, there are some cultural prejudices at work. Few believe there's actually a hijacking and, if there is, that anything bad will happen. I kept imagining what the same scene would play like at air traffic control in Tel Aviv.
Which actually raises the question of action without certainty: the Israeli's have a certain faith, a moral certitude that allows them to act without total knowledge. In the US, it seems, we have to find a way to act when we just don't know. In United 93, we see some military officer trying to discover the ROE, the rules of engagement. No one knows what's happening and, even if they did, no one knows what to do.
And yet, as I said, the film is not bleak or judgemental. It simply, or not so simply, maps the flow of information within this cyborg vision, this conglomerate of machinic viewing and human understanding.
What a nice surprise, to find a film that takes up 9/11 free of the familiar pathos that surrounds it. That, alas, gives me hope.
I just watched The New World this morning and was about to dismiss it when I began to realize how odd a film it is. And then I realized that Terrence Malick is all about drift. That's what The New World is: a love story, historical events, but it's all drifts. These are not character who determine their own actions. And yet neither are they absolutely determined by forces that exceed them. Rather, they are at once constituent and constitutive of the forces; they are forces just as they succumb to forces. They make their worlds but not in a direct fashion; everything just sort of slides along. He is forced to go back to England: Is it against his wishes? Perhaps yes, perhaps no. He goes without a fight—his leaving is a non-climax, a fact, tragic maybe but not lingered over, not indulged; he is nudged along, putting their love quite literally adrift on the ocean. She is exiled, it seems, for choosing to love a white man. And yet she doesn't choose; neither does he; they are both at the mercy of love, of lust, pushed this way and that, pushing this way and that.
Of course, at the end, she seems to make a choice. But it is neither climactic nor anticlimactic as the narrative moves laterally away from its apogee, from its narrative consummation. Her one presumably clear choice, then, is precisely what puts the narrative, the film, firmly in the drift. She goes here, she goes there; she goes where she goes, forging a world, being forged. She is on a most unexpected path, making history just as history makes her. This is why the great artist Dan Tierney says that the drift is heroic: you make your way as you slide.
Malick's film never privileges any one moment. There is no dramaturgic rising and falling; things don't build and come to a head. But neither does the film meander. Every moment is poignant, every shot an indulgence, each as exquisite as the others—all the while the ocean's waves lap at their play, all the while, things happen. The Indians want to push the British out to the sea; the British want to move inland. It is not a battle that ever comes to a head but one that moves back and forth. This is drift: a relentless movement without a purpose but always productive, making its way.
America offers the possibility of wondrous play; England offers the possibility of wondrous play. In both places, grass grows and it is the grass that she loves, as her hands run over the blades, ever so gently, the stems of a rhizome, of a multi-centered plant that sprawls.
And yet the film returns to trees. It is in fact the final shot, the camera gazing up through the tall trees, toward the sky. But just as much as the camera and the film move upwards, aspiring for the sky, they move sideways, along the ocean, playing in the leaves of grass.
And this—this move towards a point, its inevitable lateral slide, and the heroic manner in which one stands towards this play—is drift, is Malick's film.
Cujo’s a dog. The blob’s a blob. Freddy is a dream of revenge. What is the ring? The answer is strange: it’s the image. The source of terror, fear, and death is the image. The Ring is an odd and surprising film.
Why, after having viewed the tape, does the phone ring? Because the phone call is an image. The phone rips the voice from the body, leaving a spectral trace, an imitation of the person on the other end: an image. When the phone rings in The Ring, then, it is not exterior to the visual image but is the image still happening. The voice through the receiver and the visuals on the screen are part of the same image. The ring of the phone is the heralding of the image.
The Ring proffers the great paranoia of the image. It looks like us, it talks like us, it seems to have emotions. Which is to say, the image has a life of its own—but without a body. It doesn’t sleep, it doesn’t eat, it can’t converse. In what is perhaps the creepiest scene in the movie, we see the girl-image under observation, never tiring, never shifting demeanor, never responding. Or, for that matter, becoming frenzied. This particular image may seem pissed off but under the grueling conditions of interrogation it doesn’t get more pissed off. The image is not reasonable and therefore is not unreasonable. An image, it just keeps repeating itself, yielding more images, as if from nowhere, from the play of light and dark that it is.
I can see why a parent might think such a child unruly. How can one discipline an image when it won’t listen to reason, when it just keeps on repeating itself? Cut off its supply of light, send it somewhere its sound can’t be heard: drop it down a deep well and cover that well up. Think of the posters for the movie—a ring of darkness, light just making its way through. This is the horror, light emerging from darkness: the birth of the image.
This girl-image was not born of woman. But then where did it come from? It wasn’t recorded; it is not a memory or record but is itself a living force. No, it was not recorded: it was always already born, the image of the family, of mommy-daddy-baby. In this nightmare, this paranoia, this cliché-image has only one directive: not watch me, not disseminate me but copy me, copy me over and over and over again without changing a thing.
But the image is not so easily bent to the cliché needs of the bourgeois family, the triangulation of mommy-daddy-baby. Look at the video in the film: it is avant-garde cinema. It moves across various planes, horizontal and vertical. There is no triangle here; Oedipus has exploded (pace Lafia). There is no story, no transparent metaphors. In fact, these images are dense, opaque, heavy with shadow and their insistent refusal to slip into a palatable narrative.
The film hence presents two fears, two kinds of horror, the double genitive: it is both the horror we experience of the image and the image's horror of experiencing us. There is our fear of the image, of its refusal to bend to story; so lifelike yet utterly devoid of human life, the image makes a most horrific servant and an even more horrific master. And then there is the image’s fear of the narrative, of the cliché that would break it, that make it bend to clear geometric shapes. Perhaps that's why it is so angry.
With Bound and The Matrix, the Wachowskis proffer two modes of reckoning cinema, and perhaps all art and maybe even all identity: stealing and poaching.
The Matrix is a product of unabashed thievery, a pastiche of visual history, copping innumerable tropes from everything from the spaghetti western to video games. The Wachowskis take whatever they need to invent their universe, chewing up inherited images with abandon. This mastication is not interpretation. The Matrix is not a take on the video game, Street Fighter; it doesn’t interpret The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly; we don’t view the work of Sergio Leone differently after seeing the movie. This is not homage to Katheryn Bigelow’s Point Break, even if she taught us that Keanu can run and the camera can follow—closely. No, The Matrix is not homage; it is not a deferential or humble film. It is an entirely new beast born from multiple and disparate parents—a bastard hybrid, if you will. And a virile one: this mule can foal (pace WS Burroughs).
This is filmmaking as all-consuming appetite: I’ll take that and that and that, thanks very much. Images are ripped and riffed, a shameless thievery. This is mixing at the limit, the strategy of MixMaster Mike and Christian Marclay, turning the found into sound, forging one’s own territory from the fodder of others. Thievery is beyond the pale of reference just as it is beyond the reach of différance; this intertextuality does not undermine the thief. On the contrary, the thief makes the things of the world so much his own that the terms of propriety shift; the deed is passed as a new world is forged. This is a repetition without memory, a consumption so thorough that while we can perhaps see traces of former identities we can by no means say that these images belong to anyone else, that they belong anywhere else than right there.
This is in fact the very plot of the movie. The Matrix is not, as it may seem, about questioning the line between lived and virtual reality. On the contrary, the film secures the line that separates dream from reality, the virtual from the real. We believe Morpheus; we believe that there is a difference between the real and the virtual and we want to make this distinction firm again. It is not until the second film in the series that we are introduced to radical doubt as Morpheus shifts from truth-teller to fanatic, Neo’s powers work against (or is it with?) the machines and even the Oracle herself becomes a questionable source. In the second film, we are sure of nothing.
But in the first film, we witness a story of theft just as we watch a theft in motion (that is to say, the film itself). The machines steal the electricity of the humans; the humans steal the machines’ “souls” as they render machines useful, always serving human ends. Competing thieves, then, each trying to steal the other, to consume the other, to turn the other’s mode into one’s own. Isn’t this precisely what the Wachowskis do—take the production of others and put it shamelessly, gleefully, to the production of themselves? Is film machine or human? Perhaps, the Wachowskis tell us, film is the very place where man and machine meet so as to mutually and productively steal from each other: a symbiotic theft forging a new being, a cinebeing.
If The Matrix is an exercise in thievery, Bound, the Wachowskis' first feature film, is an exercise in poaching. Unlike The Matrix which is sui generis, Bound is a genre film, a rendering of noir. Here, rather than stealing images, the Wachowskis enter the image economy of an existing genre, making do from within an existing space. For Michel de Certeau, to poach is to create one’s territory within the territory of another not by stealing but by operating, by doing, by moving. Hence, the Wachowskis situate the film at the precise juncture of the economy’s conduits, the passages along which the images circulate.
As the film poaches on noir’s familiar images—desire, greed, crime, the underworld—, the camera follows the diverse paths of their circulation: down pipes, through Doppler’s rippling effect on toilet water, through walls inflected with prejudice and assumption, carried along vibration, obscured by habit. The plot turns on the ability or inability to read these signs so as to make something happen—to get rich, to survive, to love. Caesar, the mobster, is utterly oblivious to his girlfriend’s lesbianism (until it is too late); after all, she’s so feminine. Hence the ex-con tomboy lesbian, Corky, also mis-reads Violet, the moll. After all, she’s so feminine.
But Violet, like the film itself, is a poacher, inhabiting the skin of the mobster moll in order to make her own way. She even whores, a sign that, to Corky, confirms Violet’s heterosexuality. But as de Certeau claims, poaching is the strategy of those without property, of the conquered, those stripped of space of their own place. Poachers appear to be acting in a familiar way; they exhibit all the “right” signs, like the worker who sits at his computer, ever dutiful, all the while writing his novel. Poachers make use of the signs of others but in their own way, to their own ends, for their own pleasure. Violet sleeps with men as a way of making money in order to one day slip away and forge her own property. In the meantime, she operates on the territory of the known, exhibiting all the right signs even as she creates her own world from within the world of others. But it is a world that only exists in the going, in the decisions; Violet cannot make a world that is strictly speaking her own. So she makes her way through the territory of others, poaching on their signs as she pleasures herself.
Bound, like Violet, poaches on the territory of the known, on the familiar signs of noir. The film crawls into noir and kicks around with a certain perverse delight, engaging the known signs only to send them astray (but not too far; take a sign too far astray from its home and you become a thief), extending noir’s images according to its own sapphic appetite, This is quite different from The Matrix which consumes images with another kind of delight, the delight of making the world one’s own, of no longer having to tread on someone else’s territory: the delight of stealing.
Spatial orientation in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (and the life aquatic) comes from what Deleuze and Guattari call a “chancy formation of a domain.” Team Zissou is a territorializing assemblage that actively seeks chance. With red hats, speedos, and Glocks strapped to their legs, they announce themselves—post their placards, Deleuze and Guattari would say. This territory is not grounded in the known—none of them are experts. The public may keep looking for the brains behind the operation but this brain is a multiplicity, a network of amateurs, ever-moving, anchoring temporarily here and there. But the Team never looks very comfortable on land. This territory is aquatic: it drifts with the tides, currents, with the multiple flows of events—pirates, zebra sharks, pilfering as the need arises, riding the waves.
The territory opens itself to the risks of its own dissolution, from within as well as from without. The cash may dry up, the audience may turn away, mutiny lurks. Steve Zissou has trouble maintaining his own poise amidst these drifts. But what is it that threatens Team Zissou? Why has the money dried up and the audience turned away? What is it that Steve has presumably lost? It’s that he is not within an eddy of spectacular events. One great risk of a territory unmoored, of a territory fed by chance, is that sometimes not very much happens. As Steve declares, running to the ship, "Nobody knows what's gonna happen and then we film it. That's the whole concept." Only a certain chaos-–and not any chaos–can keep this territory from dissolving.
The film is itself a territorializing operation that occurs at the site of the image. This image is not anchored to a storyline, to characters, to anything outside what we see and feel. The film opens on a stage but not any stage. It’s a baroque event ripe with the signs of a certain culture: we should be seeing an opera. But the film rolls, framed by the velvet folds of the curtain and, lo and behold, we see images that should be in our living rooms, running on PBS—an educational film. This is indeed an education, an introduction to new categories, new ways of going: this is an education in aqueous viewing. Here, the distinction between art and science gives way. This is a gay science, where discovery and presentation walk hand in hand. Every time Team Zissou dives and discovers, we next see them in the cutting room of the on-board studio. Knowledge and the reel are inseparable in this watery world. It's all reel and the reel is drifting.
The image remains unmoored as we leave the screening within our screening and are introduced to the various characters. Rather than encountering signs that announce who everyone is—the zany one, the smart one, the mean one—we learn only as much as the image will tell. Who are these people? How do they relate to each other? Their relations are the images. Steve tells us that Hennessey is his nemesis. But his delivery is so deadpan that no tension is created, that the very status of “nemesis” is up for grabs. A relationship exists but it will not follow any familiar trajectory. In their last exchange, Hennessey pulls Steve aside after learning that Steve stole his equipment. We assume he’ll be angry. But that’s not what transpires: he pulls Steve aside, commiserates, hugs him. Not one word uttered in this movie can be predicted. Relationships are murky, fuzzy. They emerge at the site of the image; we see the relations. The backstory will not suffice. There are no types as even the Bond Company Stooge sticks his neck out, eluding the one type the film flaunts.
The film opens on a stage and never leaves it. Whatever held the distinction between acting and reality, between the artificial and the real, has given way—if there ever was such a distinction. There is no on-camera and off-camera; the camera is always rolling just as the projector’s always playing. The ship exists as much on a set as it does on the water. When Steve and his faux-son, Ned, talk for the first time, they step towards the camera and as they talk the image bobs up and down with the swell of the waves. When they crash, blood gets on the lens. The camera does not capture what happens; it’s always on. The film is the life aquatic, a liquid life where orientation and fixed distinctions are hard to come by. There’s no outside the frame. And what makes orientation even harder is that, like Steve, we can’t breathe underwater—however much we’d like to.
There is a thread of accusation that Team Zissou fakes their stunts. But neither Steve Zissou nor the film itself is able to take the accusation seriously. The one so-called real thing—the natural underwater life—is already fake, and conspicuously so! The very question of what’s real and what’s artificial vanishes in an impossibly swift woosh, a vanishing so fast it happens before we come to it. When the journalist provokes Steve by suggesting that Steve killed his friend, Estaban, it’s in order to get a picture!
It’s all a current of images. Father and son are not linked by blood or by love but by the image. What does Ned know of Steve? Only his image. And what of Ned and his sincerity? His accent and his outfit are straight out of Gone with the Wind: his impossibly Southern aristocrat is as real as the fish in the film. It’s not that he fakes his accent; it’s that there’s no real. He is always already an image.
The film flirts with story—revenge, father-son, husband-wife, love story, the rise of a fallen star. But none of these will suffice. It's as if the narrative trajectories can't find their legs in this liquid world and, as the water permeates, as the tides rise and fall, the certain direction of the storylines is sent astray. Every narrative track drifts: Ned is not Steve’s son and dies anyway, ending any love story that may also have been brewing; the shark is never killed or even engaged—it’s viewed. And while Steve’s star does rise again, we know he is an adventurer and he is just as likely to fall as he is to rise. In the life aquatic, what do such orientations as up and down even mean? All narrative possibilities are adrift, unmoored from any prescribed path. As Steve says at the film’s close, “This is an adventure.” The film is the forging of propriety on the fly, emerging at the site of the image itself then giving way to something else: a flow. The relationships happen as the images happen. Narrative is neither subverted nor determinative; it is a possibility amongst possibilities, a trajectory that may emerge but as the tide rises and falls and currents shift all trajectories founder, meander, find themselves somewhere new.
There are no fathers here. As Zissou tells Ned, "I hate fathers and I never want to be one." We never see or hear the father of Jane Winslett-Richardson’s child-to-be. In fact, she proclaims that she needs to find a baby for this father. When Klaus Daimler tells Steve that he’s always thought of him as a father, Steve tells Klaus he’s always thought of him as a brother. Anyway, Steve shoots blanks—probably from living over half his life under water! The life aquatic will not allow for a patriarchy, even with a man at the helm. When the jaguar shark is finally found and Steve comes running into the room to rile the troops, no one even bats an eye. The film never comes to a point, to a phallocentric climax. It can’t: there's no firm ground on which to stand. The image is unmoored and we're right on the edge, not knowing what comes next. This life is adrift.
David Shrigley does not make monumental art. He scribbles little black line doodles while scrawling the doodle’s linguistic equivalent, cross-outs and all. His artistic production is not a matter of punctuated epiphanies, great works emerging now and then from the well of his genius. In fact, one might ask of Shrigley: where does a work begin and end?
The world of art has certainly seen the series, a production that expresses itself over several works, maybe even many works. And there are no doubt plenty of examples of work that have surprising physical and temporal borders. Think of Yoko Ono asking the audience to meet again years later to reconstitute an object it’s just disassembled.
Neither of these conditions qualify or explain Shrigley’s work. His production is not serial per se in that we cannot isolate unique trajectories stipulated by theme or motif, conceptual or aesthetic. Or, if we could, the task would be absurd at best and uninteresting at worst. This is not to say this his work is not of an ilk. On the contrary, his work is so much of an ilk that it forms neither discrete objects nor discrete series. His work is what we might call an open whole, a self-forging series; each piece is the body of the work, much as everything a person says is part and parcel of that person, extends the limits of that person.
A conspicuous component of Shrigley’s work is that it’s always talking, saying something. Now, perhaps we can say that all art is saying something, that even a Rothko is articulate. And, yes, this is true. But Shrigley’s art speaks in a different register, a surprising register for a work of art: it speaks like a person standing next to you might speak. His work not only has character; his work is character. It behaves like a person behaves; we laugh or pooh-pooh or snicker as we would if this were a person. Which is to say, we don’t listen to this work as though it were art, at least not initially, at least not solely. We may say: “O, that Shrigley! I love (or hate) his irreverence.” But that is an engagement that happens after the work and, perhaps, despite the work. We hear his work first and foremost as we hear a person. And yet this person is not Shrigley; this person is the work. Which is to say, this person is not a person at all.
It is certainly not Shrigley, then, who’s irreverent. On the contrary, Shrigley is like Dr. Frankenstein: he’s created a new life, a life born of line and paper and nothing else. His work is this strange adolescent, perhaps moronic, life of black lines. But it is a life—an odd life, yes, a life without a body, a life that is nothing but its expression. Shrigley has created a character utterly devoid of flesh. Maybe that’s why this character, like Frankenstein’s monster, is rather socially ill suited.
The work stays in character. It never points to a person who lurks behind or within or next to the work; Shrigley never peers around the back of the paper to wink or look at us knowingly. Shrigley’s work is not expressive; as viewers, we are not witness to the wealth of the artist’s sentiment or even to his worldview. This is not DuChampian prank-cum-commentary. Nor is it the punk politics of, say, the Situationists or jodi.org. In fact, Shrigley is nowhere to be found in his art. Shrigley puts forth a character, a character without a body other than the art itself. This work is pure character, severed from the biological, from the flesh as well as from the soul. All we’re left with is expression, an expression that does not express anything other than itself, a character and only a character—a most peculiar creation.
Of course, when we read books we seem to witness bodies without bodies, characters without flesh. And yet these characters who we only see and know through their words still have bodies, bodies that lurk before, above, behind, or after the text. The characters we hear talking and see doing things maintain their bodies even if we’re only privy to words. One way to say this is that literature tends to express life rather than being pure expression. In most literature, we are speaking to someone on the other side of the words. We read the book as a portal that opens onto real life, even if that real life is nothing but the feelings and worldview of the author.
There are exceptions. In Borges, for instance, or Clarice Lispector’s Agua Viva and perhaps in Nabokov’s Ada and Lolita and Pale Fire. In these all-too-rare examples (there are no doubt many, many more but still, given the number of books, the number remains quite small), the language does not give way to a real body: all we have is the text, text so rich and complex and ripe with nuance and tics and smell that the text itself becomes the character. Lolita is not a person in the world; she is made of words, of nothing but words, a creature of language and only of language. She may be Nabokov’s creation but she does not express Nabokov’s feelings. Nor is she a concept or a symbol. She is an affect woven of words. (This is why any attempt to visualize her in a film fails; she is not made of light but of language.)
Shrigley’s work, like Lolita, is a character without biology. His work does not give way to anything but itself; it will not become the flesh of a person, not even the flesh of Shrigley. Nor will it ever become a concept or enunciation of universal human experience: it is not expressive of an experience. Rather, it is expression and nothing but expression. With a distinctly adolescent stubbornness, it persists where it is. No matter how many times you ask it, it will not get down off that paper.
And what’s even stranger than this character without a body who keeps talking is that it’s talking to someone—but not to the viewer. It may at times seem like it’s speaking to us. But any sense of direct address is readily dispelled as we’re told we haven’t paid a phone bill or something to that effect. While we stand in front of this work, it speaks right over our shoulder, to someone who is at once always absent and always present.
It is an odd experience to look at art that is not looking at, or even talking to, you. I think of Velasquez’s Las Meninas. When we first approach it, it seems as though we are its vanishing point as the painter peeks from behind his canvas to survey us. And then, in the same instant, we see the mirror and in it the reflection of the king and queen, sitting precisely where we’re standing. Our position as viewer shifts from being the object of the painting’s gaze to being absolutely excluded. What makes this experience so peculiar is that it is not temporal; these two positions are not sequential, even if our realization of them is. What’s so strange is that both vanishing points exist at the same time while remaining thoroughly disjunctive. It is quite uncanny.
Shrigley’s work is of another order all together. We will never have been included. Nor is there any implicit comment on the viewing of art, as Velasquez’s work seems to offer. We are not voyeurs for that would suggest a mode of our inclusion as well as a desired privacy by the work; neither happens here. In Shrigley’s work, what we get is much stranger: a conversation between disembodied characters, a conversation that goes right over our heads (or next to them or below them), a conversation without conversers: the conversing and nothing but the conversing.
Shrigley’s work casts quite a peculiar relationship between artist, art, and viewer. For Shrigley, art will never have been a question of the artist expressing himself. Rather than the artist turning inward in order to create, this artist looks nowhere but outward. This art is not an excavation put an extroversion, a reaching to see what will come, to see what might happen, to see what might be born. This is not an attempt to use art as a vehicle of expression, this is not a conduit between artist and viewer. We do not learn anything about Shrigley per se because he’s not telling us anything about himself. The artwork is not the communion of artist and viewer.
In fact, neither artist nor viewer can be found at the site of the art. When we come to it, we find a life already in progress, a life that does not speak to us, a life that makes no effort to communicate directly with us and yet is not withdrawn, solipsistic, introverted. We don’t identify with this character as in, “Oh, how true! That’s just like I am or I was or I want to be.” This character is, as they say, an other. We are always on the outside of this work, an outside that does not allow for a looking in because there’s no in in there. This is expression, always on the outside, happening with or without us.
This is not to say we cannot enjoy it. I, for one, love this work. Our enjoyment, however, stems not from consumption and its attending realizations but from a non-voyeuristic witnessing. This work does not reverberate with the resonance of truth, whether it’s the truth of life or the truth of the art world. And, as we’ve said, this is not irreverent art, as if Shrigley were challenging the status of art or flipping the bird to the art world. Nor is it beautiful, even if at times it is truly beautiful—this character is full of surprises. But this work does not work, if you will, based in its beauty. It works by constantly working, just as we live by constantly living.
Shrigley’s work is pure expression. It exists in and of the expression and nowhere else. Hence, when we open a Shrigley book, we don’t see records of the art that exists elsewhere. These are not monographs. In fact, it is impossible to create a monograph of his work: how can you capture an expression without in turn becoming an expression? That is to say, as the work is expression, every expression of his work is his work; any attempt to make a monograph necessarily becomes the work working. This is why his web site (www.davidshrigley.com), a veritable expressive explosion, overflows with work—because it is the work. His work does not need a gallery, a museum, a wall; it happens in its expression, wherever and whenever that takes place.
But this is not Keith Haring’s graffiti-art on-the-fly, happening wherever it happens. Haring’s familiar dancing figures have character but they are not a character. This is what makes Shrigley’s work so strange: all these different pieces conspire, work together, to forge a more or less coherent whole. And this whole does not behave as those other artistic wholes behave—this is not just a style or an oeuvre (even if it is both of those as well): it is a character, a life without a body, a life that exists in its expression, in its conversation with someone who’s not you.
What, then, are the limits of Shrigley’s work? They are the limits of a life. Each piece is distinct, sure, but each piece is this strange character happening, on the wall, on the web, in the book, in a slide show in a classroom. Perhaps, then, I was wrong to say that his work is not monumental. In fact, this may be the most monumental art of all: life freed from the flesh.
Marshall McLuhan tells us that technology is an extension of the body. But could it be the other way around? Look at Andreas Gursky’s photographs. How is it precisely these images see? This is not a vantage point anyone could enjoy. And we’re not just referring to the spatial perspective, a perspective that is strange enough, an impossible perspective, a perspective that could only come from somewhere else—from a UFO, perhaps. We’re referring to how these images see, how they gather up the world. What kind of seeing is this?
Everything is in equal focus. There is no center, no place that is distinguished from any other place. There is no hierarchy. Which is to say, there are no categories, there is no knowing, not even a concept. Nothing is an example of anything else such as, say, a concert or mountain or swimming pool. Gursky’s images are stupid. The human and the natural are splayed along a common plane, as if these eyes—or at least this seeing—could not distinguish between human flesh and a rock. When this seeing takes up a concert or a mountain or a soccer field or a swimming pool, it can’t distinguish between people, trees, lines in the terrain. Everything that enters the visual is just another mark, an inflection of space, a modulation of light. Even a shelf of Prada shoes is stripped of its cultural or iconic or referential currency. When the title utters, “Prada,” it’s not a declaration or dead pan commentary but an almost child-like babble: Prada.
These images do not come from human eyes, from eyes enmeshed in the world. There are no referents; these are not records or monuments (even if the images are monumental). They are not expressive of anything; they do not proffer commentary on the contemporary or the dehumanization of life. Nothing has been captured; no experience has been recorded. These images are so thoroughly stupid that the human, like all other categories, never coheres, never assumes categorical distinction. No, these are not human eyes that see.
Nor are they divine. After all, God is omniscient; He certainly knows the difference between a human and a rock. It’s not even the view from Olympus for while Zeus may not be omniscient, he certainly dabbles in human affairs enough to know what’s what. This seeing comes from an impossible place; these eyes are neither human nor divine. They are alien eyes.
This is not an extension of our eyes but a fundamentally different way of viewing. This is an invitation to the strange. This is what makes Gursky’s photographs so foreboding: when we look at them, we are not witnessing an extension of our own eyes. Nor are we looking at anything per se; these images do not proffer objects. When we look at a Gursky photograph we are not seeing things but seeing seeing, a kind of looking. Or rather, we see a seeing and hence see as this seeing does. To view Gursky’s images is to see as an alien; to view Gurksy’s images is to become alien.
Gursky’s images are not really photographs in that they are not images taken by someone, somewhere. Gursky does not capture what he sees. On the other hand, maybe these are the only photographs in that they see as the camera sees—indifferently, stupidly, everything in focus. Gursky offers us camera-vision, utterly indifferent, without categorical distinctions other than the modulation of the visible. Gursky rids his art of the human, takes himself out of the picture, as it were, and lets the camera do the seeing, photographs without photography, without a photographer. This is why his images share such an affiliation with surveillance photos, photos without a photographer, without consideration, an anonymous visual sweep. (One may object that these images have been created—modified—by computer software and that, therefore, they are not camera-views. But that is to assume that the camera begins and ends with the lens. Photoshop does not come after the image; it is the camera still working.) As one views Gursky’s images, then, one sees as a camera; one becomes a camera. Technology is no longer an extension of the body; the body becomes an extension of the technology.
Is alien-vision the same as camera-vision? Clearly not: while the camera is stupid, the alien may enjoy a different kind of thinking, an unrecognizable thinking, an organization of time and space and knowledge that eludes our perception, like the “certain Chinese encyclopedia” that Borges stumbles on. That is, whereas the camera doesn’t categorize at all, the alien enjoys impossible categorizations. And yet the alien and the camera share a non-human mode of seeing. To see as a camera sees, just as to see as an alien sees, is no longer to see as a human: it is to become something else.