On Systems & Signatures, with reference to the art of Marc Lafia

I've recently been thinking, talking, and writing about the work of the visual artist, Marc Lafia. I've written about his work before but always about a particular show or set of work (I've written many pieces on this blog; and I even wrote about a piece of his for the Tate Museum; and, if I may be so bold, that's one of my favorite pieces of my own writing).

But this time I've been thinking about his work as a whole. What a funny, strange thing to do! What the hell is a body of work? Why, and how, is it even something as distinct from a series of different things? Is it something that can, or should, be thought? (See Foucault's great essay, What is an Author?)

Some artists have such a pronounced signature, a clear style. Barnett Newman. Mondrian. Pollock. But even these folks resist ready reduction to such a monolithic style. For the most part, we associate their style with the works that became popular, touted by galleries, museums, critics, and perhaps even viewers.

Which is itself interesting. A thing does not exist unto itself (even if every thing is a singularity; a singularity is not solipsistic but is a singular point of inflection within, or as, an assembling event). A thing is bound up with a set of conditions, an entire system of which it is constituent and constitutive. There is the technology (itself an unclear thing) — painting, photography, printing presses of all sorts, digital cameras, cinema, the internet. This overlaps with the materiality of both creation and consumption — paint, canvas, printing press, paper, pen, camera, film, Photoshop as well as screens and frames. Which overlaps with institutions from websites and magazines to galleries and museums and even streets and city walls and all modes of critique. This overlaps with historical and cultural desires and more or less elaborate economies of consumption — financial, aesthetic, and personal. All of these are intertwined in elaborate ways that can be mapped (in different ways!) by people who actually know things (not me; I don't know many things).

We come to associate certain names with certain styles. You hear Pollock, you see the drips (a casual, everyday synesthesia). But that in and of itself is a component of the production of the artist, of the oeuvre, of a commodity that can be circulated both physically and conceptually — bought, sold, displayed, understood. There are two points here (at least!): The work exceeds concept and signature (as Derrida point outs, the signature doesn't guarantee continuity or homogeneity. On the contrary, the very conditions of the signature is that it fails to guarantee a whole.). And the mode of creation, consumption, distribution, and critique inflect the image which in turn inflects the creation, consumption, and critique and so on and so, creating an ever-off kilter feedback loop.

A good critic, it seems to me, becomes a proliferative, generous node within the production of images. This critic helps create signatures that can produce more than drips or color fields, a signature that is open, that doesn't reduce or hinder but multiplies the system to infinity. The signature, then, not as a final flourish of production — we can see the artist uttering done as he signs his name — but as kind of systemic catalyst propelling the new, the signature as a mode of folding and flowing within an autopoietic system.

Lafia's work is unusual in the sense that it doesn't bear a distinctive visual style or even one medium. He makes films (what does that mean??), paintings, drawings, photographs, re-photographs, collages. What makes all this work one thing rather than discrepant things? And why even try to wrap my conceptual, rhetorical, and linguistic arms around it?

For two reasons. One, it's fun. It's fun to make sense of radically discrepant things — not in order to unify them but in order to see what thoughts come of their radical differences. And two: because that is what the art world wants. It craves, yearns, demands something it can package up and sell as commodity. It is a rhetorical exercise, a reckoning of life and a reckoning of audience.

Here is an attempt to say what the whole of Lafia's work is, or at least some of his work (four shows take together): his large prints of Tumblr images, his recent paintings, his digital collages (for lack of a better word), his layering of found sea objects on classical images of art and anatomy.


Lafia takes on — uses, deploys, picks up — what I want to call the regime of an image, the system of its production, distribution, and enjoyment. For Lafia, these things are not exterior to the image; they are constitutive of it. The desire and pleasure —the entire economy of perception — flourishes in the image. Or, rather, is the image.

Systems of production, distribution, and consumption are not linear.  Rather, they are distributed in flows that run in all directions at once which include desire, appetite, environment, capital, the body and its many senses. Things are not byproducts of systems. We need to think of things as nodes within systems rather then end products. And we need to think of systems as emerging from the play of more than engines and materials: systems are made of flows of perception, affect, appetite, desire, water, wind, animals, flora. Systems create themselves (autopoiesis).

The images we see are constitutive of a system, a regime that includes all of these different things and flows. In lafia's images, as in all images, we see the technology, the materials, the desires (of others, of ourselves, of the maker), the modes of distribution, the play of cultural significance, the resonance of personal reckoning, the infusion of money, the space of creation (bigger studios tend to mean bigger art; more money, bigger, higher resolution prints; and so on). The thing made is not the end product but an inflection point within a system that spirals and feeds back.

This is clearly true of capitalist production  as well. It's non-linear. We like to think it goes from idea to creation to purchase to use and we're done! But we all know that's bullshit. Economists refer to externalities, the costs and effects — the systems — which a product takes on outside of this linearity.

Consider any object. There's of course the effects of material gathering and production — emissions and disruptions of ecosystems. But I'll keep it simple here. Just consider how the life of something persists. There is its storage; the temporality, timbre, and tempo of its enjoyment; the systems and engines of its destruction. These bleed into the world around us, into the air and trees, into the skies and minds, into the oceans and winds and souls and beaks and stomachs of fauna, flora, rocks, people, and planets, into our architecture and modes of living (because of the odd placement of my front door, I can't buy certain beds; I can't get comfortable at night; I can't screw when company is here as my existing bed creaks; I get cranky from not getting laid; and on it goes). And I'm not even discussing the flows of capital, the means of production, the laws and regulations and ethos of making.

This computer here, right now, bears its history and production, its different and intersecting economies of desire and capital. We are not dealing with rational systems of creation predicated on efficacy, need, or clear desire. We are dealing with complex systems that flow every which way (although always particular ways; each system enjoys its own flows, its own paths, its own metabolism), driven by accident, momentum, greed, appetite (we still call things pages and desktops; the absence of ports — another vestige of a term — speak to a drive to generate more capital via subscription storage; there are legions of folks who make their living fixing and disposing of computers; and on and on and on).

A thing is not a product of an engine and its system of production. A thing is constitutive and constituent of this system, at once preceding it, driving it, and acting as an inflection point and flow within it. An image isn't done once it hangs on the wall or sits as a Facebook post. That image continues to happen, making other things happen — arousal, erections, nausea, excitement, enlightenment, malaise, insight, laughter, this blog post here. It's all a continuous (even in its discontinuity) system of loops and streams, flows of materials, appetites, desires, modes, and decay. If you look closely at anything, at any image, you can see it all.

Life keeps happening, all matter and memory endlessly distributing themselves into different systems of flows, modes, shapes, and images.

1 comment:

Owen Briggs said...

Hell it's almost eerie - I was writing about this just the other day in (of all things) a draft email to you that I never sent:

"always in putting two films or an oeuvre, a scene together, we amplify some things and dampen others (Harmonies; constructive, destructive interference) - we have to remember that bunchings, groupings, categories are tools to be applied as is useful-sexy-interesting - experimentally - starting with an "I don't know! Let's find out."

Always a metaphoric, Venn-diagram process: "Metaphor invites us to see the similarities and ignore the differences" and, when inverted, to see the differences and ignore the similarities - the difference between "compare" & "contrast".

Never considering a work only a part of something - instead, considering the oeuvre as a new work assembled from various whole works plus the transformative ligamenture of the oeuvre-idea - a resonance machine. A good critic is themselves an artist whose medium is other artists.

The artist is the thing which their art has in common with nothing else, and so the thing to which it's easiest to attribute cause to in an interesting way - the artist considered as the medium through which environments are processed (considered as metabolism if you like) - question: "what stays the same when environments are changed? What doesn't?", "How is it this all came from the same person? What does it suggest about these things that they can emerge from one human being? What does it suggest about them that they took up, processed and outputted these elements of their environment?" Interesting approach: Bunching art by the environment in which it was produced. Example of this: When having conversations, they will often demand of me a new environment, a new approach - inside, outside; walking, sitting - I allow the conversation to arrange me to its best advantage.

Everything in encountering teaches us something about itself and what it encounters - this is empiricism.

Two articles, good when read in conjunction with each other:


and page 96 of this onwards: