Cues From Outside

By January 09, 2015

Now having helped launch Pair Shaped, and looking to focus on the various ways our contributors respond to one another through their work, I find myself investigating the methodologies and practices of other established artists. Specifically, how can preexisting methods apply to the task of sustaining a multidisciplinary output between two or more collaborators over the span of several series entries? Do previously applied techniques remain relevant in the face of newer explorations of medium? These questions will undoubtedly yield interesting results as time goes on, and the art and writing populating our site runs the gamut in terms of type, form and character. With that said, to help begin thinking about some of these questions, it is useful to consider how artists operating in last few decades have cultivated and, in some cases, reimagined a creative process in order to enhance their overall practice. Two artists in particular, Jennifer Steinkamp and Francis Alÿs, come to mind as showing how the introduction of outside stimuli into one’s practice can carry forward a given project into interesting and meaningful territory.

What if the supposedly set structures around you became reciprocal agents of transformation? Or, as Peter Lunenfeld wrote of Jennifer Steinkamp’s work in Snap to Grid, “[Her] computer-generated installations challenge our prejudices that architecture is stable while the projected image is not.” Steinkamp’s hybridized visual/architectural spaces utilize the video medium to almost seamlessly integrate the projected image with the physical. And, while the physical subjects include humans, it is really the public interior spaces that give play to Steinkamp’s visuals as both venue for the exhibition and focal point of the exhibition itself. She will often perceptually manipulate the architectural nuances of a building in her video work as means to transform an interior into something unrecognizable and unusually fluid. Her 1992 installation, Untitled, shown at Los Angeles’ Union Station served as an early example of isolating a native feature or fixture of a common space—in this case, a visually distorted information booth for departures and arrivals—in order to ultimately disrupt a perceived order and fixity of things, which in turn contributed to the work’s wry aim of “misinforming” viewers. This principle theme of interacting with existing spatial features was instrumental in her eventual construction of installation spaces from the ground up, including bizarre dimensional elements on which she would splash video projection, such as in The TV Room (1998) or X-Room (2000). Attempting something like video architecture, Steinkamp’s insistence on playing with the limitations of existing structural features in her early practice seems to have developed her later offerings revolving around notions of real and imagined relationships to physical spaces through virtual means. And, in this fashion, greater subsequent works have successfully crossbred the “immobility” of environments with the “mobility” of video to achieve altered states composed of fluid elements. The complicated relationship between real and imagined, context and projection amounts to a looping exchange in which image and subject begin to reflect, refract and, even, embody each other. Steinkamp, the artist, becomes something of a medium unto herself—processing the image into reality and vice versa.

While Steinkamp early on incorporated a catalytic arrangement into her working practice, the artist Francis Alÿs introduced an outside process into his work later on in his career to yield fascinating results that became known as the Sign-Painters Project. At a time when he began to view his work as redundant and tired in the early 90s, Alÿs commissioned local commercial sign painters to reproduce his works at a considerably larger size than the original paintings. These reproductions were then appropriated for specific compositional elements that Alÿs identified and incorporated in a third generation of paintings. In turn, the sign painters were then asked to produce another set of reproductions. This continued over several generations. In addition to the significance of the schism between a commercial means of production and one belonging to the esoteric world of contemporary art, Alÿs understood this reproductive process to be rooted in a kind of changing creative assembly line. It was an effort to dramatically shift the visual form of his painted models by indirect means. He was now taking cues from outside sources. He was orienting himself to a culture of craftsmanship with clear standards quite different from his own practice and methods. This experience would inform Alÿs’ work over the next 15-20 years. His work documented an inextricable tie between the artist and, generally, the human energies behind the means of production. He began to take on themes related to economic disparity and working class contributions to Latin American arts, as well as the interweaving of his own process throughout that greater social fabric in his adopted country of Mexico. Works like Bolero (Shoeshine Blues) (1999-2006) easily tie back to these collaborative approaches to practice.

The Alÿs model seems to have greater congruence with Pair Shaped, given the concrete examples of artistic output after generations of production between set collaborators. One can easily chart the evolution in his paintings as his process reacts to the others’ work. And yet, Steinkamp’s broad trajectory is noteworthy and relevant as well for her reactive response to architectural spaces, and for her insistence on absorbing encountered structures, features or details into her video work. It could be said that both cases are orchestrated, if not wholly controlled forms of dialogic creation: Artists purposely vying to provoke external environments to generate productive results for evolutionary benefit. So, on the topic of where an artist’s working methods will leave off and become something else in a collaborative effort, you may have an overwhelming number of cases that combine past methods with newer ones. In the cases of Alÿs and Steinkamp, the creative process is greatly enriched as a result of the external stimulants both artists have succeeded in metabolizing for their own practice. It is a triangle effect where a union is struck between the prompt and the prompted—a new source for producing original, organic works. -w.

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