Transmedium: Conceptualism 2.0 and the New Object Art

Transmedium: Conceptualism 2.0 and the New Object Art

by Garrett Stewart


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226500904
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 01/18/2018
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 796,849
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Garrett Stewart is the James O. Freedman Professor of Letters in the English Department of the University of Iowa and the author of numerous books, including, most recently, Closed Circuits: Screening Narrative Surveillance.

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Spatially delimited versus time-based: that's the rough division that organizes our two Scenes. First the fixed picture (whether chemically fixed or just affixed to the wall) in the form of an image that won't stay put conceptually; then, in Scene Two, the moving luminescence that can at times put either picturing or motion, or both, up for debate. Although stasis within a hung frame may sometimes be as illusory as the fixed image (the "freeze") fabricated by the iterated frames of celluloid rotation, distinctions remain. We therefore take up the "single" picture first, however optically destabilized in presentation. The "image frames" of the Scene title can be photographic or painterly, pictorial (representational) or not, digital or hand-made. In a reception aesthetics, the image is as the image does — or, in Conceptualism 2.0, as it often undoes, by tricks of the eye electronically sourced or otherwise. Hence the plausibility of a zone of volatile, though still static, counterplay like [image::frames], where the double colon would be lodged in this case to denaturalize an optical plane and unlatch it from its very demarcation — at least long enough, that is, to infer a subliminal transaction, a conceptual rebracketing in process. Transmedium notice would thereby identify the image function — its framing function, however composited and multiple, often reversible — that articulates a given retinal field as such, be it altered mirror or tricked canvas or elusive digital assemblage. In the grammar of such aesthetic attention, the substantive format turns to conceptual predication. Image frames in this sense, and reframes, more than it pictures.

Similarly, regarding the second Scene of this study, the double punctuation one might exert in a rubric like [motion::captures] would conjoin its terms so as to confront the reciprocal features of a medial interplay between fixity and process, often chemical fixity and motorized process. These are aspects brought together most often in the "moving picture" as traditionally conceived, but also in merely the moving of images — and sometimes in just the inching forward of light itself (as in Anthony McCall's installations), or elsewhere its seizing up in the jammed flickering still. And in another ocular syntax, sometimes motion captures not only a prerecorded event but even viewers themselves in motion. This happens as well in those transmedial though not programmatically interactive light sculptures, the "solid light films," of McCall (at once "drawn" and projected and, years after his first breakthrough works, now digitally edited): his rotating sheathes of beamed, misted, and viewer-encircling glow. Cinema, however, remains in his work, as we'll see, both the origin and the continuing touchstone — even when there are no longer any celluloid frames left at the point of beamed linear emanation. Yet the full transmedial effects (cinema / drawing / penetrable sculpture / performance) of such mobile traced light — without the moving image per se — will assume more clearly their place in a contemporary resistance to sheer display, along with many other 16mm and 35mm projections, once certain close cousins in graphic but not time-based practice have been contemplated within their arrested but variously equivocated frames of conceptual reference.

In moving first from recent and modestly photorealist image-texts by Ed Ruscha and Raymond Pettibon — about precisely the photographic increment of cinema — back to earlier canvases in a more full-blown "hyperrealist" mode, with its simulated automaticity of image, its faux-photography, we will be passing, for contrast, through a newer "realism" (or reality-manufacture) of indexical technique in the machinic simulacra that result from so-called 3-D printing in polymer accretion. For such is a process more deserving yet of that "hyper" intensifier: a whole new realm of the real in electronic contrivance. From a subsequent return to the procedures of photorealism, then, we move to work that excavates its own medial surface rather than exceeds it — and does so by probing under (hypo) the manifest to its contingent and often electronic gestation. But before this opening to the "hyporealm," undermining and predominantly ironic, we look to variations of the so-called hyperreal in ink and paint and even computer-sprayed plastic.


Conceptualism 2.0 is, as noted, a conceptual before a technological category, an aesthetic stance influenced by latter-day platforms but not necessarily implementing them. Here is a second-wave conceptualism, then, legible as such even when unplugged. To make such a category clear when manifested in the still image and its quite explicit frame capture, we take up what one might call, in both senses, a motion-fixated example from the height of the digital moment. It is a hand-drawn rather than photochemical (let alone computerized) image, reproduced in multiple variants. As far from electronics as possible, the image serves to (im)mobilize an ironic nostalgia for older, rather than "new," media. Called The End in its various iterations, the work operates in this way as a reflex of obsolescence pitched in transmedial relation to other image forms caught up in a comparable technological transition. Picturing two of the last frames of a film strip as if they had slipped out of sprocket alignment with the aperture, this ink drawing — in lithographic transfer — catches the dialectical tension between photochemical imprint and cinematic projection: reduced here to the still image versus the aberrantly stilled one.

That this opening instance has the added benefit of anticipating the second half of this study under an iconic suspension, in the simulation of a fossilized celluloid sequencing, is the least of it. More to the point, the drawing's evoked serial inertia results from being seized up in a fixed-frame anachronism — and media-archaeological analysis — that distills much to come in the first Scene of these explorations by way of intersecting medial features in conceptual overlap. Moreover, with its interface work of seemingly imprinted film frames on paper, it harkens back, in a further conceptualist reversal, to the early landmark of transmedial conceptualism in the inverted font of that paper contact print of Fox Talbot's with which we began: in that case, photographed print type rather than an imprinted celluloid simulation in lithographic duplicate.

Through a highly self-conscious conflation of means within a given set of simultaneous manifestations, Ruscha and Pettibon collaborated on this 2003 series of subtitled lithographs in order to invoke the force of cinematic succession (two senses again: sequence and its implicit aftermath) in the light of other technographic alterations in the culture of representation. The images of The End in fact redeploy a visual trope of Ruscha's from the early 1990s, when filmic cinema's fate was first sealed by creeping digital eclipse — images that were at that point uncaptioned in the vertical truncation of their represented film frames. Two of the more recent subtitled works (with legends now in handwritten caps) happen to converge, especially in light of Ruscha's earlier innovations in the experimental codex forms of minimalist artists' books, in ways that serve further, as we'll note, to reorient a whole swath of conceptual book and text art in these same postmillennial years, including Ruscha's own in 2013. This is the case even though the immediate optical allusion (and illusion) of the 2003 pieces by Ruscha and Pettibon is that of adjacent vertical transparencies, not pages, on a dated and scratched film strip, as if worn thin by time and cultural supersession both.

Here is the twentieth century's signature medium — its distinctive imprint medium — caught between serial photograms in what, for a particular but unspecified film, may be the penultimate frame cell and its closural successor. What we see, that is, includes the lower half of "THE END" appearing on exit in the vanishing upper frame, with the emergent (but going nowhere) top half of the same two monosyllables edging up into the bottom sector of this en-route bifurcation. In part, the effect is to record not just the "Fin" of a given (or rather ungiven) screen text but of film itself as a discretely serialized rather than a bit-mapped medium, complete in these renderings with the accumulated vertical scratches resulting from celluloid wear and tear in the projector. Moreover, evoked here is an "end" transcribed in yet another, earlier, and now itself gradually eclipsed material form: ink on paper, reduced in this case from drawing almost to sheer writing, at least to a represented serif print font, in the minimalist rendering of two distressed backlit rectangles. Then, too, in this transmedial glimpse of a filmic strip (developed in visible liquid treatment [ink] rather than mere developing fluid), one senses a return from industrial production to the handmade simulacrum thereof.

In this very layering or dovetailing of material self-consciousness, these works of worded image serve to rehearse yet again the end of medium specificity. They do so by retracing the postmodernist departure from the goal of purity into what we've seen Jameson identify instead as the "mediatic system," which might well find one spectrum of its intertextual range (from incremental script to cinematic motion) telescoped and internalized in these individual (if twofold) word/image pieces. Twofold, because no sooner do they picture the motion picture's iterated inscription in frozen lock-step advance than they reinscribe this marker of cinematographic textuality within a hybridized graphic layout all their own. Given that The End insists in this way on recording its finality in so many (severed) words, imprinting it discursively as well as pictorially, the two most telling captions from this series of frame-line lithographs, these cinegraphs — etched by hand in slanted uppercase lettering, red and black respectively — read as follows. First: "AS MY EYES CLEARED, I FELT THE DIZZINESS OF NOT KNOWING WHICH END IWAS AT THE E ND OF." A text (visual or verbal)? A medial era? The uncertainty is secured by another of such epitomizing captions in the series: "THE ANALOGY BETWEEN THE ART OF THE ARTIST, THENOVELIST, AND THE PRINTER IS, SO FAR AS I AM ABLE TO SEE, COMPLETE" (fig. 10, given closing pride of place in connection with the cinematic focus — and terminal mediation — of "Endscapes"). Especially complete, one might add, if by "printer" we are meant to include the processor of the cinematic print — how could we not be? — and if by "so far as I am able to see" the premium on the visible is made clear under idiomatic cover. Which certainly it is. Shades, again, of Fox Talbot's Imitation of Printing.

In all such "analogy between," then, lies the generative intertwine of such imagined material constituents. These subsisting conditions are offered up in this case as one key to the reading, transmedium, of any and all conceptual play between pictured frame advance and framed inked picture, each reduced to a unique variant of high-modernist "flatness." Yet beneath what one might call the cross-genre thematic of printwork that bonds artist and bookmaker with cinematographer in The End, all on collective exit from the last century, the real transmedial grip of this image lies within the split-frame image as originally conceived, without the captions, by Ruscha alone. It rests at the representational level, that is, with the image's own arrested sprocket traction, caught between photographic emulsion and kinetic projection. For sequence is already trapped and deactivated there between two contributory mediations held up, temporally and spatially at once, in mutual "analysis" and breakdown — and thus scanned like a vertical comic strip. Imaging in this way the foreclosure of photoprint cinema is a transmedial gesture, even before any verbal caption is introduced, achieved by centering on the intercepted bar between coherent frames — whose motorized elision alone produces the filmic image in the first place ... when there is any image (other than two shorn and forlorn words) to project. It is in this sense that present representation in The End comes to us from the resultant distance of a third (rather than a second) medium — with the generative tension between photographic unit and spooling track traced in stasis by line drawing. Reframed in turn by lithographic imprint multiples, this syncopated fumbled "grab" is thus a double negation of the screen image, not first of all by printer's ink rather than photochemistry but, at base, by the glimpse of what lies between glimpses in the recovered (even while canceled) transmedial relation of photographic still to projected kinetic mirage: a relation returned here in belated recognition to its modular constituents. As happens, as well, in more recent work by Dutch-born, British-based photographer Mishka Henner in his 2016 Film Stills series, operating in a different transmedial crossover: between cinematographic frame and painted sculptural mass. His quasi-engraved images include — in homage to a previous century's medium, and perhaps to Ruscha as well — one titled Breathless, composed of "enamel paint on sandblasted Star Galaxy granite": the "Fin" of Godard's last frame rendered as its own tombstone at approximately 20 by 13 inches.


After "the end" of "the printer" as both an artisanal job description and a machinic paradigm (in film lab as well as in artist's studio), display becomes, of course, exponentially digital. And precisely a decade after these graphic collaborations by Ruscha and Pettibon, based on the former's original images, Ruscha embarks on a further memorial homage to the art of "the novelist" or "the printer," either one, or rather to that of the bookmaker at large. And here again it is enlargement per se, more exaggerated and ironic yet, that is Ruscha's mode of choice. Shown first at New York's Gagosian gallery in 2013 is a series of almost trompe l'oeil open books — though too big to fool us about their utility, only instilling instead a hypertrophic sense of their onetime prominence in the very epoch of its surrender. These hypertomes are depicted blank volumes gargantuan in format and hovering at something like the wall-sized scale of the most expansive of Romantic landscape paintings — but with no scenography, no second space, represented, even through the sign language of writing. None, that is, but the horizonless plane of the contingently marked (blotched, yellowed, stained) but uninscribed — which is to say sheerly visual — surface of their simulated pages.

Seldom has Michel Butor's dictum been more fully and reductively realized (even at magnified scale) than in these works, as if they were huge mute footnotes to his claim that the one thing books have inevitably in common with painting is that all books (codices) are diptychs. For this is never truer, or at least never more apparent, than when books have been stripped, demediated, of the very lettering that makes them work, makes them other than painted or sculptural works. Demediated of text, yes — but here transmediated as planar manifestations of canvas and page alike. In the finesse of their execution, these giant books might masquerade as enlarged photographs from a preservationist's archive — might in this sense advertise their technique as "photorealist" bravura — except for the double estrangement of their wordlessness and their overwrought monumental (hence memorial) scale. Their hyperrealism reads instead as surreal: the final flaring of destined extinction — or at least as the inflated demotion of the book form to a gallery artifact rather than universal tool.

So when Ruscha, the former conceptual bookmaker from the 1960s and 1970s, gives us no page at all but only gold-tipped edges flanked by marbleized endpapers in one of these bulking works, Gilded, Marbled, and Foibled (2011–12), we confront the looming marmoreal tomb of the codex tome itself and its intrinsic medial service. As if magnifying the fate of the portable cellulose text as much as the felt texture of its surface — aspects of an object no longer the primary source of reading matter — all of these works, even when endpapers are not so histrionically included, seem almost like later iterations of The End series. For they hold ironically at bay, if only by scalar exaggeration, bookhood's own supersession by the legible backlit screen. As if in a magnified capstone, one might say, for this recent aesthetic tendency in biblio/graphic depiction, Ruscha's newest work offers pages so large, unwieldy, and weathered, even when not explicitly "marmorealized," that they communicate not any particular message but only the magnitude itself (even the enormity?) of a vanishing cultural hegemony. In this way most of all, perhaps, can these works over the last digital decade be placed in dialogue, valedictory at that, with the spirit of Fox Talbot's prescient conflation of typeset and photo offset. What the material surface of photography could once be advertised to do in enhancing book production has come round to what electronic imaging has done to coopt text processing altogether, let alone the filmic index.


Excerpted from "Transmedium"
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Table of Contents

Overture: Coming to Terms
Prelim: Conceptualism 2.0
Scene One: Image Frames
Chapter 1: Hyperreal
Chapter 2: Hyporealm
Chapter 3: DerealizedEntr’action
Scene Two: Motion Captures
Chapter 4: Pictureplaning
Chapter 5: Lightshown
Chapter 6: FilmedivisionEndscapes

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