Networked_Performance

Review of Protect Protect – Jenny Holzer by Chad Scoville

Protect Protect – Jenny Holzer, Whitney Museum, New York, New York; Through May 31 2009.

Linearity constructed as a representational praxis in the realm of data visualization as a contemporary means of presenting information is a conservative act. Our inundated visual culture symbolically represents its vectors of meaning and content through personalized media bands, where users and players intermingle and create the algorithm in real-time, further personalizing and sharing visual experience.

Search queries and semantic webs construct infinitely complex folksonomys of intricately sophisticated subjectivities; a breakpoint of tactility between the previous two decades is perceptible as the difference between Usenet and Youtube. An intergenerational and vastly disparate structure of representation engenders vertigo of differentiality; the pre-internet, the internet, and the post-internet age groups interpolate profoundly different architectures of cultural instigation. This emergence / dithering between vastly different engagement philosophies of visual studies are an important measurement tool. With it, we detectably sync where we have been and where we are headed.

American artist Jenny Holzer has taken the fourth floor of the Whitney Museum on the upper east side of New York, and installed a series of her LED pieces as well as an arrangement of images stretched over canvas, a few marble benches, and a table of bones. The LED pieces are engineered in such a way that text is scrolled across the surface of the machines, sometimes at varied velocity, sometimes densely layered. The text presented on the surface of these objects is both Holzer’s own writing as well as redacted text from official United States Military and Federal Government documentation declassified under the freedom of information act and now available to the general public.

In her installation, the LED pieces are arranged in various ways throughout the galleries on the fourth floor of the Whitney. Some lay flat, filling an entire room. Others are hung from corners of the galleries, horizontally between walls, and between the floor and the wall. One of the galleries is dedicated specifically to the canvas based ‘redacted’ pieces, while other spaces used for the exhibition display integrated environments of both canvas and LED components.

Holzer’s conceptual and ideological purpose in this exhibition, as stated in the accompanying texts by the curatorial staff of the Whitney, seek to address several difficult polemics which contemporary art has been struggling to adequately scrutinize and address in recent years. Torture, hegemony, imperialism, war, and technology are arguably the defining issues which framing the public discourse of American life in this day. We are a brutal species, we are a brutal nation. Holzer’s success in personalizing these issues, effectively placing a human face on the bureaucracy of power, revealing the institutional cruelty of imperialism and war, as well as mounting a considerably graphic intellectual barrage against the system itself is palpable and welcome.

On one of my visits to the exhibition recently, I overhead a conversation between two young Caucasian males, likely to be American, which I surmised based upon their accent. ‘Look Mark, come read this, check this out’ one of them said to the other. One of them had read through one of the paintings, of which contained the declassified military document detailing an interview with a member of the armed forces who had been accused of a war crime against a Iraqi national. During the same visit, a young child, probably about nine or ten, happened to be inquisitively intrigued by one of the LED pieces, the one which formally appeared as a series of arcs installed between the wall and the floor of the gallery. ‘Hey, don’t go near that’, screamed one of the security guards, castigating the child for their interest in attaining a closer inspection of the work.

Unless you have been living under a rock for the last two decades, you are probably well aware of the campaign of violence that the United States has been conducting both covertly and in plain sight against Iraq. A UN supported offensive during most of the presidency of William Jefferson Clinton included military warplanes dropping bombs on so-called targets of strategic interest (including domestic powdered milk production factories), and engaging in a services and commercial blockade restricting medical supplies. The journalistic record has diligently and quite clearly documented the toll of such policies on the population of Iraq, which according to some ‘conservative’ estimates resulted in the deaths of some five hundred thousand Iraqi children; a fact which has been characterized by former US Secretary State Madeline Albright as being ‘worth it’, given the so-called threat former intelligence asset Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein presented to the people of the United States. The corporate media sanctioned war, the ‘shock and awe’ campaign, who some argue was named so due to the closely timed similarities to the Chaldean ‘shekinah’ sacrifice ritual, furthered the scale of hyper-violence, claiming an untold number of direct and indirect causalities, most of whom were unfortunately, women and children.

Holzer’s stratagem of visual presentation does well in transcending the architectural space framing the exhibition. The impression of the pieces imbues an ephemeral quality, kinetically transposing a multifaceted techno-spatial environment which seemingly attracts and possess the consciousness of the viewers pausing to engage the work. In her own writing, Holzer’s self-awareness to her own condition in the world as a woman, and as a citizen of the United States, extenuates a sensible quality of personal reflection which can be gratifying. The viewer enters the field of the personal, provided their interest in the poetic inflections stirs the human qualities inherent in journals and memoirs. There is a light quality to the movement reflected by the scrolling nature of LED-text pieces that is certainly a core feature of their seductive nature. The technological brutalism resonating from a machine echoing first-hand accounts of torture reminded me of an over sized, eerie, and macabre ATM machine spilling liquid amounts of dark data. The canvases and prints, various declassified documents with a considerable volume of material ‘blacked-out’ by the censor apparatchik, have the look and feel of paintings which I found to have a reductive implication on the otherwise contextually powerful images. Projecting the redacted texts on stretcher bars away from the wall gave a heavy objectness to the pieces that I found to be weighted and difficult.

Holzer’s point of engagement on these issues is, rather unfortunately, framed by their complicity with the media sanctioned narrative on September 11th, on Iraq, and on Afghanistan. It’s the type of work that you would expect to be in a museum, a safe, sterile, comfortable environment where we, the enablers, can conduct some level of guilty, self-flagellation over the crimes which we have allowed our government to get away with. It is a goddamn sad fact that art world, which should be in the activity of the alternative, instead looks like a group of material positivists or empirical reductionisms. It does not or will not be perceived as a real threat to challenging real problems; the hegemony of corporate and state power which is the very rubric of violence in the world today.

This work is rubber stamped with institutionally approved soft-radicalism. The cathartic trigger that needs to occur, that should be occurring, is not apparent here.

Chad Scoville is an engineer based in New York, NY. — posted on nettime.


Apr 23, 12:56
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