I Love You, But, Because Inexplicably I Love in You Something More than You…

Notes from di Rosa

I Love You, But, Because Inexplicably I Love in You Something More than You…

By Christian Nagler June 16, 2016

Notes from di Rosa is produced in conjunction with Art Practical's yearlong residency at di Rosa, in which the museum's collection serves as a focus and cornerstone for an in-depth exploration of Northern California contemporary art.


You walk through a gallery in the same way that you move through the world: with a shifting weather of sensation fucking you up and composing you. The I inside the sensorium rains and streams and freezes and quakes, and exceeds its tall letter. What was magma one moment is noble gas the next. From the point of view of sensation, which is no point, the material of yourself is in wicked flux.

Works—art and otherwise—hail various gists from the body, which is a magic pudding of mind in extension, jointed and moral-ed and marrowed and innervated. In a hell-mall of frozen affect-machines, in the gallery, you dream relation, and in the friction of dreamt relation’s powder you change, and change again. Stripping off seasons of ideas about living, donning others, as if taste were your ferocious birthright, and it is.

In the paragraph spaces of color and gesture and concept—conjoined, decorated rooms—you are a morphological grammar, and the word your eye was once upon a moment is a nonsense noise the next. Objects’ smirks mutilate you into an ensuing version of yourself.

Which is all a fancy way to say you are impressed upon, moved. And in movement, you differ. You adapt. You are revised and remodeled by what you witness.

The gallery strives for a certain rate of fixity so that you will twist and mean through its gates and frames. You invent yourself in the political mists of disgust, surprise, boredom, delight, and condescension. And those are caricatures of odder, unnamable fervors with wide pasts and deep futures.

Sure. Duh. I know, Yeah. Of course. Very well. Okay.

But then there is the identity kept stable. The function that cuts a predictable wave through the splay of coordinates. The one that grills the art histories that assail you to charcoal flakes as if your skin were a molten grid. A variable that is always the same because it always balances the equation. A tiny Spinoza with an office in your heart makes a brilliant and voluminous argument for the postulate that:

There can only be one substance out of which everything in the world is made.

You walk around that way, unassailable—commensurate to the single true idea you have of yourself.

Like how, having packed your tentacles into the characterological docket, you are suddenly capable of not even noticing whole ethics, whole empires, whole media cycles.

It’s an eternal fruit of you that’s only just bruised by the phalanxes of others, with their desires and their careers and their insane charismas that kidnap your attention just cuz they are the whole reason for living. The risk and reality of it, the loving that will always overreach and get thwacked back into its defended burrow, hand retracted in the casual sleeve of personhood. The soul endures, in the softly disappointing evening of perpetual peace.

There is nothing spiritual about it. It’s neoclassical economics. You hedge against artworks’ provocations to keep the god that pays mortgage inside your life story alive, or awake, or sober.

See, I’m trying to describe those times when you’re walking through an art place and you sorta give up. You care, and you’re not jaded, or aloof, or tired—but you are unruffled and temperate and disinterested. You’re pleased with the precision with which your psyche regresses to this worldly mean, the way your thinking becomes an ordinary science and art appears as the most responsible local journalism, or as a set of maritime flags. Gently useful.

As these times accumulate, I mean over decades, they begin to seem delicious. Artworks, behind their impastos and spectrums and class-matrices, begin to seem like small cups of water: taken gratefully and regularly and without much expectation.

And so, as you get older and stranger and less limber, you begin to appreciate those pieces that offer you simple schemas.

These pieces are rarely au courant. They are rarely things you would hitch your identity to, would seek credit from, would triangulate through to the polite curiosity of your extended friend group.

In a corner near the back of di Rosa’s main gallery hangs one of these pieces. It’s an unassuming metal grate with a light patina of rust, like one you’d find in the heating system of an old building. Through the grate you can see an exposed set of mechanisms: a speaker, a bunch of circuitry and wires, and a motion sensor.

It’s a piece by the artist and toy designer Bruce Cannon, and tripping its motion sensor triggers a recorded voice.1 It speaks in an impassive tone that somehow is placeably ’90s. It’s that decade’s inflection of deadpan, in the same way that a Vito Acconci film is saturated with one variant of 1970s English, its weird insistence, and Paul and Marlene Kos’s Lightning (1976) is infused with another, its vulnerable lilt. 

Bruce Cannon. Contract II, 1995; computer, distance sensor, speech electronics, and iron grate; 12 x 10 x 2 in. Courtesy of di Rosa collection, Napa, CA. Photo: Christian Nagler.

Nineties English registered its overstimulation and non-amusement.

Everything’s so amazing and why don’t I care so there must be something hollow about all the old myths (like romantic love.)

If you pass in front of Cannon’s piece at a distance of twelve or so feet, it says to you, in this torpid pre-Y2K West Coast American brogue:

I love you.

Walk a little closer and it says

I trust you.

A little closer and

You’re kind.

And then

You’re sensitive.

And then

You’re gentle.

And then

I’ll never leave you.

I’ll always love you.

We belong together.

And then when you approach the thing, when you come within a few feet of it, it says

I wish you were dead.

Bruce Cannon. Contract II, 1995; computer, distance sensor, speech electronics, and iron grate; 12 x 10 x 2 in. Courtesy of di Rosa collection, Napa. Recording by: Christian Nagler.

A punch line. It’s easy. But chances are it’s spoilt, since you might enter the piece’s domain at the wish you were dead distance, if you are one of those viewers that walks a gallery at its perimeter. You might never get far enough from the piece to hear its more loving and complimentary utterances. The piece might exist for you merely in this ridiculous little aggression issuing from the bare little machine; a robot with the fourth wall demolished, so there’s no figure, just a bricolage of naked functions, not nearly concealed by the grid of the grate, like one of those dreams where your clothes keep falling off in public.

But if you spend some time with the piece, you might back up, study the distances, try to pinpoint exactly where love turns to trust turns to praise (for your sensitivity) turns to a sort of desperate merging (I’ll never...) turns to a sort of fateful attachment (we belong...) turns to an impossible projected bond (we’ll always...) turns to that performative un-care.

In the course of your study, the voice’s intimate death wish might begin to not seem so distant from all of these other pledges. And the wish itself, repeated many times, might seem to belie its own aggression. It’s so self-referent, so weakly dependent on its wish. It lacks the direct transference of You’re dead to me, or simply: die.

A question, beautifully bourgeois in its ahistorical, individualized clarity:

Do I actually want anyone to get close to me?

To ask such a question out of this piece is to imagine that the voice-mediated relation between viewer and machine is a representation of human intimacy. It reminds me of an editorial by Alain de Botton in the New York Times, in which he condenses the psychoanalytic idea that what we seek in closeness is not happiness or safety but instead the recapitulation of our founding traumas:

“The love most of us will have tasted early on was often confused with other, more destructive dynamics: feelings of wanting to help an adult who was out of control, of being deprived of a parent’s warmth or scared of his anger, of not feeling secure enough to communicate our wishes.”2

But we don’t have to take the piece as theatrical, which is to say we don’t have to hear the recorded voice as a person. The machine is laid bare for a reason, and so it speaks to us as machine. It doesn’t want you to see that it’s not that interesting. And if it’s not interesting you might as well not exist. Don’t get too close. What is it doing there with its hot copper impulses and its abject obedience and passive-aggressive glitches? All the Terminator T-1000 fantasies boil down to the sort of bickering and loneliness to be found in any long-term commitment.

I’m always longing for a critique of technology that gets down to the root of it. I try to describe it to people often, what I’m looking for, like over dinner, and I can’t, really, not adequately. Though they usually intuit something in my longing. They usually agree, though we are both a little embarrassed by the aspiration of it, that constancy and unquenchability.

A critique of technology that is not just a critique of its symptoms (though these are crucial as well) but that is philosophically and emotionally undeniable.

At times I pass close to such a critique. Here, it flashes briefly through the sense of the recorded voice’s implicit hatred of me, when I begin to approach its secret, which is hardly a secret: Technology can only be memory. A theater of the new built of the props of the past pre-programmed. It’s coldly embarrassed by the quivering novelty of our bodies in close-up.

Nothing new down the shallow vent.

Notes

  1. Among the interactive electronic toys Cannon has designed are the WWE Electrovision Belt, the Green Lantern Deluxe Animated Figure, and the Monster High Sweet 1600 app and keys, which “allow you to unlock a door in an app with a real key.” (Brucecannon.org).
  2. Alain de Botton, “You Will Marry the Wrong Person,” New York Times, May 28, 2016.

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