Landfill: Part 2February 9, 2011
Landfill is a project that archives, studies, and redistributes the material byproducts produced by dematerialized artworks in order to generate a non-linear history of socially engaged art practice. It exists in three parts: an online archive, a quarterly subscription service, and a written journal. Four times a year, a selection of the archived ephemera will be mailed to subscribers. A printed journal distributed with the objects will build a narrative around them. This column is a critical platform and experimental testing ground for Landfill: a place to open a dialogue about the materials themselves and our strategies for investigating them.
Landfill Contributor: Michael Parker
As Cessna airplanes lifted off the Santa Monica runway behind the Art Los Angeles Contemporary fair, I sat in a parking lot adjacent to the landing strip with writers Patricia Maloney and Catherine Wagley and artist Michael Parker. In the relative quiet between takeoffs, we talked about utopia, whose Latin root literally means “no place,” and the role of narrative in its construction. Los Angeles itself offers a sprawling promise of utopia, full of legends and replete with vacant spaces waiting to be transformed into “Temporary Autonomous Zones,” sites that exist briefly at the edge of established institutional and structural boundaries. Parker’s work makes use of these physical and hypothetical zones to produce microtopias, experiments that are situated between idealist notions of community and pragmatic methods for narrating the actions of individuals and groups, thereby shifting their legibility into aesthetic terms.
Balloon Route (2010), named after Los Angeles’ defunct streetcar system, is an eighty-page newsprint publication in which Parker reflects on his travels seeking “no place” in all its partial realizations, including a communal apartment building in Berlin, the single remaining active Shaker community in Maine, a concentration ball in Auroville, India, and love letters typed between two soul-searchers in distant Internet cafés. In reading, the role that narrative plays in creating utopia becomes clear. As its root suggests, utopia isn’t physically or permanently realized in any one of these places; it is produced through myths about the people who wholeheartedly adopt their community’s common purpose, whether it be sharing a nightly meal or digging monsoon trenches.
The Los Angeles Balloon Route no longer exists; it’s been replaced by a comprehensive, mighty freeway system. Drivers sit next to each other in solitude for hours each day, motivated by the common desire to get home or get to work, separately. The dream of personal mobility is achieved, but sitting in traffic alone doesn’t feel like an aspiration. Parker suggests that with the death of the Balloon Route, Los Angeles residents are left craving collective healing, a time when they are packed next to, but isolated from, each other in public, traveling to a common destination.1 In reality, public transit, like any one of the experiments in communal living Parker describes, is not quite ideal, as it forces its riders to compromise on individual choice and incur the inherent risk of being in close proximity to strangers. It’s only in narrative, and in the occasional faith-restoring experience, that the full potential of the light rail is realized.
Utopia exists as a hypothetical challenge, and sometimes as a letdown, particularly when a community struggles to define its aims or when the protective lining between an idealist goal and the rest of the world proves to be permeable. Parker’s Balloon Route is embedded with the self-reflexive awareness that seeking and studying utopia is itself a utopian project, always inches away from self- and society-inflicted deflation. The only imageless page in the book recounts the fictional story of Jonah Blanco, a self-trained Canadian filmmaker who aimed to create a film depicting life on the Island of Utopia, which had been rediscovered in the 1960s after its 450-year “disappearance.” Blanco lived on the island for five years. (Sir Thomas More’s book On the Best State of a Republic and on the New Island of Utopia was first published in 1516. Raphael, a character in More’s story, undertook a similar five-year study.) In this fictionalized account, when production of Blanco’s documentary was slated to begin in 2009, a BBC exposé reported that children on the island were being fed hallucinogens. The story prompted the Island’s Board of Directors to put a moratorium on filming on the island, stopping Blanco’s project before it had begun.2 In this retelling, the Island of Utopia can’t seem to gain sufficient autonomy, plagued by misunderstanding and run by a bureaucracy that won’t allow for misunderstanding to be addressed.
Producing a narrative is always a political act in the obvious sense that a system of values is communicated and reinforced through statements and omissions. In another way, the implicit address of a work to its public considers audience members to be partners in conversation, capable of response and action. A utopian narrative goes further by asking a viewer to temporarily submerge oneself in the hypothetical potential of a collective goal and the willing acceptance of the will of others. Today, submission to a collective goal sounds eerily corporate. But Parker asserts that even after its capitalist co-optation, there might be something about collectivity that is buoyant and worth saving.
Production, Resisting Production: I Am a Citizen and Truck Symphony
The contemporary revival of collectivity in Western art has as its counterpart similar activity from the 1960s, when Joseph Beuys declared that everyone has the right to view oneself as an artist.3 Beuys believed that as the definition of art expanded, social sculpture would emerge as a new discipline accessible to anyone, a way of applying form to aspects of life previously considered solidly in the realm of non-art, or life: politics, economics, the classroom, and the workplace. A leveling began to occur that continues today.
The impulse underlying the sentiment everyone has the right to be an artist—actualized in mass culture as well as in the art world—is egalitarian: the belief that everyone deserves the self-determination to be the producer of one’s own life and, therefore, produce for others. This recognition of the right and capacity of each person to self-produce is essential to establishing equitable community. But as Boris Groys points out in his essay “The Obligation to Self-Design,” the perceived need to stay connected and to self-promote, to be a constant creative thinker and have something to show for it, as evidenced by innumerable curated Facebook pages and blog posts, has turned promise into duty.4 Social networking has become an institution of such scale that it takes on the appearance of a moral good and seems to demand participation.
Though everyone may be producing all the time, art is still a distinct kind of production. Self-production, self-determination, or what Groys calls “self-design” does not define an artist. It defines a citizen, both subject to and protected by the customs and laws of an image-saturated culture. The desire to produce art is the desire not to participate in but to alter a culture’s norms and codes, which have the force and appearance of moral imperatives, or to reveal them to be alterable. Currently, this is a twofold, seemingly contradictory battle: the first challenge is to undermine expectations about the kind of person capable of production; the second is to undermine the perceived demand to continually produce. Parker’s work does both at once by observing and documenting aesthetic events produced by unlikely artists. The projects he documents are street-level ruptures. His method of recording them makes them more visible as the challenges they are by providing them with a second context as works of art.
For I Am a Citizen (2009-10), Parker photographed fifty trees on Skid Row whose trunks had been wrapped in purple metallic plastic. He soon found that they were in fact a public artwork by a woman named Audrae Rena Jones, who lives there. Her project was an attempt to beautify her neighborhood by creating a disruption in the normal appearance of things. For I Am a Citizen, Parker made a poster documenting Jones’ work and wrapped it in an envelope printed with their interview, in which she describes her motivations and the project’s outcome as hope-giving. Her work was produced out of the aspiration to show that Skid Row is an imaginary place; it is as open to transformation as any other. She suggests that it might even be more open than a carefully tended place with more resources, like Beverly Hills. Parker responded to this work as a viewer and as an artist, by re-presenting it, giving the project another life outside of its ephemeral existence on the street.
Truck Symphony (2009) likewise memorialized a short-lived sensual event. Parker captured a thirty-two minute audio recording of scores of truck horns protesting a container fee, which was instituted as part of the Clean Truck Program. In the recording, as the trucks inch toward Los Angeles City Hall from the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports, their horns hold a shifting, ominous chord, punctuated by engine roars and the occasional psshht of an opening steam valve. The recording was unplanned and occurred in a happened-upon moment that had aesthetic potential beyond its initial function as an expression of dissent. In the simple act of listening to the horns and replaying the track out of context, the protest becomes a symphony. Here, art is produced in the receptive act of listening. The roles of spectator and creator are not reversed, but conflated.
Free Logic: Lineman
Jasper Johns famously said that to make art, one should “do something, do something to that, and then do something to that.”5 The result is that a thing becomes embedded with the change that’s happened to it, and more abstractly, that thing is rendered changeable: a tree wrapped in foil and photographed, its image wrapped in conversation. In this conception, an artist’s role isn’t to create a new sustainable social or political order, but to show that other perhaps equally unsustainable ones might exist. An artist proposes a kind of logic that pertains to empty sets and real numbers alike—one that is both specific to a place and time, and hypothetical in its unknown, potential application.
While classical logic deals firmly in the actual, requiring all of its singular terms to denote objects that already exist, free logic does not. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, free logic is useful for analyzing propositions containing “terms that either are empty (have no referent or refer to objects that do not exist) or might be.”6 Free logic traffics in fictions and possible objects. It can describe empty sets, "the set of all triangles with four sides, the set of all numbers that are bigger than nine but smaller than eight, and the set of all opening moves in chess that involve a king."7
Artworks operate within this free logic, not necessarily or even ideally revealing things as they are, but proposing things as they could be or could have been. Art retains a connection to truth-telling, but lacks the redemptive impulse to disabuse that motivates exposé journalism. It involves finding beauty and aesthetic potential in unlikely, empty, or loud places, and re-presenting those places so that they become imaginary, but no less real.
In the spring of 2009, Parker enrolled in a sixteen-week course at Los Angeles Trade Technical College, joining a class of fifty men, ranging in age from eighteen to forty-six, who wanted to become electrical linemen. He enrolled as an artist, discussing ideas about art as an expanded studio, and hoping to investigate ideas about personal agency, performance, and political action. His project was an open-ended collaboration with the group.
The class pooled their ideas about a collective portrait and came up with proposals, two of which were realized and shown at Parker’s MFA exhibition in May 2009: a class photo and a video relay. The photo is a large, two-sided color poster of the men stacked in formation on forty-foot power poles, triumphant against a bright blue sky. For the video relay, the men set up a baton with two video cameras strapped to either side, pointing outward. Using the video baton, they carried out a routine drill passing it from pole to pole. Each participant created two portraits at once: one of himself, and the other of his relay partner. When the video was exhibited, viewers stood in the place of the baton, passed between classmates, two by two.
To produce the yearbook at the end of the lineman class semester, in June 2009, Parker took pictures of the climbers and collected oral histories. He asked them where they came from, and why they were there. Though the bios are based on factual information told firsthand, the primary function of the portraits in Lineman is not to reveal hidden truths about the people enrolled. It doesn’t reflect or represent their community as it exists. Rather, it proposes that the class was a society of mutually motivated individuals—it creates a microtopia by describing one.
This microtopia is an extended metaphor for navigating a power system. Collaboration here confronts a power imbalance: while the men enrolled in the linemen class were becoming specialists prepared to work in high-paying jobs, Parker was earning his MFA. Though the project required common effort, it’s not about equality, or the ameliorative effects of teamwork. Parker is not qualified to work as a lineman; he’s not passing the baton in the relay video, or pictured in the class portrait. There is a disparity in aims, in the kind of labor being learned, and in its value, and none of these terms are stable or easily evaluated. The students were enrolled in the course for practical purposes: to learn a technical skill, and ultimately to gain high-paying employment. Parker, who was more a narrator than a classmate, was there to investigate each man’s spiritual and pragmatic connection to his work, and to define the collective ethos of the group. In this temporary community, Parker suggests that if an ideal community could be produced for sixteen weeks on a minimalist faux power grid, ephemeral utopias are waiting to be turned on elsewhere.
Michael Parker’s work is currently being featured on the Landfill archive, which launched on February 10, 2011.