Landfill is a project that studies socially engaged artworks by archiving and redistributing the materials they produce. It exists in three parts: an online archive, a quarterly subscription service, and a print journal. Four times a year, selected materials from the archive are mailed to subscribers along with the journal that contextualizes them, pulling diverse practices into conversation by grouping them thematically. The journal will contain essays, interviews, images, and project descriptions relating to the objects in each issue. This column is a critical platform and experimental testing ground for Landfill: a place to open a dialogue about the materials themselves and methods for investigating them.
This installment reflects upon the release of the first issue of Landfill Quarterly, which will research and redistribute newsprint projects. Subscribers will receive it in early July 2011.
Issue 1, Summer 2011: “The Morgue”
A morgue is a cold chamber where corpses are stored until identified or autopsied. It is also a newspaper office archive, where past papers and clippings are collected and potentially put to later use. In both applications, a morgue is a transitive place. Bodies that have passed through full lives wait to be named, or for the narratives of their last moments to be ascertained. Issues grow old in storage until new research makes them relevant. The first issue of Landfill Quarterly is titled after this place where the end is suspended, a place that houses uncertainty and unlikely potential.
Bodies in a morgue are indexes of events, but they are no more descriptive of lives than the tags on their toes—curt summaries detailing physical attributes before decay, listing the most basic traces of identity: hair color, eye color, name, case number. Lifeless bodies never seem to hold signs of the person who occupied them and often feel more distant than a photograph, a piece of clothing, or a letter. In the process of claiming an unidentified corpse, stories and names are filled in, and the body moves out of transition. Once its mysteries are uncovered, it can be buried, entombed, or burned. Likewise, articles in a newsroom morgue have been set aside. Their state of transition is longer, continuing until the papers become so fragile they cannot be touched without crumbling. Their potential is more readily recognized. They can serve as resources for current research and for the reinvestigation of unresolved cases. Aging papers in a newsroom morgue are reminders of the physical nature of information; the form long used for presenting concepts, opinions, facts, and worldviews is an embodied and tactile one.
Landfill looks at ephemera from past projects as physical entities that had a set of first purposes. They carry the stories of their initial engagements and motivations with them, but are not contained by the narratives that once made them useful. By distributing objects again, Landfill claims that they are still potent and that the ideas they address continue to circulate. It resists the impulse to use objects as summaries, or to summarize them and set them aside. Objects are not presented as auratic traces or as simple documents, but are instead considered for their current aesthetic potential and continued ability to be sources of engagement or sites for the creation of new fictions and realities.
In addition to setting up a challenging metaphor for the importance and life of ephemera, the first issue’s title is also a self-provocation: an opportunity to analyze the methods and motivations of Landfill and to reflect upon its temporality in both its digital and material forms. Though the most visible aspect of Landfill exists as an online archive, its digital content is material at its base, dependent upon surplus ephemera. This surplus provides an opportunity for redistribution, which in turn necessitates narratives about past projects, allowing the materials to find new functions. Landfill’s digital and material forms have different life spans and ask for different kinds of engagement, but in each of its three pieces, objects serve as starting points.
The first journal issue will be a newsprint publication and will investigate the reasons for newsprint’s potency for artists despite (and perhaps because of) its often-announced and anxiously discussed impending death. Though on a large scale, serial print media is becoming an increasingly difficult commercial platform to sustain, the form is ripe for unearthing old narratives and generating new ones. Part of its appeal is pragmatic. As a popular form, it has an established protocol that makes it accessible. Readers already know they can touch a newspaper, open it, read it, and take it home.
The form is also embedded with symbolic meanings. Its wide-spreading roots that reach from tiny utopian publications to colossal international dailies produce diverse and contradictory references: utility and urgency, leisure and entertainment. Newsprint alludes simultaneously to letterpress craftsmanship and industrial mass production. It calls to mind the access enabled by the Gutenberg press and the spectacular abundance and inequity of advanced capitalism. A paper is equally a means of building community and a venue for conflict, where mudslinging attack and personal appeal are on display.
Artworks that use newsprint retain the urgency of a daily message printed on cheap stock, though the stories they build have a long historical memory and are often slowly constructed. By putting the practical and symbolic qualities of print to use, artists gather their own publics, challenging and supplanting the narratives provided by popular media.
“The Morgue” will focus on projects that have deployed newsprint to intervene in the dissemination and digestion of information, to organize publics, and to excavate prescient accounts from communities past. These projects include Towards a New Theory of Color Reading (El Dia, Houston Forward Times, Manila Headline) (2008) by Stephanie Syjuco; a 2011 newsprint poster by Futurefarmers; and the last issue of News of Common Possibility (2008–2010), edited by Anthony Marcellini and Matthew David Rana.
Towards a New Theory of Color Reading, produced for a 2008 exhibition in Houston, abstracts the content of three Houston-based ethnic and foreign language newspapers: swaths of yellow stand in for text, black for newspaper information, cyan for photos, and red for advertisements, interrupting the notion that any paper provides a pure transmission.1 Futurefarmers’ newsprint program contains the schedule of events for the collective’s recent Intervals exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan, which included talks, dialogues, walks, and actions centered on the connection of the shoe’s sole to the city. Artists and participants gathered soot from the surrounding boroughs and used it to make ink as part of Pedestrian Press (2011). Wearing wooden-soled shoes outfitted with a letter stamp, they walked on a roll of paper, transcribing Soul/Sole Sermons by authors and artists such as Bernadette Mayer, Rebecca Solnit, and Cooley Windsor, whose texts also appear in the program. The last issue of News of Common Possibility focuses on the comics page as a space of tension and resistance. Titled “Everything Familiar Has Disappeared!” after a line in the final Calvin and Hobbes strip, it includes contributions ranging from the theatrical to the non-narrative, from the dystopian to the absurd, by artists Chitra Ganesh, Aurélien Mole, Amy Franceschini, Matt Volla, Laura Oldfield Ford, and Michael Baers.
EXTRA: On Redistribution
A newspaper’s circulation describes its public demographically, enabling it to identify the group that has already gathered around it. It plots the growth or decline of a paper’s readership over long periods of time and provides clear statistics to attract advertisers who aim to reach the same audience. Artworks that use newsprint as a form rarely have reason for these diagnostics. These papers have limited runs associated with the estimated turnout for exhibitions or projects and are often given away for free. Advertisers that support them do so indirectly through art institutions. In order to have enough, a surplus is intentionally produced. While some artists have means of controlling this surplus, more often than not there is extra: a pile of unadopted invitations.2 In their first public presentation, the materials in excess of desiring attendees are useful, but only in the sense that they demonstrate abundance or serve as back stock.
The word circulation also refers to movement: sap through a tree or blood through the heart and veins. When a publication is in circulation, it is accessible to the public, passing through systems of exchange. Its content is available to be read and reread. When it is out of circulation, its movement halts. Through the redistribution of materials, Landfill seeks to restart circulation through a different set of channels. This secondary movement of an object not only calls for the rediscovery of the motivations that produced it, but also alters its context and the means by which it reaches a public.
Socially engaged artworks do not share a common set of immediately identifiable attributes, such as immateriality (as Landfill hopes to show) or public address. Though the name “socially engaged” is used to describe artworks, it hinges on a project’s relationship with the conditions that surround it—and on what the work does to make those conditions visible. Because of their complexity and their use of compound forms, many of these works can only be imagined after the fact by piecing together accounts of experiences from artists, onlookers, and participants. The use of objects as means of engagement with a past project acknowledges that the materials are deeply attached to the time and place in which they were first made public, but argues that they are not restrained by this connection. A thing is dislocated from its original situation with the change in spatial and temporal location that comes with redistribution, and when packaged with other archived materials and described by a new collection of words; but these same conditions allow it to open up, as well.
Photographs and video documents of an event can provide credible representations of the way a space looked and how people interacted in it. But because of their credibility, they can sometimes seem like stand-ins for the event itself, conveying most powerfully the fact that the event is over and the window for participation has closed. Objects, on the other hand, are transparent in their inability to be substitutes for experience. They cannot provide representations of the way the project looked in its first iteration, because they were a part of it, planned in advance and produced in anticipation of engagement. They often serve as points of contact, as mediators, and have an invitation built into them. Even after the opportunity to attend is over, the material, embedded with the central concerns of the project, leaves space to imagine the potential of an interaction, or of a premise, strategy, or proposal that can still be used. The object creates room for a second public that was not present. Envisioning a past work by poring over its byproduct can feel like reading a short story, picturing the characters, hearing how their voices would sound, and placing them in a detailed and impractical environment before seeing the movie. Those characters, voices, and settings are shape-shifters. Because of its incapacity to present a complete picture, ephemera resists the caving in of narrative potential that happens when those images, sounds, and settings are authoritatively filled in. In its unconcealed incompleteness, it provides a material basis for building a history that likewise refuses to be linear or conclusive.
By redistributing extra objects, Landfill asserts their ability to be understood and imagined apart from their original locations and stresses the transformation that occurs in reading. Every time a thing shifts hands, its significance changes. Though a newspaper in a stack is an identical copy of the ones above and below, it becomes distinct from the others in the pile as soon as it is skimmed. A used paper left on a coffee shop table sometimes shows signs of that shift: a crossword is partially filled in; a coffee ring circles a minor headline; one section shows more wear than others or has disappeared completely. Even a paper that still looks pristine can still somehow feel like it’s passed through someone else’s hands and attention. This copy became an original when it was picked up for the first time, and it becomes original again each time it is taken apart. Reflecting on the unstable status of the copy and the original as a result of digital and intra-media reproduction, Boris Groys writes, “In circulating through various contexts, a copy becomes a series of different originals... it loses its old auras and gains new auras.”3 A change in context amounts to “a new start that opens a new future.”4 Nothing structural defines a thing as an original, just as nothing inherent makes a work socially engaged. Originality emerges in a copy from a shift in the situation surrounding it: a new context in which to read an old object or copy makes that object original, alive.
Movement That Signals a Refusal
In “waiting morgues,” popular in nineteenth-century Germany, strings tied to the appendages of suspected corpses led to an alarm bell, which were intended to signal life at a twitch and prevent premature burial.5 Though burial is admittedly an extreme metaphor, one of Landfill’s aims is to intercept straightforward histories, preventing the interment of a still-developing and diffuse practice within oversimplified categories and lineages. By using a gradual method for archiving ephemera, Landfill develops a growing history, but one that is necessarily piecemeal and always unfinished. It functions accumulatively, like many of the projects it describes. The efficacy of these projects lies in their unwillingness to oversimplify current questions or circumscribe potential movements, whether backward, lateral, or forward. They put stock in compounded, incremental shifts. Because they are contextually oriented, they call for a form that investigates context as a variable.
A number of reasons motivate the production of a new newsprint publication to contextualize projects that have also used the medium. The use of newsprint is a way to make use of its fragmentary structure: columns create unplanned juxtapositions that produce unintended threads. Chronicling past projects in print both argues for the importance of the form as a means of engagement and suggests that that engagement need not happen publicly. Reading the paper is a solitary experience, but in the process one engages with a community and becomes part of a reading public. Landfill’s material production in service of redistribution connects it physically to the artworks it describes and counters the notion that socially engaged practice is dematerialized. This practice persistently denies its most common signifiers, as works that are recognizable as part of the conversation elude all the names: relational, dialogic, participatory, immaterial, even socially engaged.
The denial to coalesce around a language is paralleled by the persistence of newsprint itself: serial but discontinuous, resistant, and resilient. The looming death of print media has been announced many times, but print lingers. Its refusal to die despite continual digital intrusion has also been noted and proposed as a sign that people still desire the gritty tactility of the newspaper page, its relative slowness and stability and the shielded solitude it offers a commuter at a time in which tiny glossy screens provide immediate updates at the swipe of a finger but require openness to interruption in exchange. The same grit that used to transfer from offset papers onto readers’ fingers is a lasting symbol of the medium’s romanticized history, of the rigor and heroism of laying the truth bare. Artworks share investigative journalism’s ability to scrutinize power but not the motivation to set a story straight. They call for complexity even as they call for action. Their production requires a belief in small movements and bright flashes, a belief that even if effects cannot be directly attributed to causes, something is happening, and visible change will accrue.