From an Operational Point of View
May 19–July 1, 2017
Yann Vari Schubert
On May 18, an exhibition of videos, pictures, and objects by Alice Peragine, Balz Isler, and Yann-Vari Schubert opens at Galerie Conradi in Brussels. The show’s title suggests the shared angle that unites these works across the differences of media: From an Operational Point of View is a phrase whose origins lie in economics, and the transposition spotlights the intersection between business and art that scrutinizes the contemporary world and one of its central themes—the individual, his agency and perspective on himself and a world characterized by profound social changes. Texts such as the following excerpt from an article in the St. Gallen Business Review are littered with terms—identity, individualization, body—that also make frequent appearances in the leaflets accompanying contemporary art exhibitions. Yet where the economic perspective describes the disintegration of social standards, obligations, and routines as fueling the growing desire for individuality, the cultural discourse regards the ostensible freedom of our lifestyle choices as the driving force behind new rituals and restrictions, arguing that contemporary identities, far from being the result of unconstrained choices, are subject to regulation by elaborate control and market mechanisms:
Routines, social values and norms no longer define our actions; With the end of obligations, a space has opened for the individualisation in society. (…) In order to get attention from others, we have to stage ourselves; our body evolves into a playground: I am the clothing I wear, the food I choose to eat and the body in which I reside. The constant work of maintaining and developing identities is exhausting. To simplify, we resort to using well-known messages, using the practice of orienting ourselves around branded objects for example. (…) As an answer to the threatening conditions presented by a hyper-fragmented society of individualists, we have established new structures – communities. Products and services have to tell a story – they must provide means in order to create an identity. (…) In order to avoid being caught in price competitions, businesses in all markets have to create emotions that fit the individualist’s lifestyle. Algorithms support individualists in finding products and experiences that fit their profiles. Yet, these algorithms are dumb. They reinforce established behavioural patterns, as they are based on past experiences and preferences. They don’t offer room for surprises, irrational behaviour or contradictory decisions. What will happen if an identity is beginning to bore me? Individualists will be able to shape the algorithms of the future and thus determine when algorithms should exit the filter-bubble in order to identify new identities. (Prof. Dr. Peter Maas and Pascal Bühler, “How Multi-Optionality Is Pushing Individualisation in the Digital Age,” St. Gallen Business Review, 2015)
In reality, the so-called multi-optional society is increasingly rigid, riven by exclusions, and bewildered. The works in the exhibition address these issues through the lens of self-referential creative approaches. Scrutinizing authorship, perspective, the space of action, the prerequisites of artistic production processes, or the reference to predetermined coordinates such as pictorial formats or digital applications for the design of simulated visual spaces, they insistently place the subject at the center of their searching engagement. These approaches associate the works with the tradition of conceptual strategies in art, as is evident in formal features such as processes of repetition, serialism, and systematized workflows.
Alice Peragine’s video projection “Feld” shows white paper tissues being dropped at a steady rhythm over a green-and-purple heath. The section of field visible to the viewer gradually and evenly fills up with white spots. Marked by the successive appropriation of the ground by a body in motion and its trace, space is redefined and can be experienced as such. The final result of the progressive intervention—a softly noisy picture composed of white and green-and-purple dots—in turn alludes to the video projection through which the action is communicated to the viewers. Space, body, and image equitably share the stage. “Feld” deals with processes of territorialization and marking spaces. With the artist walking back and forth on a field in the south of Brittany in France, where remnants of its military history are still in evidence, the dropping of white paper tissues may be read as the act of distributing pamphlets in the public space; but no public is present and no message is disseminated on the paper. The action may also be taken as a metaphorical adaptation of sowing as routine labor. Peragine’s work employs the means of performance and installation art to scrutinize institutionalized power relations. She transposes everyday mechanisms of control such as airport security procedures into new contexts in reenactments that allow us to see them with a fresh and critical eye. Central themes in Peragine’s work include rituals of inclusion and exclusion, the imprints of structural violence upon the body, and the definition of public and private spaces in light of changing conceptions of security.
Similarly, the figures of repetition and routine in Balz Isler’s video N€x† (2015) foil effective productivity and progression: we watch a continuously growing tally chart etched with a digital hairline cross on a computer screen. The work of art is thus continually changing; it is act, event, and improvisation, in an echo of fundamental aspects of Fluxus art. Evanescence and immediacy characterize Isler’s creative practice. The vertically mounted TV monitor and the simple tally on the screen suggest a framed drawing, but the picture is forever incomplete—a file stored on a digital medium replayed as a film sequence and infinite loop. The title hints at an intellectual and formal preoccupation with the temporal-successive aspect of perception. A mouse pointer flits across the screen, gradually filling the entire surface from the top left to the bottom right corner with dashes before the input ‘Next’ triggers the automated deletion of the work or the recording. The dash is neither gestural nor intuitive and not meant to reveal the artist’s individual manual style. Simplification and standardization are key to its message: the systematic quality of the procedure is its governing principle—“N€x†” raises existential questions about how compulsions and routines become ends in themselves. That is why no final tally is announced—instead, everything just starts over.
We are jolted out of immersion in the picture, as monotonous as it is hypnotizing, by the sound of a relentless digitally distorted voice. An emphatic call for sustainability and environmental protection resounds throughout the gallery. The voice introduces itself in an even tone: “Some call me nature, others call me Mother Nature.” As the argument proceeds, it grows increasingly insistent, shifting into a distinctly assertive and even exhortatory register before spelling out its superiority in full: “I don’t really need people. (...) Your actions will determine your faith, not mine. I am nature. I will go on. I am prepared to evolve. Are you?“ The words are taken from the American website natureisspeaking.org, which features prominent Hollywood actors in its advocacy of sustainability. In the gallery, by contrast, an egocentric, strangely pitched, formerly male but now fairly sexless voice emanates from a small gray plastic imitation stone from a garden center. Brazenly artificial, the garden decoration in which the speaker is housed, the body of this voice, does not even try to resemble an actual stone—on the contrary, its artificiality negates the appropriation. It may be read as putting the philosophy known as object-oriented ontology into practice, which replaces the assumption of human dominance over the object with a perspective in which humans are objects among many others in the world.
Manual interventions into the material—alterations of digital images or soundtracks, patterns shaved into carpets—are a recurring element in Isler’s work. By editing his materials, some of them industrial products, he imprints traces of his own physicality upon the object. An artist who operates with performative elements as well as self-made and mass-produced materials, Isler fashions objects that fuse both dimensions. His art interweaves pictures and videos, the webs of subjective association and normative symbols for a negotiation of contemporary visual cultures. His critical study of conceptions of identity and contemporary manifestations of pathos unfolds as a hypertext combining a wide variety of visual, sonic, and spatial planes of reference.
Looking closely at Yann-Vari Schubert’s works, we realize that although they look like freehand drawings, the graphic work is too perfect, the rounded edges too even and uniform. The panels shown in the exhibition hint at an individual hand, but the crayon strokes stylistically match the constant parameters of machine-made work. To produce the drawings, Schubert used a computer-controlled milling cutter he adapted for his purpose, replacing the milling bit with a holder for crayons. Originally, the shapes were drawn by hand using a graphic tablet application with the 3D animation program Cinema4d. In the three-dimensional coordinate system, the graphs can be rotated in any direction. The arrows refer to the object axis of the directed graphs (x=red, y=green, z=blue). They are identical in shape but occupy diametrically opposite positions in the virtual space. The words ‘if’ and ‘then’ relate to the conditional command, which, as the most basic control structure of programming languages, dominates their organizational structure. Both panels derive from the same original drawing. The only difference—but it is essential—lies in their inverse camera perspectives, which determine the particular data set and its transformation into a vector graphic. Schubert’s artistic practice employs computer programs and their functions. However, he manipulates the technical manufacturing processes to lend his pictorial products a physical presence informed not only by the digital input, but also by the physical properties of the specific material he works with. Interface designs that facilitate intuitive use suggest that a utopian vision of cybernetics has become reality. But the ideal of the harmonious coexistence of man, nature, and machine contrasts with the growing regimentation of the circumstances of our lives by algorithmic organizational structures that remain concealed beneath the veil of appearances to allow for smooth workflows.